Redefining “sh*tty coffee “: Kopi Luwak

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.

There might be something a whale-y wrong with your Chanel perfume and something fin-ny about that soup.

There might be something a whale-y wrong with your Chanel perfume and something fin-ny about that soup.

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!

proc4

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.

Civet farm in Sumatra

Civet farm in Sumatra

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.

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5 Comments

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5 responses to “Redefining “sh*tty coffee “: Kopi Luwak

  1. I have heard of Kopi Luwak before, but didn’t know this side of it. It really is inevitable that the beans are now being mass produced. Coffee already takes so many resources, now these farmers are not only using the energy to capture these poor animals, but the holding facilities will use up wood, the animals, though not cared for with the proper living space and diet, still must drink water. Is there anything being done in those countries about this newfound production? I am wondering if it will end up being outlawed; if they are letting some of the Civets back into nature, I wonder if specie endangerment be a viable argument. Interesting topic, I am interested to see how this issue progressed.

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    • Melissa Wong

      Thank you for your comment! The Asian Civet cat is actually listed as “Least Endangered” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List. Hence, it would be difficult to use species endangerment in this case. Senseless animal cruelty and the awful taste of the coffee is still the dominant argument against it. Fortunately, there have been some promising leads on this matter. With increasing international scrutiny on Kopi Luwak, there have been reports of governmental bodies who take action when these “coffee farms” are found.

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  2. I drink a ton of coffee but I have absolutely no interest in trying this kind! I’ve never heard of this so it was really interesting to learn about. I guess I don’t really understand why there is such a demand for it when it doesn’t even taste good and its so expensive. As you pointed out and after reading a few other blog posts I’ve noticed that it seems like foods become more attractive to people the more rare they are. This makes me wonder if people will become less interested in the coffee once there’s more of an abundance of it from the farming techniques. And I cant imagine Kopi Luwak is a part of many people’s morning routines (or is it?), so hopefully the demand wont be as strong moving forward.
    I like it that you mentioned the farmer’s perspective as well. Perhaps some adjustments in the way the civets are kept could meet the needs of all parties involved. Of course there are far worse farming practices, so it seems like a reasonable request to give the civets more space; after all they are just pooping!
    Great post and clever title!

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  3. My sister just told me about this phenomenan so I’m glad I found your post! It reminds me of the other post on Palm Oil in regards to these products are used to provide for Westerners. This is so frustrating because it seems to me that oftentimes consumers do not know the conditions and impacts of their foreign luxuries.
    Furthermore, with regards to the cultural aspect of this coffee, it seems like the cultural aspect could be retained via the gathering in the forest but cruelty eliminated from the mass production for exportation.

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  4. I first heard about civet (crap) coffee about ten years ago, and thought it sounded just as disgusting then as it does now. Add in the fact that civets are now being force-fed in deplorable conditions due to new demand for the coffee, and it sounds even worse. I like that you compared this phenomenon to the demand for diamonds – perceived wealth is a hell of a thing, and until we start having brutally honest, harsh conversations about the environmental and social implications of things like this, it’s going to continue happening. This reminds me of the fur trade – the fact that animals are tortured, and in many cases skinned alive, doesn’t matter to some consumers as long as they get their “luxury” good. It’s despicable.

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