Kopi Luwak is a gourmet coffee, a delicacy around the world that is made from the fermented coffee beans excreted by an Asian palm civet. Essentially it is poo coffee. But as much as that divides coffee lovers into those who want the ultimate delicacy or those who are too squeamish to drink it, is that the thing coffee lovers should be most disgusted about? Is the fact that Kopi Luwak is unethical, irresponsible and harmful to the animals not more to the point?
I love coffee, who doesn’t? I mean I’m not as intense in my love for the drink as the superlative self aggrandizing baristas who think that is a genuine career choice, or the coffee loving apostles that espouse their undying devotion to the beverage like a deranged televangelist, but I do enjoy a good cup of Joe.
That is one of the many reasons I enjoyed visiting Indonesia. Coffee is a big part of the tourism industry here, with local coffee sold to tourists from around the world and tours of coffee plantations increasing in popularity.
That is why on various visits to Indonesia and Bali I took up the option to visit some of the numerous coffee farms in the region, not only to get a fascinating insight into how the beans are grown, but also to taste some of the unique types of coffee direct from the source.
Java and Bali are amazing destinations for that. Who can beat a cup of famous Javanese coffee directly from where it is grown and produced? Especially when there are dozens of flavours, roasts and blends to try. It is literally paradise for coffee aficionados.
It is during one of these coffee farm visits that I first got the chance to drink some of the world famous Kopi Luwak. The delicacy that is otherwise known as civet poo coffee.
Kopi Luwak is famous as the worlds most expensive coffee. It is a delicacy that is stocked by the most discerning coffee specialists around the world and was famously even given to Prince Charles as a gift from Stephen Fry. It is that coveted.
Genuine Kopi Luwak originates from Indonesia, and is made from beans collected from the droppings of the luwak, or the palm civet. The coffee bean cherry is a natural food of the luwak, but it cannot digest the coffee bean stones inside the cherry. So when the civet scours coffee plantations and feasts on the best, ripest cherries, it eventually craps out the undigested coffee beans. The passage through the luwak’s digestive system and contact with the animals sweat glands is said to imbue the bean with a unique taste, and when it craps them out farm workers pick out the beans from the rest of the droppings. This is where the unique Kopi Luwak coffee beans come from. After collecting the beans and thoroughly cleaning them, the beans are processed into what is one of the worlds most expensive drinks.
It is traditionally said that the beans are collected by farm workers from civets who roam in the wild, essentially by these workers following the nocturnal animals around at night and foraging for individual beans through their droppings. It is this rarity and harvesting difficulty – as well as the unique taste – that is what makes these beans so coveted and frankly so expensive. One single cup in the Western world can go for anywhere between £30 and £50, with bags of the beans costing anything up to £500 per pound.
I couldn’t pass up the chance to taste this coveted cup of coffee while I was here. Especially while it was so comparatively cheap.
And I did. On my very first trip to Bali a few years ago I tried it. Now, I’m nowhere near enough of a connoisseur to accurately describe the individual intricacies of the blend or determine the fruity heritage of each bean. It was a nice cup of coffee, strong and bitter. It wasn’t anything spectacular but it was okay. To be honest though it wasn’t exactly one of my favourite cups of coffee (that honour was reserved for the vanilla flavoured coffee on the same coffee farm). But the taste was really secondary. I wanted to taste it for the experience more than anything.
Since that very first trip to Bali however I have heard things that I did not like about the production of Kopi Luwak.
I suppose it was naive to believe wholesale the story of farm workers ethically and sustainably following around wild civets in coffee plantations for individual beans. It was just something I never really thought about or questioned before, so when I heard about this unique drink and had the chance to try it, I didn’t question it then either. It is not something I am proud of, it is not an excuse, it is just a fact.
The truth is Kopi Luwak is big business now, and a huge coffee tourism industry has inevitably grown up around the most expensive coffee in the world. This industry ensures that the luwak’s are caged and essentially force fed and factory farmed for their droppings. These naturally solitary animals do not take to confinement well. They are often put under intense stress being caged near other civets, and are force fed coffee cherries without any other food they would naturally eat as part of a varied diet which can cause them health problems.
Now I don’t pretend to be anywhere near an expert on this subject. Far from it. In fact I admit right now with no pretense that I honestly do not know enough about the subject to say whether drinking Kopi Luwak and supporting the industry around it is ethical or not. I do not know enough to suggest to you or anyone else what to do one way or another.
All I know is that since I have started looking into it I have seen with my own eyes civets caged on the very farms that claim to be ethical when they take tourists round on plantation tours.
I have seen them caged and used as props in the coffee shops that sell the coffee to tourists. And I am no longer naive enough to ignore the business side of the farming industry.
This is a huge trade that has grown out of our need to try something different, our desire for the exotic, and travellers are the perfect target audience for that. What kind of travellers bucket list doesn’t include some quirky yet uniquely rare luxury beverage?
Should we as travellers ignore ethical concerns in that quest to tick off the ever expanding bucket list?
As I say I don’t know enough to suggest decisively one way or the other what is the right thing to do. But I do know that what we should do as travellers, what I will do personally, is question. Every time we go on one of the many coffee plantation tours in Indonesia or Bali, every time we see Kopi Luwak for sale in a coffee shop marketed at tourists, just question everything. Ask the hard questions. Find out for yourself. Make an ethical decision based on your own observations.
That’s all any one of us can do.
What do you think? Have you ever tried Kopi Luwak? Do you want to? I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below or on my Facebook or Twitter pages and please feel free to share it with any or all of the social media buttons. If you want to get more great backpacking tips, advice and inspiration, please subscribe to updates via email in the box to your right.
This article was written in partnership with the Indonesian Ministry Of Tourism as part of the #WonderfulIndonesia campaign. The views and opinions expressed are entirely the authors own based on personal experiences when travelling and are honest and factual without any bias.