Kopi Luwak – Is it time to flush away this novelty coffee?

Kopi luwak has featured in the news recently because of yet more revelations of unethical practices in the production of this novelty coffee. An undercover investigation by the BBC found serious issues of animal cruelty behind the “world’s most expensive coffee”.

Luwaks are kept in small, dirty cages
Picture credit: BBC

What is Kopi Luwak?

For those of you who’ve not come across kopi luwak before, it’s one of those stories that sounds like an urban legend, or joke, but is actually true. Kopi luwak is made from coffee beans that have been excreted by an Indonesian palm civet (known as a Luwak locally).

To explain kopi luwak fully, I first need to give a quick ‘Coffee Harvesting 101’. Coffee cherries (or berries if you prefer) are the fruit of the coffee tree. These cherries, usually, contain two seeds, or as they’re more commonly known beans.

Now civets are rather partial to coffee cherries. However, they’re unable to digest the beans so they pass through the animal and out the other end. This is of course what nature intended; how many plants spread. Encase the seeds in a sweet, juicy, and attractive fruit and wait for an animal to eat it. The animal then poops the seeds out; hopefully in a desirable location where the seeds can then germinate.

coffee beans from faeces of palm civet
Picture credit: Wibowo Djatmiko

So basically kopi luwak is made from the leftovers of the civet’s feast. The beans are collected from the animal’s droppings and washed thoroughly, before being roasted. This may not sound very appetising, yet kopi luwak has become one of the most, if not the most, expensive coffee in the world, reportedly selling for £60 a cup in some restaurants.

History of Kopi Luwak

It’s said that the origins of kopi luwak date back to colonial times. When the Dutch brought coffee plantations to Indonesia (Java and Sumatra) in 18th Century, they forbad the native farmers from picking the cherries for their own consumption. Of course imposing a ban like this only drove the natives to want the coffee even more. After a while, the natives learnt of the civets’ eating habits and started collecting the beans from their droppings to make their own coffee. News of the natives’ novel coffee soon spread and the rest as they say is history.

Does Kopi Luwak Taste Special?

With a hefty price tag you might assume that kopi luwak tastes really special. Marketers claim that the coffee gets a ‘unique and distinctive’ taste for the following reasons:

  1. Civets are very selective and will only eat the ripest, juiciest cherries.
  2. The enzymes in the civet’s stomach alter the taste of the beans as they pass through it. Some even go as far to dress up this point with fancy scientific wording. This line is often quoted: “The civet’s proteolytic enzymes seep into the beans, making shorter peptides and more free amino acids”. – sounds like one of those pseudo ‘Hollywood Science’ lines you used to hear in shampoo adverts.
  3. Civets produce a highly valued musk from their perineal glands (which up until recently was used in a variety of perfumes) and some of this scent is absorbed by the beans as they’re excreted.

However, just because it has a high price, don’t be fooled into thinking kopi luwak represents value for money. As George Howell eloquently puts it:

“Some coffees demand a higher price because of their longstanding reputation or limited supply, like certain island coffees, or coffees from regions like Yemen. Other coffees, like Kopi Luwak, have a certain ‘mystique’ which can drive the price up to, in some cases, $200 a pound or more. Kopi Luwak is known for its bizarre processing, in which it is digested by a civet, then picked off the ground, before it is roasted. Yum! So buyer beware, higher price doesn’t necessarily mean higher quality.”

In fact the general consensus within the coffee industry, according to the Speciality Coffee Association of American (SCAA), is that kopi luwak tastes just bad. Steven Vick, an expert taster, even goes as far as to say that the coffee tastes of: band-aids, iodines and oysters. Not exactly the description you’d expect for a £60 cup of coffee!

Exploitation

If the process or taste of kopi luwak hasn’t put you off it yet, then the fact that it’s almost impossible to buy genuine kopi luwak should do. As demand far outstrips supply; and as with any niche, which has a high mark-up and no regulation, it’s open to exploitation. The simple truth is that the vast majority of kopi luwak is either fake or comes from cruel battery-styled farms.

For genuine, wild Kopi luwak, the civet really needs to be stalked by the farmer, so they can harvest the droppings whilst they’re still fresh, as old droppings may contain fungi so cannot be used. As civets are nocturnal, this makes the task even harder. Tony Wild, coffee consultant and author of Coffee: A Dark History, states:

“Being wild, hard to collect, variable in age and quality, and very rare, Kopi luwak is not a commercially viable crop, but just an interesting coffee curiosity.”

The majority of kopi luwak, despite being labelled as “100% wild-sourced”, comes from civets locked in tiny cages. According to PETA, the animals often go insane, displaying neurotic behaviour, such as pacing, spinning and head-bobbing; suggesting that the animals are under extreme stress from boredom and depression. The civets also become ill from a lack of vitamins and nutrition, as they’re fed more coffee cherries than they would normally eat.

Mimi Behkechi, PETA’s UK associate director, said:

“Drinking coffee made from beans that were plucked from faeces isn’t the most unappetising aspect of civet coffee. Confining civet cats for years – as they go mad and lose their fur from stress – for an expensive cup of Joe would turn the stomach of any compassionate person.”

After viewing footage of caged civets, Dr Niel D’Cruze, of the World Society for the Protection of Animals, commented:

“(They appeared) absolutely depressed and miserable. These wild animals have behaviours they need and want to express. The cages are completely barren, they’re filthy, there’s nowhere to climb.”

 

Don’t buy Kopi Luwak

PETA, Tony Wild, Thompson Owen, of Sweet Maria’s, and many others have advised people not to buy kopi luwak. Whilst this may seem extremely harsh on those who produce genuine kopi luwak, as there’s no transparency in this niche, there doesn’t appear to be another option. In a niche surrounded by untruths its not possible to discriminate against only those unethical producers.

South American Coati eating coffee cherries

The South American Coati eating coffee cherries. A UK based company are now selling beans that have passed through this animal

Picture credit: Annerella

In addition, as long as kopi luwak remains successful, it encourages similar niches to appear. Other countries have already jumped on the bandwagon, feeding cherries to other animals and more will surely follow. It would be naive to think that these cruel acts are restricted to just Indonesia.

Update: Whilst writing this article, Harrods (mentioned in the BBC report) has withdrawn kopi luwack from sale.

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Comments

  1. Dale D. Reed

    The price of farmed (considered low-grade by connoisseurs) kopi luwak in large Indonesian supermarkets is from US$100 per kilogramme (five times the price of a high quality local arabica coffee). Genuine kopi luwak from wild civets is difficult to purchase in Indonesia and proving it is not fake is very difficult – there is little enforcement regarding use of the name “kopi luwak”, and there’s even a local cheap coffee brand named “Luwak”, which costs under US$3 per kilogramme but is occasionally sold online under the guise of real kopi luwak.

    Reply

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