Civet coffee (aka, Kopi luwak, in Indonesian) is commonly known as the most rare and expensive coffee in the world, due to its unique production method. Produced through the digestive enzymes of Asian civets, a family of cat-like arboreal mammals, civet coffee is prized for its perceived rarity and smooth taste. Inspired by the (false) claims of only 127kg availability per year, civet coffee was brought to international fame in 2003 on the ‘Oprah Winfrey show’ and again in the 2007 film ‘the Bucket List’ starring Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman. Soon after, civet coffee became second only in value to oil with prices reaching as high as three hundred US dollars per cup. Yet civet coffee is a problematic and unethical consumable both in terms of its historic narrative and its contemporary production methods. What then, is the truth behind the world’s most famous cup of coffee?
A troubled past: kopi luwak origins
Civet coffee's history is steeped in colonialism and inequality. Civet coffee was first discovered over 300 years ago, during the time when Indonesia was under Dutch colonial rule. As the story goes- instructed by rulers who sought to increase the economic potential of the island, local farmers were required to grow coffee as a cash crop. As coffee was destined for export and the profit was designated to the Dutch, the farmers themselves were forbidden to consume any of their own produce. It is said that it was during this time when coffee farmers noticed that civets were entering their coffee plantations at night to sample the ripest coffee cherries that the harvest had to offer. The only trace of the civet’s presence was the scat they left behind, pitted with coffee beans that had passed through their body intact. And so, while palm civets were discovering caffeine, the local growers were too, only they were roasting the beans picked from civet faeces rather than those picked directly from the plants. Civet coffee soon became a local delicacy as the rulers noticed the popularity of this strange beverage was rising amongst their coffee producers. It was when the Dutch sampled the drink for themselves that they declared civet coffee possessed a smoother and more luxurious taste than the coffee that had not passed through the civet’s digestive tract.
A troubled present: contemporary production
Over 300 years later, scientific advances have proven that civet coffee may differ from coffee cultivated directly from coffee bushes (though a recent study by the Civet Project recently found humans could produce their own human-coffee with similar characteristics!) The civets’ digestive enzymes are believed to alter the physical makeup of the coffee beans, stripping them of their caffeine content and bitter flavour. Unfortunately for civets however, the rising demand for civet coffee as a perceived luxury consumable has brought about a significant change in its production method. No longer do farmers rely on civets visiting plantations of their own will at night. Now, civets are captured and caged for forced mass civet coffee production.
Animal welfare concerns
Animal welfare is severely compromised for civets in civet coffee production facilities. As a nocturnal, solitary, and arboreal species, civet’s needs cannot be met in the rows of small barren cages stacked several high that line the typical civet coffee enterprise. In such conditions, civets languish without access to suitable environments, exercise, and nutrition. Existing in cramped cages for many years at a time, civets frequently suffer from psychological distress and physical trauma. Common symptoms include pacing and self-mutilation as civets bite their own tails in attempts to cope, and many sustain wounds as the wire mesh of the cages cause abrasions of their flesh.
Fed a diet almost or completely comprised of coffee cherries, the high quantity of digested caffeine also causes further damage. First-hand reports show that civets suffer internally as evidenced by bloody stools and premature death, but these methods of production are widely performed in a bid to meet the sustained global consumer demand for this bizarre product. Yet the dangers of mass civet coffee production not only impact the civets housed within, as their removal from the wild also impacts the ecosystem they unwillingly leave behind.
Capture of civets for the civet coffee industry is a cause for conservation concern. Whilst the most popular species of civet, the Asian palm civet (Paradoxurus hermaphroditus), is the most common species to be enrolled in civet coffee production, several other civet species also end up in these facilities despite being protected by law due to their population numbers being significantly lower.
One must also consider why it is that civet digestion might change the physical properties of coffee beans, for this is an adaptation with real world consequences for the ecosystems to which civets should be part. Civets are important species for the ecosystem, for their wide ranges and varied omnivorous diet combined with the physical properties of their digestive tract, make them important seed dispersers and germinators for forest health. Removal of seed dispersers has a knock-on effect to many species of plants and the animals who rely on them.
Despite the claims of some coffee suppliers that their civet coffee comes from wild collection methods, the likelihood of this claim being authentic is extremely doubtful in practice. Without expensive and time-consuming laboratory tests of entire batches, there is no quick and economic way to test civet coffee authenticity.
Whilst certification schemes for civet coffee may at first appear favourable, the inability to test for product authenticity means that certifiers rely on visiting establishments who can simply conceal their caged practices.
Corruption is certainly no new phenomenon within the civet coffee industry. Undercover investigations have proved that regular coffee is commonly labelled as civet coffee to enter the international market where it will be sold at wildly inflated prices. Indeed, the global scale to which civet coffee is available for purchase should be indication enough that this product is not rare. Thus, the claim of civet coffee rarity is just a gimmick which secures an elevated economic status.
The truth behind civet coffee is that this product is rooted in inequality, from its colonial origins to its contemporary production which relies on the unethical treatment of animals, ecosystems, and consumers. And yet, despite its fame, civet coffee is neither luxurious nor rare. The falsification of authenticity has resulted in the international coffee market being flooded with fake civet coffee products. In all, civet coffee is best left as a historic tale of human-animal encounter, one which serves to remind us of the unequal power dynamics we seek to move beyond. Thus, to truly indulge in a luxurious caffeine experience, it is advisable to avoid civet coffee for it is nothing more than a fake and unethical product with a troubled past.
For more information:
Carder, G., Proctor, H., Schmidt-Burbach, J. and D’cruze, N., 2016. The animal welfare implications of civet coffee tourism in Bali. Animal Welfare, 25(2), pp.199-205.
Lynn, G. and Rogers, C., 2013. Civet cat coffee’s animal cruelty secrets. BBC [online]. Available from: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-london-24034029 [Date Accessed: 25.10.2020].
Marcone M F (2004). Composition and properties of Indonesian Palm civet coffee (kopi luwak) and Ethiopian civet coffee. Food Research International, 37: 901-912.
Muzaifa, M., Hasni, D. and Rahmi, F., 2019, October. What is kopi luwak? A literature review on production, quality and problems. In IOP Conference Series: Earth and Environmental Science (Vol. 365, No. 1, p. 012041). IOP Publishing.
Pratono, A.H. and Radjamin, I.P., 2012. Kopy Luwak: a conservation strategy for global market. Emerald Emerging Markets Case Studies. 2 (8). Pp. 1-5.
Shepherd, C. R., 2012. Observations of small carnivores in Jakarta wildlife markets, Indonesia, with notes on trade in Javan Ferret Badger Melogale orientalis and on the increasing demand for Common Palm Civet Paradoxurus hermaphroditus for civet coffee production. Small Carnivore Conservation, 47, pp.38-41.
World Animal Protection, 2020. Civet coffee: campaigning for cage-free, World Animal Protection [online]. Available from: https://www.worldanimalprotection.org.uk/campaigns/animals-wild/civet-coffee-kopi-luwak [Date Accessed: 25.10.2020].