I do not find much appeal in Coffee. We have never been formally acquainted without a string of inconvenient events following. So, it was to my surprise that I found myself enjoying a guided tour around a rural coffee plantation in Bali.
Rich aromatic scents drifted on the wind; the coffee willows swayed gently, producing a calming white noise; our guide could scarcely be seen without a smile from ear-to-ear. It was an unexpected pleasantness away from the constant hustle-bustle of Southern Bali.
The day was progressing nicely, until I became curious about the many cages dotted throughout the property containing peculiar creatures.
“They’re civets” replied our guide when pressed. “They make the coffee”.
I was confused by this proposition. But, the answers became apparent a short time later at a tasting vendor, which offered a particular strand of coffee labelled Kopi Luwak, otherwise known as Civet Coffee.
“So… what is Kopi Luwak coffee?”
Kopi Luwak derives its name from a process of fermentation, in which coffee cherries pass through the dietary tract of a Civet.
Genuine Kopi Luwak relies on wild Civets. These shy and solitary creatures raid coffee plantations in the still of night, seeking out the flesh of the choicest coffee cherries. They consume the coffee cherry in its entirety, but excretes the seeds as they are indigestible. The partially digested, and now fermented, coffee beans are collected, cleaned and processed.
Enzymes in the dietary tract change the protein structures of the coffee bean, while the creatures anal scent glands infuse a unique aroma. The result is an aromatic cup of coffee with a smooth and earthy flavour that is less bitter than regular coffee – at least that is what the coffee bag claims.
Some years ago, Kopi Luwak was a rare and exclusive product of the most well-connected. Today, it is no longer exclusive, but it is the most expensive coffee in the world.
Kopi Luwak came from humble beginnings. The droppings of wild civets were collected and processed by small-scale farming operations, often with a single worker, having little interaction with each other.
This boded well for these creatures. The Civet, whom had historically been considered a pest by the fruit farms it raided, was given a green card.
Recent years have seen a surge in the popularity and accessibility of Kopi Luwak – it is no longer a novelty of the wealthy and well-connected. Consumption outpaced the capacities of traditional production methods, forcing the industry to evolve.
There is now a thriving industry in Indonesia based around the consumption and production of this coffee – people are willing to pay a hefty fee to see how this coffee is made and interact with the creatures that provide it.
As the business has grown, the demand for more productive and efficient methods of harvesting said coffee have also grown. Similar to layer hens and dairy cows and many other animals, this has meant neglecting these animals to horrendous living conditions and deplorable treatment under the guise of efficiency and profit.
In order to sustain a commercial quantity of coffee that is viable for mass consumption, the process by which it is produced needs to be highly efficient and profitable – the wellbeing of the Civets does not fit into these parameters.
This has meant higher stocking densities in smaller cages, limiting natural movements and increasing rates of Zoochosis, a stress-induced neurotic breakdown; the naturally solitary animal experiences stress related issues from living in close proximity to other civets; nutrient deficiencies and hair loss stem from the exclusive feeding of a single food source; unsanitary conditions spike disease and mortality rates; exposure to daytime conditions leads to mental disorders – civets are exclusively nocturnal animals; wire mesh flooring create an intense and constant source of pain for the soft-footed creatures; caged Civets have a greatly reduced life expectancy and high rates of vices, such as gnawing at legs and fighting; et cetera.
“When tourists see the caged civets, it helps to convince them that they are drinking genuine real civet coffee as part of their tour. Sadly, many tourists are blind to the cruelty associated with caged civet coffee and even queue up to take a photo to share on social media”
– Dr Neil D’Cruze, Wildlife Researcher
The commercialisation of Kopi Luwak detached the industry from one of the fundamental roots that made it a ‘luxury’ item – WILD Civets.
Wild Civets are incredibly picky. They will only eat the finest and ripest coffee cherries. Being fed cherries by a farmer removes this aspect of selectivity. If there is nothing else, a Civet will eat a cherry regardless of its grade. This luxury item is a shadow of its former self. Coffee connoisseurs and aficionados alike will likely never taste a true cup of Kopi Luwak.
“Detecting cruel civet coffee remains a constant challenge because of the difficulty in distinguishing between beans from caged or wild civet cats. However, if tourists see civets in cages as part of their tour this is a clear indication that unnecessary animal abuse is involved.”
– Dr. Jan Schmdit
There is no way to tell if Kopi Luwak is sourced from wild or caged Civets, as there is no regulatory or certification body to validate this claim. Coffee certifiers, such as the Rainforest Alliance and UTZ, refuse to certify Kopi Luwak products because it is almost impossible to determine if they are wild-sourced and abide by welfare standards laid out in the widely applied Sustainable Agriculture Network standards.
“My personal advice is generally to avoid it. More likely than not it’s going to be coming from a caged production landscape.”
– Alex Morgan, Rainforest Alliance
A Few Bad Eggs or a Systemic Practice?
Like with any exploitive business there will be those who operate with the best intentions, ensuring that their actions are not unduly damaging or abusive. However, there will always be those who seek to capitalise on any potential business to the fullest of its extent in spite of the damage it will cause. So, what is the case with Luwak Coffee?
“nowadays, it is practically impossible to produce wild kopi luwak”
A review by Oxford University’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit of 16 different coffee plantations found industry-wide standards of misconduct and welfare rejection. Of the 16 plantations, 14 processed their coffee beans through caged civets on-site. The other two plantations sourced their coffee beans from an off-site facility that used caged civets.
The review remarked;
From the size and sanitation of the cages to the ability of their occupants to act like normal civets, every plantation the researchers visited failed basic animal welfare requirements… “Some of these cages were literally the tiniest—we would call them rabbit hutches. They’re absolutely soaked through with urine and droppings all over the place” … Most of the civets were very thin, from being fed a restricted diet of only coffee cherries—the fruit that surrounds the coffee bean. Some were obese, from never being able to move around freely. And some were jacked up on caffeine.
A conduct of deceit weighs heavily on the industry to maintain an illusion of ‘traditional’ standards. Most telling, at least for me, was the employment of diversion tactics. It is common practice to keep several Civets in reasonably large cages and in healthy condition to put on show for the tourists. It creates an illusion of an ethical ‘business’ relationship. If the conduct of this industry was known, this products consumption would plummet. And, they know it!
I will not be drinking Kopi Luwak. Will you?