Luxury ingredients come in all shapes and sizes. From filet mignon to foie gras, food and drink that costs the earth is often prepared using wholly unorthodox and utterly unappetising methods. However, in the great pantheon of strange foods that we consider delicacies, few can be more unusual than Kopi Luwak - the world’s most expensive coffee.
As one of the world’s most popular drinks, coffee comes in many forms. Every country that specialises in bean growing has their own premium products. Today, you can’t turn on the television for five minutes without being bombarded by vivid descriptions of slowly roasting arabica beans, hand picked from pristine hidden highlands and lovingly ground into specially selected cups. Kopi Luwak has no need for all of this nonsense. This coffee is so highly sought after because it comes from somewhere unlike any other drink - the anus of the Asian palm civet.
The palm civet is a cat-like creature native to Southeast Asia, whose relatives are distributed across Asia, Africa and parts of Southern Europe. An omnivorous creature, the palm civet survives on all manner of small animals, insects and fruits, including those of the coffee plant. Palm civets eat coffee for the fleshy pulp of the fruit, but are unable to digest the hard beans.
As the beans are ingested, the civet’s intestinal tract impregnates them with digestive juices. Once the beans are excreted in the civet’s droppings, they are collected by hand before being ground and roasted as normal. The result is a coffee with a unique, smooth taste, unlike anything else on the planet.
While this process may sound intriguing, a sample does not come cheap. An average 500g bag of “normal” coffee may cost you anywhere between $3 and $10. The same weight of Kopi Luwak, however, will set you back at least $500 dollars. This extraordinary price is due to the relatively minuscule amount of product that is produced. While nearly 900 million kilograms of coffee are produced around the world each year, the entire yield of wild Kopi Luwak is a mere 250 to 500 kilos a year. The battle of supply versus demand helps to explain why a cup of Kopi is so costly.
It is both due to the high price and high demand from coffee lovers across the world that the process by which Kopi Luwak is procured is coming under ever more intense scrutiny. In an attempt to cash in on the trend, there are a whole host of pseudo-Kopi Luwak vendors, selling knock-off coffee at hugely inflated prices. Indeed, one estimate from Mark Prince of “Coffee Geek” suggests that there is, “probably 5000 percent more Kopi Luwak sold each year than is actually produced”. Clearly, the scale of the fake produce is a huge issue for genuine manufacturers.
There are other, perhaps more insidious ethical concerns over Kopi Luwak production. While it’s widely acknowledged that the best coffee is harvested from wild animals, there are a number of facilities in Southeast Asia that produce Kopi Luwak from captured civets. These animals are often kept in woefully inadequate conditions and are fed a diet consisting entirely of coffee fruit.
Though “farming” civets in such a way is a much less-labour intensive way of securing the sought-after beans, the results are dire for the animals’ wellbeing. Oxford University’s Wildlife Conservation Unit assessed 16 sample plantations in Bali and reported a bleak picture of animal abuse. Cages were described as “soaked through with urine and droppings” and civets covered in “sores and abrasions”.
Apart from the hideous conditions in which the animals are kept, the practise of attempting to farm Kopi Luwak actually has an enormously adverse effect on the final product. In the wild, civets select the beans that they eat based on ripeness and as part of a balanced, omnivorous diet. This “selection” process is integral in the production of top quality Kopi Luwak. By removing the selection element and solely feeding the civets a mixture of sub-par coffee fruit, the beans that pass through are inherently of poorer quality.
The huge question marks over the Kopi Luwak trade are forcing some individuals to take action. Tony Wild, a coffee consultant and the man responsible for introducing the coffee to the West, has called for an end to the practise over ethical concerns. The Sustainable Agriculture Network (SAN) has recently prohibited the caging of civets for its guidelines in Indonesia, showing that action is beginning to be taken.
In addition to the responses of those concerned about the natural world, there are also potential solutions coming from the scientific community. Manufacturers in Vietnam have managed to artificially reproduce the enzymic effect of the civet’s digestive tract, meaning that they can create a bean that has the taste of true Kopi Luwak with none of the unpalatable side-effects. If technology can help us produce a superior product without harming the animals, then there may be hope for Kopi Luwak yet.
With its unusual origins and controversial manufacturing process, the world’s most expensive coffee is certainly a divisive product. As ever, where there is money involved, the possibility of corruption and corner-cutting increases. Though technology may be able to assist, if we want to get a taste of the real thing guilt-free, we will have to pay for it. It may be expensive, but the consequences of a cheap cup of Kopi Luwak are far worse than a big price tag.