Rags to Riches: Origins of Kopi Luwak

By Henrietta Woo

In the market of specialty coffees (think Jamaican Blue Mountain, Hawaiian Kona and what have you), there lies a niche in a league of its own. These are the ‘animal poop coffees’ and while hearing their source of processing may often make one pause, they have since become some of the most expensive coffees in the world.

Luxury coffee. Image from The Coffee Locator.

Luxury coffee. Image from The Coffee Locator.

Most famous of these coffees is kopi luwak, also known by its other names of civet coffee, crap coffee, and 麝香猫咖啡 (shè xiāng māo kā fēi). Kopi luwak refers to the coffee made from beans that have passed through the gut of the luwak or common palm civet (Paradoxurus hermaphroditus). Civets are believed to select and feed on prime coffee cherries. The stones (i.e. the coffee beans) pass through their system undigested. These prized coffee beans are then recovered in their droppings (i.e. poop) and are given a thorough cleaning before they reach consumers hankering for something novel. But how did this all start?

Much like the humble beginnings of say, ratatouille from France and closer to home, bean sprouts with salted fish, kopi luwak was a poor man’s food. First brought into the west as a curiosity by Tony Wild in 1991 after he read a brief description of it in National Geographic some ten years earlier, kopi luwak was suddenly catapulted into international fame and there began its rag-to-riches story. It is necessary to delve a little into the history of coffee to understand the origins of kopi luwak. Though there are over a hundred species in the Coffea genus of which coffee belongs, only three species are commercially grown to produce the ubiquitous beverage. In order of market share, these are arabica (Coffea arabica), robusta (C. canephora) and liberica (C. liberica). Endemic to the highlands of Ethiopia, southeastern Sudan and northern Kenya, C. arabica somehow found its way to Yemen and from there, the Dutch East India Company brought it to the Dutch colony of Java in the 1690s. Most, if not all, accounts point to the ‘discovery’ of kopi luwak during the mid-nineteenth century when the Cultivation System (or “cultuurstelsel” in Dutch) came into force. During this period, it became mandatory for a portion of agricultural production to be set aside for export crops. Ironically, by prohibiting any picking of coffee cherries for personal consumption, the Dutch inadvertently piqued the curiosity of native farmers and plantations workers who wanted a taste of this much sought-after cash crop.

Wild civet eating coffee cherries

Wild civet eating coffee cherries. Image from Hungry House.

Enter the luwak: locals soon learned civets were slipping into plantations and eating coffee cherries. Instead of perceiving it as a problem, however, they realised that their desire to drink coffee could be satisfied by harvesting the beans that lay undigested in civets’ droppings. Kopi luwak was born, and word of this soon got out to the Dutch plantation owners. Hard to come by and only available in small quantities, wild-sourced kopi luwak already fetch a premium then. These days, however, kopi luwak is no longer rare, depending on caged civets to provide a ready supply. Farming civets is a quick and dirty method to boost supply and the high price tag – supposedly reflecting its rarity – continues to profit traders who want to cash in. Caught from the wild and put into small cages alongside other civets, these naturally solitary animals eventually succumb to stress, if they don’t die from caffeine overdose first.

Civet caged for poop coffee

Civet caged to make poop coffee. Image from Fat Nancy’s New Diet.

Though it is wild-sourced kopi luwak that is rare nowadays, the story pumped to the masses remains unchanged, allowing the vicious cycle to continue. Yuck factor aside, if made the old-fashioned way, I’d say let kopi luwak live on. Otherwise, in the words of Tony Wild, who now runs a campaign against kopi luwak, it’s time to cut the crap.

Find out how you can help at https://projectluwaksg.wordpress.com/support.

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