The Economist’s free coffee drive done in bad taste?

By Claudia Ang

You’re walking down a busy street during lunch hour.  A man approaches you. “Free coffee?” he asks. You’re startled, and then you realize that he isn’t alone. There’s an entire truck right behind him giving out cups of coffee to the public. What’s going on? you think. It takes a while to sink in. It isn’t just normal coffee. You find that it’s free civet coffee in exchange for an introductory subscription trial to The Economist, a popular business magazine. A complete foot-in-the-door marketing technique.

What would you have done?

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(Image from mUmbrella Asia.)

It’s not the first time The Economist has pulled off a stunt like this. The campaign in Singapore is merely a continuation of its campaign efforts in the UK, Netherlands, and Northern Island in bid to increase magazine subscriptions. In exchange for a free cup of Kopi Luwak (which can range from $60 to $80 a cup), the passers-by are offered a month-long subscription for only $5. It seems that such a tactic has proven to be successful in the UK, with the marketing company Sense clinching the best Direct and Promotional Strategy at The Drum Marketing Awards 2015, and The Economist getting over 4000 subscriptions as a direct result of the campaign.

Read about it here.

The Economist has also publicly made known their awareness of captive civet coffee and its cruelties, and has in turn made an assurance that the coffee which they were giving out is wild-sourced. The footnote in marketing agency Sense’s article reveals: We are aware that there are unscrupulous producers of kopi luwak coffee. The Economist has received assurances from its suppliers of kopi luwak used in our promotional campaigns is 100% ethically produced. Yet, we hear that all the time from Kopi Luwak producers, regardless if they are from wild or captive civets.

So here’s the dilemma: is it ever okay to drink Kopi Luwak?

On one hand, we know that Kopi Luwak is part of Indonesia’s culture. They’ve been harvesting the beans for centuries. There are farmers who do it the traditional, ethical way – that is, to forage for the beans on their plantations in the early mornings and thereafter spend their afternoons cleaning, drying and roasting the beans.

On the other hand, there are also farmers who resort to scrupulous means in order to make a quick buck. Kopi Luwak is a lucrative industry – everyone wants to have a hand in it. This has resulted in more and more people going out into the wild and capturing civets of all kinds, even the threatened Binturong, in order to produce the beans. The civets live in horrific conditions. Most of them do not survive.

Thankfully, there are certifications from organizations such as UTZ and the Rainforest Alliance that help us in identifying ethically-produced Kopi Luwak. Simply put, if you ever come across Kopi Luwak that does not have these certifications, they are more likely than not to have come from captive civets.

But let’s go back to the point. Would you have taken a cup from The Economist should you have passed them? Let us know what you think.

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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.