Men have, for centuries, exploited and glorified nature in strange ways. Societies have revered many odd substances ranging from tasteless shark fins to whale vomit, a material that doesn’t smell so great when you figure out where it’s from.
The oddity in which I would like to shine the spotlight on is a beverage that many depend on: Coffee (AKA the lifeblood of men and women). While issues of fair trade and sustainability have been raging in the coffee business (thank you, Starbucks), Kopi Luwak is a rising problem. After all, one should never underestimate the powers of perceived luxury (just look at A.W Ayers & Son’s success in marketing diamonds).
What is exactly is Kopi Luwak? Even with the hint in the title, I imagine it would be difficult to chance upon the correct answer. It is, well, coffee brewed from beans pooped by an Asian Palm Civet. Yes, I didn’t make a typo. Kopi Luwak (Civet Coffee) does not have civet parts in it (a notion that is perhaps only slightly easier to stomach). It is expensive “gourmet” coffee made from defecated coffee cherries that have travelled through the intestines of civets, an adorable furry cat-like creature. It is said to be the second most expensive coffee in the world and can cost as much as $80 a cup!
The reason behind the unusually high price tag is simple: civets can only poop out so much coffee fruits. Traditionally, civet coffee is collected by combing through the forest floor and looking for civet crap. However, with the spike in demand, this method is no longer feasible. Hence, majority of the civet coffee traded today are produced by civets living in awful conditions, confined in tiny cages and force-fed coffee berries. As any college student studying for Finals will tell you, drinking too much coffee can make words dance across the page. Trapped in a tiny space and hyped from the excess caffeine, many of these creatures gnaw on their limbs and die prematurely.
The recent spike in prices is especially ironic considering the origins of Kopi Luwak. Coffee plantations workers in Indonesia used to drink this because the Dutch plantations owner forbid them from tasting the coffee fruits. Thus, fuelled by their desire to taste this famed beverage, they picked up half-digested coffee fruits found in civet stool and brewed it. Over time, the taste for Kopi Luwak spread not because of it’s exquisite flavour but rather due to it’s rarity. In fact, unlike most overpriced frapucinnos, Kopi Luwak does not even taste good. The Specialty Coffee Association of America, for one, states that “general consensus within the industry…it just tastes bad”. A reviewer from the Washington Post has succintly described it as “dinosaur dropping steeped in bathtub water”. Yum.
Keeping the idea of ethical eating in mind, one should surely consider consuming less. However, like so many controversial food products, the issue is nuanced and layered with multiple stakeholders. Demand for the Kopi Luwak comes mainly from the coffee connoisseurs in developed countries (US, Europe, East Asia etc). As with the free market, when there is demand, there will be supply. Civet coffee is primarily harvested in developing regions (Philippines, Indonesia and Vietnam) where any potential source of income is aggressively pursued in an attempt to increase their meagre earnings. One can hardly blame these enterprising farmers who are looking for a better life for themselves and the future generation.
Moreover, the notion of not producing civet coffee simply because of animal cruelty is overshadowed by its cultual heritage. Kopi Luwak has had a long history especially in Indonesia and some locals argue that it is a cultural and gastronomical heritage and should be cherished. This argument is echoed in numerous other contentious food products like Foie Gras and Cavier.
Nevertheless, drinking less or even refusing to drink any Kopi Luwak will help the cause. Hopefully, you will now think twice about drinking this sh*tty coffee.