The Asian palm civet, once considered a pest, is now an extremely coveted creature, since 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. It was once considered a pest in the urban areas of Indonesia — until it was discovered that its dung was a very valuable commodity.
The small creatures would enrage locals by climbing on buildings at night and making too much noise, and of course, by leaving their droppings in populated areas.
But their droppings proved to be much more of an asset than a nuisance: inside civet poop is the secret ingredient to one of most expensive coffees in the world, known as kopi luwak.
What Is Kopi Luwak, The World’s Priciest “Poop Coffee”?
To understand kopi luwak coffee, the shockingly expensive brew made from civet poop, you first have to understand coffee plants.
The coffee beans we grind to make coffee aren’t actually beans at all; they’re seeds.
These seeds come from the round reddish berries of the coffee plant, a tropical shrub native to Asia and Africa. Sometimes called coffee cherries, these berries are sweet and, like their seeds, highly caffeinated.
Civets prowl the forests of Indonesia and eat the coffee cherries, seeds and all. While their digestive systems break down the flesh of the berries, they can’t process the seeds; those come out undigested in the civet’s droppings.
The coffee “beans” are then harvested from the scat, washed, roasted, ground, and brewed. The result is one of the most expensive coffee beans in the world, costing an astonishing $150–250 dollars per pound.
Whose Idea Was Civet Coffee?
So whose idea was it to harvest undigested coffee beans from civet droppings?
The origins of kopi luwak date back to colonial Indonesia, where indigenous farmers worked Dutch coffee plantations.
In the 1800s, the popularity of coffee was growing rapidly. To meet the increased demand, the Dutch banned Indonesian farmers from producing or selling the beans for local markets.
Harvesting the beans from civet droppings was a way around the colonizer’s prohibition; the Dutch didn’t have a monopoly on animal dung.
The Indonesian farmers found that the undigested seeds that clustered in civet droppings were already relatively clean; they were protected by a lingering layer of the coffee berry called the endocarp.
If they washed and roasted the seeds — further minimizing the chances of encountering bacteria from the civet’s digestive tract — the result was a delicious, aromatic brew that quickly became popular on the islands.
Is Kopi Luwak Coffee Really Better Than Regular Coffee?
Those who say kopi luwak is superior to run-of-the-mill coffee point to two factors that distinguish it — though not everyone finds their evidence compelling.
The first is choice. The civets who eat the coffee plants’ berries are, according to kopi luwak’s proponents, choosey. They select the ripest and best of the berries to eat, which means the seeds are of a better quality than those people harvest.
Then there’s the chemical changes fans say the seeds undergo in the civet’s digestive tract. The civet’s stomach enzymes seep into the coffee beans during digestion, altering their flavor by further breaking down the beans’ proteins.
Since they spend a day and a half to two days inside the civet, they also undergo a kind of malting process — the seeds begin to germinate. Malting makes the plant a little sweeter (think of malted barley or your favorite malted ale).
The result is, according to some, a smooth coffee with a unique taste that’s substantially less bitter than most brews and has an especially pleasant aroma.
Scientifically, there’s little question that the coffee is chemically a little different — but how noticeable is that difference, and is it a positive one?
Coffee connoisseurs around the world disagree, and for every expert who extols the virtues of civet coffee, there’s another telling consumers not to believe the hype.
Before you run out and find some to taste for yourself, there are a few things you might want to know about the ethical implications of “poop” coffee.
Ethical Problems With One Of The World’s Most Expensive Coffees
While they are no longer considered pests, the image makeover hasn’t turned out to be entirely positive for the civet.
Instead of exterminating them, farmers now entrap civets and keep them in cages on coffee plantations, both for easier kopi luwak coffee 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 pace urine-soaked wire cages that are neither sanitary nor comfortable for the animal to live in.
Furthermore, to increase the number of seeds in the animals’ droppings, farmers often feed captive civets only coffee cherries, 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 among the animals.
The advent of farmed civet coffee hasn’t been bad news for only civets, though; coffee connoisseurs say harvesting beans from captive civets can also have an impact on the quality of the rare coffee itself.
Why Some Of The World’s Most Expensive Coffee Is Selling For Less
Farmed kopi luwak is considered lower grade than the kind produced from beans found in the wild, which can go for as much as $700 per kilogram.
The quality issues and the dramatic price difference stem from the fact that farming undermines part of the rationale behind kopi luwak’s success: that civets choose better cherries than people do.
If the civets who produce kopi luwak coffee are fed human-picked cherries in captivity, they’re not selecting the berries like they do in the wild — which (according to the experts) makes for a less successful brew.
What’s more, coffee connoisseurs say the stress felt by animals in poor living conditions affects their digestive systems and, by extension, the quality of the coffee.
This exploitation of the civet has led to some backlash, with animal welfare organizations encouraging people to only buy kopi luwak that comes from the droppings of wild civets.
The problem with this, however, is that there is currently no way to verify where civet coffee beans come from when they are imported — so it’s not possible to verify whether your expensive kopi luwak coffee is truly coming from wild civets or not.
In light of the price hike associated with wild civet–poop coffee, there’s a strong motive for sellers to fib.
These 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.