Kopi Luwak: Busting the Civet Cat Coffee Myth

Call me squeamish. But off the cuff, I can't think of a single reason to eat or drink something that comes out of another creature's rear end. I know I'm not alone. Lots of people grimace at the mere mention of the alleged delicacy known as Kopi Luwak.

Kopi Luwak

Call me squeamish. But off the cuff, I can’t think of a single reason to eat or drink something that comes out of another creature’s rear end. I know I’m not alone. Lots of people grimace at the mere mention of the alleged delicacy known as Kopi Luwak.

But let’s be honest, this isn’t just a marketing ploy … there’s a reason it’s often referred to as civet cat poop coffee. An animal eats the coffee cherry, excretes the bean and people make coffee from it. What the hell is wrong with us?

My misgivings aside, a pound of Kopi Luwak fetches staggering prices and gourmets around the world get a little moist around the eyes at the thought of it. None of this makes sense! Don’t worry, I’m here to clue you in on everything from how civet cat coffee tastes to why I’d strongly advise you to give it a swerve.

Why is Kopi Luwak Called Cat Poop Coffee?

When it comes to out-there coffee varieties, kopi luwak is in a class of its own because it owes its existence to a civet’s digestive tract. I don’t know about you, but when I hear that, I’m reminded of when my elementary school teacher explained how birds regurgitate food for their young. I’m pretty sure I skipped lunch that day.

Asian Palm Civet

Animal cruelty to produce kopi luwak

The Asian palm civet looks a bit like a cross between a possum, marten and domestic cat. Though I wouldn’t want one as a pet, they are kinda cute.

Palm Civets are only found in Southeast Asia and, in the wild, are happiest clambering about in tropical rainforests. In their natural habitat, they’ll eat just about anything they sniff out. On Indonesia’s famous coffee islands of Sumatra and Java, that includes the raw, ripe fruit of coffee trees.

Coffee cherries pass through the civet’s gut, where the fruit is absorbed. The seed, i.e. the actual coffee bean, remains undigested and is excreted. As part of the digestion process, natural enzymes ferment the beans.

Fermentation

Boycott civet cat coffee

Fermentation is one of the oldest — natural and industrial — methods of preserving certain foods and enhancing their flavors. For Germans, and a lot of other people, sauerkraut is an obvious example. But tea and coffee are also fermented products.

In the world of coffee, the fermentation process, better known as wet processing or washing, is standard procedure. Again, this entails separating the cherries into their component parts and putting a twist on the flavor profile. First and foremost, it’s about muting the acidity. But with a machine rather than civet intestines.

Bottom line: the civet cat does the same job as the machine. But because it’s a living creature, it can only “produce” limited quantities per day. Suddenly there’s an exclusivity factor to the fermented green coffee, which still has to be further processed and roasted.

Kopi Luwak Designation

civet cat cruelty

By the way, if you think that civet cat coffee and kopi luwak are one and the same, guess again. It’s also not even the only bizarre food humans have latched on to.

Kopi luwak is actually a protected regional designation. Much like sparkling wine can only be called champagne if it comes from the French region of Champagne, it’s a brand name for the coffee that comes from the Indonesian islands.

To complicate things there are other regional variations, such as kopi laku, which is also from Indonesia, or weasel coffee from Vietnam. The “kopi” bit is Indonesian for coffee and the second word refers to the animal involved in the production.

Just as with champagne, the kopi luwak designation also carries certain quality assurances. Only coffee beans excreted by wild civets that are collected and processed by hand can be branded kopi luwak.

Kopi Luwak Price

luwak coffee price

With that in mind, it’s pretty obvious why the luwak coffee price is around 500 dollars per pound. Under those conditions, the annual harvest is going to be minuscule. So how come Amazon and other retailers are offering what’s supposedly 3.5 ounces of authentic kopi luwak for a steal at roughly 30 dollars? Obviously, a kopi luwak price like that is for a knock-off of genuine poop coffee.

It’s simple. The certification schemes to safeguard all those quality standards à la champagne that France defends tooth and nail aren’t enforced. So there’s no watchdog to protect the designation. As long as some critter helped the fermentation process along, the coffee gets labeled kopi luwak.

And it gets worse. The word “wild” has long since become a misnomer. The reality is that connoisseurs all over the world expect to be able to enjoy their cup of civet cat coffee whenever they are in the mood. So, demand is much higher than what a few civets in Indonesia can produce. Sensitive readers, brace yourselves … the treatment of palm civets will break your heart.

Animal Cruelty in the Kopi Luwak Business

Caged civet cat

Although it’s not on most Americans’ radar, Indonesia is a poverty-stricken country whose production conditions are just as exploitative as just about every other coffee nation in the world.

Money

kopi luwak price

Once synonymous with exclusive luxury coffees from regions like Java or Sumatra, Indonesia has been sidelined by changes in the world of coffee. As taste preferences have shifted in a new direction, its coffees have become niche.

A representative of the Indonesian coffee distributor Q.U.B.E Coffee put the problem in a nutshell at the 2018 Berlin Coffee Festival:

We are the fourth largest coffee producer globally and supply the world’s most expensive coffee. We were the first to bring coffee to the European market. But our taste profile is no longer a natural fit with one segment or another.

What’s left for the industry but to squeeze every last cent out where it can. It wasn’t long before people switched over to either caging civets or simply breeding them in captivity. Crouched in their enclosures, they get nothing but coffee cherries to eat day in, day out.

Treatment

coffee cherries to feed a civet cat

Basically a carnivore, civets are opportunistic omnivores. The all-coffee diet eventually leads to malnutrition and ultimately death. This is merely so production margins can be met and so the kopi luwak coffee price can line up with market conditions.

Real Life Villains

villains you might see in 007 movie

Why not just stick with super-luxury status? The world has UK hedge-fund boss and a godfather of the coffee and cacao trade Anthony “Chocfinger” Ward for that. Look the guy up and you’ll see why his Bond-villain nickname is fitting.

In the early nineties, Ward brought a couple of pounds of kopi luwak from Indonesia to London. Before that the specialty was only enjoyed locally. Not any more. Suddenly everyone wanted to get on the (s)cat coffee bandwagon.

It launched a full-on kopi luwak gold rush. Once free-roaming, nocturnal, solitary civets were quickly crammed together in cages or outdoor enclosures, at best. And because two income streams are better than one, well-meaning tourists are brought in to coo over the cute coffee poopers at close quarters and don’t consider how they are contributing to the problem.

As part of its on-site research, a BBC documentary team calculated in 2013 that a single farm churned out just over 1,100 pounds of kopi luwak coffee per month. All the eligible farms together are only supposed to produce that in a year.

So, it’s unsurprising that not only animal rights organization Peta, but even Tony Ward himself, have subsequently called for a boycott on kopi luwak. Thanks to its wide reach, Peta’s article has contributed considerably to the product’s widespread demonization in the media.

Despite obviously cruel conditions that are much like the factory farming of chickens, pigs and cows, the world is turning a blind eye. After all, who cares about a few little-known catlike critters in a faraway jungle that nobody can find on the map anyway?

What’s genuine luxury without a few small sacrifices anyway? Foie gras is still on lots of menus and is ordered with gusto.

What Does (S)cat Coffee Taste Like?

roasting poop coffee

Yes, every fiber of my being objects to supporting the kind of abuses that civet cat coffee fuels. And yes, I regrettably tried it once at a tasting. It is my job, after all, as a coffee blogger to provide you with all the facts you need to make your own decisions.

Kopi luwak’s flavor profile is often described as having “jungle” notes. What’s that supposed to mean? Misty? Humid? Liana-entwined? No idea.

Character traits that don’t veer as far into poetic abstraction include mild, full bodied, earthy — and sometimes even “musty.” Sounds like a toned-down version of the robusta style, doesn’t it? For my tasting, I used a French press and calculated a price per cup of just over 20 dollars. In my notes, I wrote:

  • Medium body, delicate spiciness with a hint of chocolate
  • Green, grassy notes (is this the jungle?)
  • Little to no acidity
  • Strangely furry feel at the finish
  • Complex, but a bit characterless

I’d have automatically slapped a mid-range ranking on any other coffee beans that tasted like that. This coffee in no way delivers on the promises woven into the story around it. If I didn’t know what I was drinking, I’d have thought the roastery had flubbed things up and not given it a second thought.

Why You Can't Turn Poop into Gold

Civets don't deserve a life making kopi luwak

A few clever marketers are now shouting from the rooftops that their coffee is wild-sourced or comes from outdoor enclosures or whatever. Believe me: at best this is empty virtue signaling over a questionable product. Here, the price, aspirational allure and reality are all just about feeding off the myth to make money (aka: greenwashing).

Now that you have the full story about kopi luwak, doesn’t the whole thing smell like a crock of sh… to you?  What’s the point of kopi luwak coffee? There’s an endless range of better products from Indonesia and beyond, which don’t cruelly exploit animals and pay coffee farmers a fair wage.

This coffee doesn’t even boast a special or compelling flavor. It’s just meh. Who wants to waste their time, money or clear conscience on meh?

We really should dub kopi luwak coffee with a new name like civet cruelty coffee.

If you have any questions about the ins and outs (no pun intended) of (s)cat coffee, please ask away in the comments.

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