I am today launching a campaign aimed at ending an industry that I created. That trade is in kopi luwak, AKA civet coffee – otherwise known as “wolf”, “cat”, and “crap” coffee, and the most expensive coffee in the world.
Over the past 20 years Kopi Luwak has become the ultimate bling coffee, a celebrity in its own right, stocked by every aspiring speciality retailer worldwide, and appearing on CNN News, Oprah, and The Bucket List (a Hollywood film with Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman, no less).
To my regret, I was the one who started it all …
I first read a description of kopi luwak buried in a short paragraph in a 1981 copy of National Geographic Magazine. Ten years later, in 1991, as coffee director of Taylors of Harrogate, I was the first person to import kopi luwak into the west – a single kilogramme. I didn’t sell it through the company, but thought, perhaps naively, that its quirky, faintly off-putting origins from a wild animal roaming Indonesian coffee estates might be of interest to the local newspaper and radio in Yorkshire where the company was based. It proved to be so much bigger than that – national news, TV and radio fell over themselves to cover it. Kopi luwak put Taylors – and me – on the map.
Genuine Indonesian kopi luwak is collected from the droppings of a wild cat-like animal called the luwak (the common palm civet, Paraxorus Hermaphroditus), a shy, solitary nocturnal forest animal that freely prowls nearby coffee plantations at night in the harvest season, eating the choicest ripe coffee cherries. It can’t digest the stones – or coffee beans – of the cherry, so craps them out along with the rest of its droppings. The beans are collected by farm workers. Cleaned and washed, they have acquired a unique and highly prized taste from their passage through the luwak’s digestive tract and the anal scent glands they use for marking their territory. Being wild, hard to collect, variable in age and quality, and very rare, kopi luwak is not a commercially viable crop, but just an interesting coffee curiosity. That’s why I bought some.
But nowadays, it is practically impossible to find genuine wild kopi luwak – the only way to guarantee that would be to actually follow a luwak around all night yourself, one experienced coffee trader told me. Today, kopi luwak mainly comes from caged wild luwaks, often kept in appalling conditions. A Japanese scientist recently claimed to have invented a way of telling whether kopi luwak is fake or genuine. He’d have been better off inventing a way of telling whether the beans come from wild or caged animals.
Coffee companies around the world still market kopi luwak along the lines of that original quirky story involving a wild animal’s digestive habits, many claiming that only 500 kilogrammes are collected a year, a scarcity that justifies its huge retail pricetag (usually between $200-400 a kilo, sometimes more). In fact, although it’s impossible to get precise figures, I estimate that the global production – farmers in India, Vietnam, China and the Philippines have all jumped on the bandwagon, too – is at least 50 tonnes, possibly much more. One single Indonesian farm claims to produce 7,000kg a year from 240 caged civets.
So kopi luwak is now rarely wild: it’s industrialised. Sounds disgusting? It is. The naturally shy and solitary nocturnal creatures suffer greatly from the stress of being caged in proximity to other luwaks, and the unnatural emphasis on coffee cherries in their diet causes other health problems too; they fight among themselves, gnaw off their own legs, start passing blood in their scats, and frequently die.
Wild luwaks – the trapping of which is supposed to be strictly controlled in Indonesia – are caught by poachers, caged and force-fed coffee cherries in order to crap out the beans for the pleasure of the thousands who have been conned into buying this “incredibly rare” and very expensive “luxury” coffee.
The kopi luwak trade makes big bucks, and it attracts big-spending consumers. For example, if you’re struggling to find a suitable present for your friendly neighbouring Russian oligarch’s birthday, how about buying a 24-carat-gold foil bag of Terra Nera for £6,500 at Harrods? It won’t be Indonesian kopi luwak you’re buying, but one of the numerous other crap coffees that have now sprung up worldwide – Thai elephants, Brazilian jacu birds, and Bonobo monkeys have all been press-ganged into servicing consumers’ insatiable desire for the weird and ostensibly wonderful.
In the case of Harrods, its latest variant is produced by the Peruvian uchunari, a long-snouted Andean animal about the same size as a luwak. Naturally, it’s supposed to come from well-treated animals, be incredibly rare, and – until the next absurd luwak alternative comes along – is now the most expensive coffee in the world.
As all these bewildering developments seem to have sprung from my original humble purchase, I feel as if long ago I must have inadvertently put my finger on the pulse of some monstrous zeitgeist, a grotesque cancer that constantly mutates into yet more vile and virulent forms. I’m fully expecting celebrity-digested designer crap coffee to be next down the line. One way for former stars to revitalise a flagging film career, I suppose, or perhaps for a Turner prizewinning artist to comment on the vacuity of our consume-at-all-costs age.
Come to think of it, perhaps I could actually do the digesting myself? It would be an appropriate conclusion to my complicity in the rise and fall of this utterly preposterous, utterly hideous trade.
This article was written by Tony Wild for the Guardian UK.