An Unconscionable Coffee Delicacy. Should Travellers Be Drinking Kopi Luwak?

Kopi Luwak civet poo coffee Indonesia

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. Java is the home of coffee, it is so tied to the region that it even lends its name as a nickname for the drink! As such it is hardly surprising that 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.

Coffee beans coffee plantation tourism Java Indonesia

The Perfect Coffee Tourism Destination.

Java and Bali are amazing destinations for coffee tourism. 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 civet poo coffee Indonesia

Kopi Luwak, The Worlds Most Expensive Coffee.

Kopi Luwak is famous as the worlds most expensive coffee. It is a delicacy that is only stocked by the most discerning and exclusive 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, and this isn’t a pretentious food and coffee blog run by someone who sniffs wine instead of drinking it, so I can’t really do it much justice.  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, like many people I wanted to taste it for the experience more than anything. This was the worlds most expensive and exclusive coffee after all. How could I pass up that chance?

Since that very first trip to Bali however I have heard things that I did not like about the production of Kopi Luwak.

Civet in a cage being used to process Kopi Luwak, coffee tourism Java Indonesia

Unethical Production.

I suppose in hindsight it was naive to believe wholesale the story of farm workers ethically and sustainably following around wild civets in coffee plantations for individual beans. I mean believing that they spent all day just waiting and only picking up the beans, or more accurately the civet poo, where they found it naturally on the ground is more than a little gullible to say the least. It was just something I never really thought about or questioned before, it was just coffee after all, so when I heard about this unique drink being produced on a farm that was holding coffee plantation tours 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. Perhaps once when it was just a local delicacy enjoyed by farmers alone they did just pick up the odd bean from the ground for their own consumption. Once they could make money from it however, I suppose it was inevitable that they would find a way to ensure and maximise profits.

To make sure there is a constant flow of beans, this industry now means 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 am not an expert in civet health and honestly do not know enough about the subject to say whether the entire industry is like this.

Civet in a cage being used to process Kopi Luwak, coffee tourism Java Indonesia

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, another issue I have grave concerns over.

And I am no longer naive enough to ignore the business side of the farming industry. There is so much greenwashing involved that it can be difficult to cut through the crap – no pun intended – but seeing rows of civets, wild animals, caged and force fed to harvest their droppings is not excusable in any way, and this is the side that they show to tourists.

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?

But if that production is harmful to the wild animals involved, and everything I have seen with my own eyes suggests that it is, then can we ignore that?

I know I can’t.

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 for everyone 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?

Did you enjoy this article? 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.

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Michael Huxley is a published author, professional adventurer and founder of the travel website, Bemused Backpacker. He has spent the last twenty years travelling to over 100 countries on almost every continent, slowly building Bemused Backpacker into a successful business after leaving a former career in emergency nursing and travel medicine, and continues to travel the world on numerous adventures every year.

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Posted in Responsible Travel
7 comments on “An Unconscionable Coffee Delicacy. Should Travellers Be Drinking Kopi Luwak?
  1. danontheroad says:

    Always the one to ask the hard-hitting questions!

    I’ve had a sip of Kopi Luwak in Bali and although the aroma is great, the taste not so strong to my liking. Sustainability has always been an issue in developing countries and the exploitation of the luwak is one of the many problems besetting tourism destinations like Bali now.

    A local Balinese told me, “We used to gather and roast the luwak beans for our personal consumption but once people put a high price tag on it, why shouldn’t we farm it? At the end of the day, it helps put food on the table and send our kids to college.”

    • Haha thank you Dan, it’s always good to think about difficult issues.

      Yes you are absolutely right, I cannot disagree at all with anyone (especially from a developing country) asking why shouldn’t they go after the money to live a better life. I completely understand that. My argument to that is that it is being proven time and time again in recent years that following the easy money with unethical/irresponsible options does bring in an income for the short term but has many negative effects and is not sustainable, but following a responsible, ethical route brings in much more money in the long term and has a sustainable business model behind it. This is because a) there is a huge (and consistently growing) demand from travellers for ethical/responsible options and therefore a much larger customer base and profit potential, b) a decreasing demand for unethical options as more people become aware of issues, and c) a much longer and more sustainable income base for business models that do not exploit/destroy the source of their product.

      So yes, I would absolutely say to your local friend go after your profit and make a better life for yourself, but do so with a responsible, ethical business model. Everyone will be better off in the long run.

  2. Wow, I had no idea about this! This is why I love reading your site!

  3. maninahuff says:

    Interesting. I honestly had no idea about this at all but you have genuinely got me thinking now.

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