‘Kopi Luwak’: The high moral price of the World’s most expensive coffee

With a single cup costing up to a staggering £70, ‘Kopi Luwak’ is revered as the most expensive coffee in the world. However, it is surrounded with an air of controversy and discussion that most just aren’t aware of. The factors involved in both its ethical side and its monetary value are, unsurprisingly, one and the same. The coffee itself is revered so highly because of the extraordinary nature of its collection. The beans are eaten by the Asian Palm Civet; a creature comparable to a weasel in both size and features; before they pass through their digestive system and are excreted out, ready to be collected in the animal’s faeces. The Vietnamese refer to it as ‘cà phê Chồn‘; which loosely translates to ‘Weasel Coffee’.

Vietnamese '' or 'Weasel Coffee'

Vietnamese ‘cà phê Chồn’ or ‘Weasel Coffee’

This process allegedly adds to the taste of the coffee produced and has helped the drink achieve worldwide fame. With such fame comes huge demand, and with this demand, the supply has inevitably skyrocketed, leading to a hugely unethical farming method. In these farms, the civets are kept in very poor conditions that no animal should be exposed to. Here’s what happened when I visited one of these places.

My experience came in Vietnam. More specifically, the Lâm Đồng Province of the South. I had spent the day out in the countryside and managed to come across one of these civet farms after being directed to it by two Australian’s further up the road who said it was definitely worth a stop. As an avid coffee lover myself, I thought it would be interesting to see exactly what went into producing ‘the worlds best’. My imagination did nothing to prepare me for what was to come.

Traditionally, the harvesting of the ‘natural Kopi Luwak’ is harmless to the animal as the coffee can be found on the grounds of the plantations, in the fecal matter left by wild civets. This was not the ‘farming’ method I was met with. As I pulled up to the side of a house, two women came out to greet me and just as soon as I had gotten off my bike, offered to show me into the farmhouse itself. They took me via a small cage that housed a gigantic python far too big for its enclosure. Alarm bells were beginning to ring already.

This run down hut was essentially the size of an average English garden shed and contained too many civets for me to count in the brief time I was in there. All were caged. All were malnourished.

The Asian palm civet in the wild Photo: Giovanni Mari/Flickr

The Asian palm civet in the wild
Photo: Giovanni Mari/Flickr

The smell was incomparable. So pungent that it has stained my nostrils. A smell that mirrored the horrendous conditions that were revealed to me. Such a drastic change in environment had inevitably resulted in health issues for the animals. They were visibly frail and were fighting among themselves as more often than not there were multiple civets to a cage.

An example of the civets in their cages.

An example of the civets in their cages.

Where the wild civet’s diet was only partly made up of the coffee beans, their caged counterparts were force fed only these. What is striking is that this is not only hugely unethical, but it is actually devaluing Kopi Luwak itself. Typically, the wild civets chose the ripest and highest quality coffee beans, meaning that the natural method of farming for these beans produced the best quality of product. These caged civets, which are tended by inexperienced and ill prepared farmers, are overfed on unripe coffee beans that are not chosen by the animal itself, resulting in an inferior product. Similarly, the natural enzymes required to enhance to flavour of the coffee beans only flourish in the much less stressful environment and lifestyle of the natural civet.

More pressingly, such force feeding has resulted in a breakdown of an animal’s livelihood to merely eating and defecating. It is extortion on a mass scale. A mixture of overfeeding and the poor conditions means that more often than not, the civets will become ill and actually excrete blood alongside the digested coffee beans. Once this happens, it is usually beyond the farmers to save the creature.

It can be estimated that currently, as much as 65-70% of the Kopi Luwak exported into the western world has been farmed in this way. Most people are blissfully unawares of the processes behind this extravagant coffee and find it hard to see beyond what is undoubtedly one of the worlds finest beverages. If, like me, you enjoy your coffee but do not condone the unethical treatment of animals, then there are now ways of observing if the Kopi Luwak you are about to purchase is, as I have stated, ‘natural’. Attached to all official packs of the product can now be seen an array of certification stamps that assure the legitimacy of the product. I would urge you to look out for these before buying any of the Kopi Luwak coffee beans.

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