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

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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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‘Pho Binh’ in Ho Chi Minh

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I don’t think I’m alone when I say that a big part of travelling and experiencing a new culture is the food. From over stacked, hearty breakfasts to small, predominantly insect based snacks, every community has its own special dishes and delicacies. Vietnam is no exception. Though there are nigh on a million reasons to come here, one of the stand out reasons I will be going back is the food.

We’d been in Vietnam for about a week now; still not quite enough time to get used to the hustle and bustle of Ho Chi Minh City. The amount of mopeds in the traffic flow was a sight to behold. Amid this chaos, three English boys went in search of a restaurant they had found the previous evening on a website. The restaurant, named ‘Pho Binh’, was highly acclaimed due to its historic serving of the Vietnamese national dish, ‘Pho’.

A short wandering of the city left us at our wits end and so we succumbed to the temptation of a taxi, which found ‘Pho Binh’ in no time at all. We pulled up to the side of the street to find a quaint little restaurant untouched by the Western influence. It was local, back-alley, and exactly what we were looking for.

We found ourselves greeted by a jolly Vietnamese man who sat us directly next to the cooking station. When the time came to order, there was no need for menus at all, as the same man simply asked us: ‘beef or chicken?’. Pho was the only thing they served here, and it came with only the two options. The same method of ordering was mirrored in the beverages with us this time being asked: ‘beer or coke?’. As it was 11 o’clock  in the morning, we figured a coke was probably the sensible decision. Before we knew it, our food was placed in front of us.

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The famous beef Pho. Photo: Flickr/Andrea Lai

For those of you unsure on what exactly a Pho is, it is essentially a noodle soup consisting of broth, rice noodles and herbs accompanied with meat. It was predominantly a street food in Vietnam that had become vastly popular. The beauty of it was that it could be, and often was, eaten for any meal of the day. We had tried quite a few up to this point and found them to be very good indeed, this one did not disappoint either.

The food however was only half of our experience at ‘Pho Binh’. With the eating done, we sat back to nurse our stomachs when our host came over and placed upon the table a huge book showing the history of the restaurant and of its visitors. As we had read online, the upstairs was now a dedicated museum due to the restaurant’s extraordinary place in planning the famous Tet Offensive of 1968 during the Vietnam war. Being history buffs ourselves, with two of us being current History students at our respective Universities, we were well aware of the significance of Tet and wanted to learn more about Pho Binh’s role. Our chef turned tour guide now took us upstairs and showed us this extraordinary exhibit.

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The portrait of Ngo Taoi hanging in Pho Binh

Here, we learnt about the previous owner of the restaurant, comrade Ngo Taoi, who had used it as concealment for major officers in the planning of the Tet Offensive. Tet, the Vietnamese New Year, was traditionally a period of ceasefire. During the Tet of 1968, the North Vietnamese were able to use this to their advantage and plan surprise military attacks throughout Southern Vietnam, momentarily taking command of some major cities before being defeated by Southern and US forces. Though a military failure, the movement resonated in the US public, who had been led to believe the North were debilitated and incapable of such campaigns. But enough of the history lesson!

It was amazing to see the actual area where such a significant moment in history was actually planned. We were informed that the majority of the room had been preserved exactly how it was during this time. It was like stepping into a time capsule. We were allowed the pleasure of sitting down at the very table that the planning would have taken place. It was at this point that our museum guide transformed yet again and informed us that he was a Vietcong veteran. He told us of how he had served far away from the city near the coast, and actually showed us the injuries he had sustained; the most gruesome being the scars along his leg from an American B52 bomber. It was humbling to sit down and talk with a Vietnamese war veteran. He was a very pleasant man and gaining a different perspective on the war was a rare experience I wont soon forget.

Sat at the table with the Vietcong veteran

Sat at the table with the Vietcong veteran

‘Pho Binh’ offered more than a simple meal. We found it to be a place of real heritage and history lost within a city of a thousand sites. It is a place where you can go and enjoy the national dish; a recipe that here has little changed since the war; as well as visit a key site in one of the biggest struggles in the countries history. It is well worth a visit if you’re ever in Ho Chi Minh City.

Sukhumvit’s Storage Crates; The Hidden ‘WH Hostel.’

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If you’ve ever been on any travelling excursions abroad and have been stuck on ideas as to where to stay based on novelty, value for money and overall quality of service, then here’s a brief take on an overlooked hostel in the Sukhumvit region of Bangkok.

Arriving in Thailand with eighteen hours of flight time behind you may not sound too fun at the best of times, let alone arriving with no clue of where you’re going for accommodation. I’d had quite enough of trying to drift off on the plane; awkwardly adjusting my position whilst at the same time trying not to disturb the person in the seat next to me. There was a troop of five of us and inevitably, we all arrived fatigued and a little fed up. Quite frankly, all I was looking for was sleep. Pure, undisturbed sleep. I didn’t care too much about where I was going to find it, as long as I did.

The Stacking of the Storage Crates.

The Stacking of the Storage Crates.

This ill preparation and disgruntled attitude fortunately led us to ‘WH Hostel’ and an unforgettable overnight experience. Taking advantage of the airports free Wi-Fi, we managed to have a quick scan at what hostels were available to us before settling on ‘WH’ and handing a taxi driver the address. What caught our eye was the originality in the use of storage crates, converted into rooms of varying size and comfort. They were arranged in a different array of colours and stacked one atop the other. I know what you’re thinking, ‘wouldn’t giant metal boxes be almost unbearable in the humid conditions of South East Asia?’ The answer would be yes, but luckily each one had its own air conditioning system built in, so it wasn’t stuffy or clammy at all. It was definitely something extraordinary to see and so we figured that even if the standards weren’t up to scratch, it was good for at least one night and the experience of sleeping in a converted storage crate was too cool to pass up. As you can probably deduce from my writing of this article, the other aspects were more than up to scratch.

Now, when deciding upon a hostel, we usually look at both the location and the price as primary factors; however, there are of course numerous factors to take into account, all of which ‘WH Hostel’ fares well in.

Location:
It’s located in the center of Bangkok, in the notorious Sukhumvit area of the city. If you’re looking for a vibrant area of the city then look no further. It boasts many of Bangkok’s most sinful spots in its side streets; the five of us actually stumbled across ‘The Worlds Largest Adult Playground.’ It is similarly a matter of minutes away from Bangkok’s skytrain service, allowing you access to anywhere in the city.

Price:
Western money on an Asian price scale. I say no more.  The maximum price you could pay for a premium room was just shy of £10, with dorms considerably cheaper. Compared to prices you are faced with when travelling the Western world, this is an absolute steal.

Our Arrival at 'WH Hostel'.

Our Arrival at ‘WH Hostel’.

Atmosphere:
With a maximum of only twenty beds, you are practically forced into interaction with fellow travellers- something of great appeal to me. It helps create a friendly environment in which you can share recommendations on what to do in the city and beyond based on the day’s activities or previous days on the road.

Cleanliness:
Again, there is a maximum of twenty beds purely due to space. The whole place is kept clean as this is an easily manageable amount compared to the sometimes excessive amount of people let in by the larger accommodations.

Security:
To say it was hard for us to get in at such a late time of night would be an understatement. With the gates locked and no way for us to get over, at least half an hour must have passed before the constant pressing of the buzzer eventually woke someone up. Though there was some amusing graffiti outside the hostel’s entrance, we were pretty relieved as we didn’t much fancy sleeping outside. In terms of item security, each bed is accompanied with its own bedside safe cabinet made secure if you bring your own padlock or rent one from the hostel.

Graffiti just outside the hostel' main entrance

Graffiti just outside the hostel’ main entrance

These are just some of the great perks of staying at this hostel. I’d noticed that sadly there were very limited reviews left on ‘Hostelworld’ for such a great hostel so I’ve tried my best here to give it some of the credit that it is due. Ordinarily, for myself anyway, the choice of hostel is not something that required too much thought as it was ‘just a bed’, and the real experience comes from the things you see and do, not where you sleep. However, ‘WH Hostel‘ certainly added to my experience in Bangkok and I’d encourage future visitors to definitely check it out- hearing a South East Asia thunderstorm from the inside of a storage crate is also a terrifying yet unforgettable affair.

From waterfalls to hospitals; the ups and downs of renting bikes in Vietnam.

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Image: Hector Garcia. Flickr.

Image: Hector Garcia. Flickr.

During my time in Vietnam in the summer of 2015, the city of Da Lat stood out as the bridge between the bustling South and the busy North of the country. It also served as a respite from the extreme humidity that we had become accustomed to- as three boys from the south west of England, a cooler environment with a higher chance of rain felt like a slice of home. Its temperate climate stands in contrast to the usual tropical weather that Vietnam experiences, earning it the nickname ‘the city of the eternal spring’, and making it home to some extraordinary sites and landscapes in its surrounding area.

The road leaving Da Lat.

For some time we had waited for the opportunity to rent mopeds and explore the Vietnamese countryside in our own way; dictating our own pace andgoing beyond the ‘beating track’ when it comes to the usual sightseeing. Da Lat provided the perfect environment for this. Having seen the chaos of Ho Chi Minh City, we decided it best not to rent them here mainly due to the congestion as well as the absolute recklessness in which the locals drove. In Da Lat we faced a quieter, smaller and seemingly safer location. The climate also meant that agriculture here was more apparent than anywhere else in the country, therefore we came into contact with the rural Vietnamese- who were very surprised to see three white boys seemingly racing each other on mopeds this far out of the city.

We negotiated a price to rent the bikes for a whole day, something equivalent to around £8 with us also providing the fuel. This didn’t exactly break the bank either.With the bikes sorted, we asked the owners of the hostel we were staying at if they knew of anywhere worth visiting that was outside the city. We wanted the journey to be as much an activity as the site itself. They immediately recommended a place known as ‘Elephant Falls’, about 35KM outside of the city. Using a scrap piece of paper- an envelope if I remember correctly- they hastily draw a map with directions to a nearby road that if we managed to get upon would take us the majority of the way with little turnings. With none of us having ridden a moped before, we were shown the basics along a relatively quiet road outside the hostel itself before we felt comfortable enough to go it alone. Despite their best attempts at helping us understand their instructions, it took us a grand total of five times across the roundabout to eventually grasp which way they wanted us to go- I seem to recall us even getting lost trying to find a gas station to fuel up.

Navigation problems having been overcome, we were off and heading away from the city into the farmlands; a side of Vietnam that we were keen to see. We were of course looking forward to reaching the waterfall but the array of scenery coupled with the local villages meant that there was plenty of stops along the way.

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Celebrating with the owner.

The most notable of these stops was an incredibly fortunate one. At around the half way mark of our journey, we thought it best to break and try and get some lunch at a roadside restaurant. We parked up outside and entered to find that we, as expected, were the only westerners dining. Unfortunately the name of the place escapes me. We were greeted by a girl younger than us, assumedly the only one with any grasp of English, who explained that they could only offer us the one dish: rice with an assortment of different meats. This was perfect and was more than likely to be something we would order anyway. Opposite us, a cluster of locals, the only other people in the place, were drinking and eating- clearly celebrating something. Curious as to what, we asked our waitress, who relayed to us that it was actually the owners and a few friends celebrating the opening day, hence the limited menu. Before we knew it they had joined us. Apparently we were the first of what I hope will become many westerners to dine here. They were clearly keen to mark this occasion, offering us multiple shots of rice wine- which we did with them- as well as leaving us with a full bottle free of charge. Probably not the wisest idea as we still had half of the journey there and a journey back to undergo but when else do you get this kind of opportunity. One of the locals in particular was very invested in the occasion, so much so that he could barely stand; a fact made even funnier when he passed us on his motorbike not half an hour later. It was great to experience this with such a friendly and sharing collection of people- something we told two Australians along the road in our recommendation of the place.

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Inside ‘Elephant Falls.’

Our next stop didn’t come until we reached the waterfall itself. It was as picturesque as expected but the true beauty of the place came from the seclusion surrounding it. We were the only people; tourist or westerner; who had come to see it. At first we had to scale the rocks to get down beside the waterfall. It felt to us like a proper adventure and was all the more satisfying that we had to make our way down a wet, slippery and ridiculously steep path in order to view the waterfall at its best.

It was along this route that we found the piece de resistance- a crevice leading inside the waterfall itself. Being stood within a waterfall was undoubtedly one of the coolest experiences of my life and not just because of the photo opportunity.

Incredibly, there was also a Pagoda situated right next to the waterfall. The temple, properly named ‘Linh An Tu’, was home to the ‘Happy Buddha’, aptly named because of the massive grinning Buddha statue around the back of the grounds. Despite this, the temple was particularly special to me due to its rural setting. It had an air of authenticity about it that I didn’t get from the urban counterparts. Its seclusion certainly gave it the feel of religious centre and not just tourist attraction.

Having seen the suggestion of our hostel owners as well as the bonus of the pagoda, we set off back towards the city of Da Lat. Though we took the exact same route as our journey there, new points of fascination still presented themselves, and we stopped in a small hamlet that advertised something called ‘Kopi Luwak’- coffee made from beans eaten and excreted by the Asian palm civet. We’d heard about the ridiculous price attached to it, with 1kg fetching as much as £700, and with myself in particular being an avid coffee lover we decided we would stop to see how it was made and whether it was really worth raving about. The farming methods were themselves questionable but the coffee was exquisite. They also showed us the barrels upon barrels of rice wine they were fermenting; the smell of which was most unwelcome after our lunchtime debacle.

It was after leaving here that our day took a somewhat downward turn. We’d spent the whole day zipping around the narrow country roads- if indeed they could be defined as such- assuming that we had become quite adept aboard our mopeds. We revelled in the fact that we were able to take over locals who had been driving these roads for years, when in fact it should have rang alarm bells immediately that perhaps we were approaching the many bends at far too great a speed. It was on one of these bends that my friend, who was situated at the back of our three man convoy, had his bike escape from underneath him and found himself thrust to the floor. The two of us up front were oblivious to this and so carried on up the hill until some frantic Vietnamese bikers signalled us to return below. We immediately knew what had happened. A local was scraping him off the floor and propping him up on the side of the track as his bike lay buckled and smashed in the road. A sense of panic filled the pair of us who watched on as blood poured from both his knee and elbow, the latter in which you could see his bone. I quite honestly didn’t feel like getting back on my moped at that point but then it was decided that I would be the one who returned to the nearest village to try and get help. Fantastic.

It was now, in a startlingly contrast to my approach throughout the rest of the day, that I drove with some sensibility and caution. I arrived at a restaurant and attempted to explain the situation to some locals who didn’t speak a word of English. All I had at my disposal was the translate feature on one of their Ipads. I eventually managed to express my need for a taxi to take both my friend and his bike, which was rendered useless, to the nearest hospital. I returned to him being lifted in and driven off. All that was left to do was drive back to Da Lat, something the remaining two of us were not keen on.

We arrived back to the hostel we were staying at to a collection of other travellers attending to our battered and bloody companion. One of the workers there, Wyn, hoisted him on the back of his bike and drove him the short distance to the hospital with the agreement that we would meet him there. We dumped our bikes and did just that. The pair of us walked in and were immediately directed to the only white patient in the hospital.

Soldier down: Inside Da Lat hospital.

The hospital did not match any preconceptions and was actually remarkably clean. It was littered with people who had evidently been waiting for a while to be seen, and yet our friend had been bumped up to be seen immediately. An indicator of the universal language that is money. In retrospect it is a pretty shocking concept but at the time he was in such need of assistance we were just happy he was being helped straight away. They cut through his blood soaked laces and sock and then cleaned both his leg and his elbow with iodine. Which looked ridiculously painful. The doctor then stitched his elbow up in a very improvised way before sending him off for x-rays. He was sent in for two x-rays that luckily for him showed that he hadn’t broken anything, it was just deep cuts he had to deal with. Meanwhile, we were outside the x-ray room discussing what we were going to tell the insurance people because we weren’t covered for the renting of bikes. We expected it to come to quite a substantial bill considering it had to cover two x-rays, the painkillers prescribed and an hour of the doctor’s time. It came to the equivalent of £7. We couldn’t quite believe it. Not only had he not had broken anything but he also avoided any serious damage to his bank account. It left him with a pretty cool scar as a souvenir from his time in Da Lat and a memory none of us are soon to forget.