Any discussion on kopi luwak, some of the most expensive coffee in the world, must start by getting one thing out of the way…Yes! We are talking about coffee beans—that come out of the butt—of this animal; the Asian palm civet.
Now that we have gotten that out of the way, let’s take a BIG step back and explain how it all works.
Where coffee comes from
We’re all used to thinking of coffee as shiny brown beans. But these delicious roasted beans aren’t how coffee appears in nature though. If you were to run across coffee in nature, it would look more like this:
The beans we know and love are harvested from these berries (called cherries). This is also where the civet comes into play.
While human beings love coffee beans in the form of a cup of joe, or perhaps covered in chocolate, civets would rather just snack on the berries, pooping out the beans. On the journey through the digestive track of the civet, the beans are exposed to enzymes that seep into the beans themselves, creating more amino acids and shortening the peptides. Some studies suggest the resulting coffee is less bitter and it has a distinctly different flavour than other coffees.
We know what you’re thinking—a cuppa sphincter special seems downright unhygienic, but any bacteria from the journey through the cat is eliminated through the process of cleaning and roasting the beans.
The result, in the minds of some people, is a superior cup of coffee (though detractors dismiss this notion as pure fad or gimmick). Some people believe that the civets themselves only feed on the choicest coffee berries, which improves the final taste. Unsurprisingly, the flavour and rarity of the coffee makes it quite valuable, regularly selling for hundreds of dollars per pound.
So, how did people discover this process? Who decided, “Hmmm, that looks good, let’s eat that!”
Who first scooped the coffee poop?
It all started with Dutch coffee plantations in Indonesia, in the early 18th century. Coffee was not native to the area, but was brought in as a cash crop. At the time, the Dutch had renamed the area as the Dutch East Indies, and as you can probably guess, the newcomers weren’t too concerned as to the opinions of the locals on what they did.
The native workers and farmers on these plantations were prohibited from picking coffee for their own use, so they did not get to sample the fruits of their labours.
However, they discovered that the local Asian palm civet (also known as a Luwak – hence the name Kopi Luwak) ate the berries and then pooped out the undigested beans. They were able to take those beans, roast them, and drink them without breaking the rules of the plantation owners.
This innovative way around the rules spread quickly, and when combined with the fact that the coffee made from civet droppings tasted better, it was a secret that was guaranteed to leak.
The fame of the coffee spread, virtually guaranteeing the need for someone to have a full time job doing this:
The dark side of dark roast
The fame of Kopi Luwak might be a gimmick, but the demand is certainly real. The only problem is the supply.
The civets themselves were the limiting factor in this equation. Living wild, they were hard to locate and they ate a variety of foods, making gathering berries from their poop incredibly time consuming. As a result, many farmers started keeping the wild civets in cages and force feeding them coffee cherries in an effort to keep up with demand.
Poor conditions and unhealthy diet (restricted to coffee cherries; denied the reptiles, insects and other fruits normally eaten in the wild) have led to serious concerns about animal cruelty in the industry, and farms involved in the production of these coffee beans have also produced an environment of suffering for civets plagued with obesity, various health impacts, and high mortality rates.
This creates a conundrum of sorts for fans of the coffee. Wild civet coffee is virtually non-existent now (or at least the source of coffee labeled as “wild” is impossible to confirm), which makes finding ethical beans a real challenge.
But along with the disappearance of the original version of the coffee, the scarcity has started to disappear as well. Industrialized civet coffee farms can produce much more of the Kopi Luwak than has ever been produced before. Conversely, even if the dollar cost of the coffee might become lower, the environmental cost has become much higher.
Tony Wild, the coffee executive largely responsible for bringing Kopi Luwak to the western world has spoken out publicly against drinking the coffee anymore, urging consumers to “cut the crap“. No certification exists for the wild-gathered civet coffee, so Tony has a good point.
He says, “When I introduced civet coffee to the UK it was a quirky novelty. Now it’s overpriced, industrialized, cruel – and frequently inauthentic. That’s really hard to stomach.”
So, if the price or origin of civet coffee hasn’t deterred your taste buds, perhaps the unethical evolution of this gourmet beverage will have quenched your thirst.