The Asian palm civet, once considered a pest, is now an extremely coveted creature as their feces can create the most expensive coffee in the world, Kopi Luwak.
The civet, a raccoon-like nocturnal mammal native to the tropical forests of Asia, was once considered a pest in the urban areas of Indonesia. These little guys would enrage locals by climbing on buildings at night and making too much noise, and then leave feces in populated areas for people to step in the next morning.
That changed, however, once their feces became a very valuable commodity. One of the most expensive types of coffee in the world comes from civet droppings, making it much more of an asset than a nuisance.
Exported from Indonesia and the Philippines, Kopi Luwak is a coffee that is brewed from partially digested coffee cherries that are found in the droppings of the civet. The animal eats the fleshy part of the cherries, leaving the rest to partially ferment inside the digestive tract. The civet’s stomach enzymes seep into the cherries during digestion, and rest is then excreted.
The coffee cherries are then harvested from the scat, rinsed, and brewed to create a create a smooth coffee with a unique, non-bitter taste and aroma. The result is one of the most expensive coffee beans in the world, costing around $150-250 dollars per pound.
While they are no longer considered pests, the image makeover hasn’t turned out to be entirely positive for the civet. Rather than being exterminated, farmers now entrap civets and keep them in cages on coffee plantations, both for easier Kopi Luwak production and to attract tourists, who come from all over the world to encounter native wildlife.
These animals are often left in dismal conditions, forced to in urine soaked wire mesh cages that are neither sanitary nor comfortable for the animal to live in. Furthermore, in captivation, they are often fed only coffee cherries to increase production of Kopi Luwak, instead of the varied diet they eat in the wild, which includes insects and small reptiles. These living conditions have a negative impact on the enclosed civets, causing stress, illness, and a higher mortality rate for the animals.
Not only is farming Kopi Luwak bad for the civet, it’s bad for the consumer as well. Farmed Kopi Luwak is considered low grade as opposed to the kind produced from beans found in the wild, which can go for as much as $700 per kilogram. According to coffee connoisseurs, the coffee produced by captive civets is of a much lower quality than by those that are allowed to roam free.
A big part of what makes Kopi Luwak taste so unique is the selection of the coffee cherries. Civets in the wild seek out the best quality cherries for their meals. When the civets are forced to eat only the coffee cherries given to them, this self-selection of the best cherries is taken away, resulting in a bean that is not as good as the ones produced by free civets. In addition, the stress felt by the animals in poor living conditions, in turn, affects the quality of the coffee, making it a much lower quality cup.
This exploitation of the civet has led to some backlash, with animal welfare organizations promoting only buying Kopi Luwak that comes from the droppings of wild civets. However, there is currently no check in place to verify where exactly the coffee beans come from when they are imported, so it’s not possible to prove if it truly comes from wild civets or not.
Those ethical implications, along with the hefty price tag that comes with one cup of Kopi Luwak, may be enough of a reason to simply stick to Starbucks.