Kopi Luwak: Busting the Civet Cat Coffee Myth

Call me sqeamish. 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. Even honey seems pretty gross on closer reflection.

Kopi Luwak

Call me sqeamish. 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. Even honey seems pretty gross on closer reflection.

Lots of other people also pull a face when the supposed delicacy kopi luwak coffee is mentioned. Because let’s be honest 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 wth 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 you to clue you in on everything from how civet cat coffee tastes to why I’d strongly advise you give it a swerve.

Why is Kopi Luwak Called Cat 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. The Asian palm civet looks a bit like a cross between a possum, marten and domestic cat.

They 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 it snouts out. On Indonesia’s famous coffee islands of Sumatra and Java, that includes the raw, ripe fruit of coffee trees.

Boycott civet cat coffee

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 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.

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 bizzarro 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.

With that in mind, it’s pretty obvious why a pound of genuine civet cat coffee can easily cost around 500 dollars. Under those conditions, the annual harvest is going to be miniscule. 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?

Animal cruelty to produce kopi luwak

Simple. The certification schemes to safeguard all those quality standards à la champagne that France defends tooth and nail aren’t in place. 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 the mood moves them. So demand is much higher than what a few civets in Indonesia can produce. Sensitive readers, brace yourselves…

Animal Cruelty in the Kopi Luwak Business

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.

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.

Caged civet cat

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.

Basically a carnivore, civets are oportunistic omnivores. The all-coffee diet eventually leads to malnutrition and ultimately death. But at least production margins can be met and prices are generally more in line with market conditions.

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, he doesn’t have a Bond-villian nickname for nothing.

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 gold rush. Once free-roaming, nocturnal, solitary civets were crammed together in cages or outdoor enclosures, at best. And because two income streams are better than one, tourists are brought in to coo over the cute coffee poopers at close quarters.

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. 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 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?

Yes, every fiber of my being objects to supporting the kind of abuses that civet cat coffee fuels. But yes, I 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 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 stuffed up and not given it second thought.

Why You Can't Turn Poop into Gold

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 signalling over a questionable product. Here, the price, aspirational allure and reality are all just about feeding off the myth to make money.

Civets don't deserve a life making kopi luwak

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 this 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?

If you any questions about in the ins and outs of (s)cat coffee, please ask away in the comments.

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