If you are travelling around Southeast Asia, chances are that you will visit a coffee plantation at some point. Supporting local farmers is important, but there is a dark side to the roasting process.
In Vietnam, coffee is a serious business. Second only to Brazil, it exports the most grounded coffee of any country in the world. The most expensive coffee you can buy is called Kopi Luwak, otherwise known as ‘weasel coffee’ which retails at around $40-$100 a cup. This coffee is touted as ‘exclusive’ since the way it is harvested means that there is a limited supply.
Wild luwaks are palm civet cats that select the ripest coffee cherries as part of their diet. The beans are not fully digestible, so they pass out almost intact, but with an added ‘musky’ flavour. Through partly digesting the beans using enzymes in its stomach, the acidity is changed and the resulting flavour is supposedly less bitter. Once cleaned, the beans are processed in the same way, but the selling point is that a wild animal has chosen only the best beans for your morning cup.
The problem is that wild luwaks are poached to maintain this story. Caged and force fed a restricted diet of coffee cherries, they are kept in squalid conditions in order to harvest their droppings. Without eating other important foods such as fruit, the animals inevitably become sick. Their naturally shy demeanour means that being on constant display and positioned next to other luwaks causes them further suffering.
Tony Wild, who has been credited with introducing this ‘poop coffee’ to the West, is now championing more sustainable ways to farm. His campaign in 2013 Kopi Luwak – Cut the Crap has garnered over 50,000 signatures to put an end to the practice of capturing palm civet cats for this process. He has called on retailers, including Harrods where he worked, to stop stocking this type of coffee. His book, Coffee: A Dark History, delves into the uncomfortable truths about coffee production, from animal cruelty to colonisation.
Despite the 2013/2014 movement fuelled by Wild that highlighted the plight of palm civet cats in making coffee, the persistent demand for Kopi Luwak means that the farmers have not stopped this practice. When I visited Bali in late 2018, I was surprised to see many road signs still promoting luwak coffee. Despite the backlash against this exploitative method, many coffee plantations still use confined civet cats and even showcase them as part of their tours.
The thought of eating something derived from dung gives it a queasy appeal for those wishing to try something novel. It is still possible to buy pounds of weasel coffee online, and the influx of fake versions further attests to its popularity. Be wary of any farms that claims to have a ‘sustainable’ method of producing weasel coffee, since any method that inhibits a wild animal or breeds them in captivity is not ethical. Putting profit over the well-being of wildlife is not a sustainable practice.
Since 2014, new legislation and certification has been introduced to reduce the number of caged luwaks. The Sustainable Agriculture Network (SAN) is used by the Rainforest Alliance to help consumers choose coffee that has been farmed responsibly, and the UTZ also provides a certificate for sustainable coffee production. However, getting your hands on a legitimate bag of weasel coffee can be a challenge since the high retail price attracts many imitators who claim to be certified.
Although awareness of these civet cat farms has increased over the past decade, many tourists may not realise the true price of this coffee. If you are looking for a way to experience culture in Southeast Asia, trying weasel coffee may just leave a bitter taste in your mouth.