Kopi Luwak or Civet Coffee is coffee including part digested coffee cherries eaten and defecated by the Asian Palm Civet. As these cherries pass through the Civet’s intestines, they undergo fermentation, and after being defecated, they are collected with the other fecal matter. The producers’ of the Lopi Luwak argue that this process of producing coffee improves the coffee through two mechanisms – one, the Civets only choose to eat certain coffee cherries and two, the digestion mechanism in the animal’s digestive tract alters the composition of the coffee cherries. Kopi Luwak is basically a form of processing rather than a type of coffee, and it has been deemed to be the most expensive coffee in the world, retailing at about $700/kg. It is primarily produced on the islands of Sumatra, Java, Bali and Sulawesi in the Indonesian archipelago. It is also widely gathered in the forests or produced in the farms on the island of Philippines where it has a different name instead of Kopi Luwak.
The origin of Kopi Luwak is closely connected to the history of coffee production in Indonesia. In the early 18th century, the Dutch established the cash crop coffee plantations in their colony in the Dutch East Indies islands of Java and Sumatra, including Arabica coffee introduced from Yemen. During the era of Cultuurstelsel (1830–70), the Dutch prohibited the native farmers and plantation workers from picking coffee fruits for their own use. Still, the native farmers wanted to have a taste of the famed coffee beverage. Soon the natives learned that certain species of Musang or Luwak (Asian Palm Civet) consumed the coffee fruits, yet they left the coffee seed undigested in their droppings. The natives collected these luwak’s coffee seed droppings, then cleaned, roasted and ground them to make their own coffee beverage. The fame of aromatic civet coffee spread from the locals to the Dutch plantation owners and soon became their favorite, yet because of its rarity and unusual process, the civet coffee was expensive even during the Colonial era.
What Kopi Luwak was is no big mystery – well processed beans from uniformly ripe coffee cherries. It is a near certainty that it would have been appreciably better than what was processed by humans back then, and that is what has created the myth that still surrounds it today, and what people who peddle it today still insist remains the case.
There are problems with Kopi Luwak that are so serious that it is a surprise that the coffee is still in the market. First of all, research says that roughly 80% of the coffee sold in the market as Kopi Luwak is a fake – it hasn’t even been near a Civet cat leave alone through one. If you still manage to get your hands on the real deal, you are probably just sipping a brew of liquid suffering.
Civet cats are small animals and they do not have the voracious appetites to keep up with the industrial level production requirements and demands of Kopi Luwak through the world. Harvesting real, free range kopi luwak is round about like hunting for poo truffles with a significantly smaller pay off. However, to capitalise on the hype associated with kopi luwak, the production has been industrialized, not something natural to the civet cats. The naturally shy and solitary nocturnal creatures suffer greatly from the stress of being caged in proximity to other luwaks, and the unnatural emphasis on coffee cherries in their diet causes other health problems too; they fight among themselves, gnaw off their own legs, start passing blood in their scats, and frequently die, said Tony Wild in the Guradian. If this wasn’t enough, other morally bankrupt charlatans have decided to employ different animals as glorified washing machines – elephants (the produce is ironically called Black Ivory), birds, monkeys, and so many more.
Civet coffee has gained such popularity, and with Indonesia growing as a popular tourist destination where visitors want to see and interact with wildlife, more wild civets are being confined to cages on coffee plantations. In part this is for coffee production, but it is also for the money that can be made from civet ogling tourists.
Researchers from Oxford University’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit and the London-based nonprofit World Animal Protection assessed the living conditions of nearly 50 wild civets held in cages at 16 plantations on Bali. The results, published Thursday in the journal Animal Welfare, paint a grim picture.
From the size and sanitation of the cages to the ability of their occupants to act like normal civets, every plantation the researchers visited failed basic animal welfare requirements. “Some of these cages were literally the tiniest—we would call them rabbit hutches. They’re absolutely soaked through with urine and droppings all over the place,” said Neil D’Cruze, one of the researchers.
Some of the civets were very thin, from being fed a restricted diet of only coffee cherries—the fruit that surrounds the coffee bean. Some were obese, from never being able to move around freely. And some were jacked up on caffeine, D’Cruze said.
But what he found most disturbing was the wire floor many of the animals were forced to stand, sit, and sleep on around the clock. “If you’re standing on that kind of wire mesh all the time, it’s going to cause sores and abrasions. They have nowhere to go to get off that flooring,” D’Cruze said. “It’s a constant, intense source of pain and discomfort.”
Additionally, many of the civets had no access to clean water and no opportunity to interact with other civets. And they were exposed to daytime noise from traffic and tourists, which is particularly disturbing for these nocturnal animals.
Besides, says one coffee expert quoted in an article for the Specialty Coffee Association of America, the trade organization for gourmet coffee roasters and baristas, kopi luwak just isn’t that good to begin with. Although the civets’ digestive process does make the coffee smoother, it also removes the good acids and flavor that characterize a specialty cup of coffee.
No certification scheme exists to ensure that coffee labeled “wild” is actually that. And other coffee certifiers working to ensure environmentally responsible farming and production refuse to certify any kopi luwak whatsoever.
The Sustainable Agriculture Network standards, or SAN, which the New York-based Rainforest Alliance and other well-known coffee certifiers use to issue their stamps of approval, forbid the hunting and capture of wild animals on farms. The prohibition of caged civets is specifically singled out in the SAN guidelines for coffee in Indonesia.
UTZ, another major sustainable coffee certification standard, also forbids caged wildlife on farms and will not certify any kopi luwak.
Alex Morgan at the Rainforest Alliance, which uses SAN standards, says it’s too risky to certify kopi luwak. It’s just too hard to establish whether the beans are 100 percent wild-sourced or not.
“My personal advice is generally to avoid it,” he said. “More likely than not it’s going to be coming from a caged production landscape.”
This story was produced by National Geographic’s Special Investigations Unit, which focuses on wildlife crime and is made possible by grants from the BAND Foundation and the Woodtiger Fund.