The Disturbing Secret Behind the Worlds Most Expensive Coffee

It’s the most expensive coffee in the world and it’s made from poop. or rather, it is made from coffee beans that are partially digested and then expelled by the civet, a cat-like creature. A cup of Kopi Luwak, as it’s known, can sell for as much as $80 in the United States.

The civet, found in Southeast Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, has a long tail like a monkey’s, markings on its face like a raccoon’s, and stripes or spots on its body. it plays an important role in the food chain, eating insects and small reptiles as well as fruits such as coffee cherries and mangoes, while being eaten by leopards, large snakes and crocodiles.

Reading: Best coffee made from monkey poop

At first, the civet coffee trade boded well for these creatures. In Indonesia, the Asian palm civet, which attacks commercial fruit farms, is often considered a pest, so the growth of the kopi luwak industry encouraged local people to protect the civets for their valuable dung. its digestive enzymes change the structure of the proteins in the coffee beans, which removes some of the acidity to make a smoother cup of coffee.

But as civet coffee has gained in popularity, and with Indonesia growing as a tourist destination where visitors want to see and interact with wildlife, more wild civets are confined to cages on coffee plantations. Partly this is for coffee production, but it’s also so you can make money off tourists eating civets.

Researchers from the University of Oxford’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit and World Animal Protection, a London-based non-profit organization, assessed the living conditions of nearly 50 wild civets caged at 16 plantations in Bali. The results, published Thursday in the journal Animal Welfare, paint a bleak picture.

From the size and hygiene of the cages to the ability of their occupants to act like normal civets, every farm the researchers visited fell short of basic animal welfare requirements. “Some of these cages were literally the smallest, we would call them rabbit hutches. they are absolutely drenched in urine and excrement everywhere,” said neil d’cruze, one of the researchers.

See also: How to enjoy coffee

Some of the civets were very thin, due to being fed a restricted diet of only coffee cherries, the fruit that surrounds the coffee bean. some were obese, unable to move freely. and some were high on caffeine, d’cruze said.

But what he found most disturbing was the wire floor on which many of the animals were forced to stand, sit and sleep throughout the day. “If you’re standing on that kind of wire mesh all the time, it’s going to give you sores and abrasions. they have nowhere to go to get off that floor,” d’cruze said. “It’s a constant and intense source of pain and discomfort.”

In addition, many of the civets had no access to clean water and no opportunity to interact with other civets. and they were exposed to daytime noise from traffic and tourists, which is especially annoying for these nocturnal animals.

wild or caged: who knows?

all this for a luxury item, and a second-rate one at that. Part of what makes kopi luwak so special, experts say, is that wild civets pick and choose the choicest coffee cherries to eat. keeping civets in cages and feeding them old cherries leads to an inferior product.

Also, says a coffee expert quoted in an article by the Specialty Coffee Association of America, the trade organization for gourmet coffee roasters and baristas, kopi luwak just isn’t that great to begin with. While the civet’s digestive process makes the coffee smoother, it also removes the good acids and flavor that characterize a specialty cup of coffee.

Now there is no way to tell if a bag of kopi luwak was made from wild or caged civets. An undercover BBC investigation revealed in 2013 how coffee from civets caged in inhumane conditions ends up being labeled as wild civet coffee in Europe.

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even tony wild, the coffee merchant who introduced kopi luwak to the west, warns against it in an article for the guardian. it has become increasingly industrialized, abusive and counterfeit, he said.

There is no certification scheme to ensure that coffee labeled as “wild” is really that. and other coffee certifiers working to ensure environmentally responsible farming and production refuse to certify any type of kopi luwak.

Sustainable Agriculture Network Standards, or SAN, which the New York-based Rainforest Alliance and other well-known coffee certifiers use to issue their seals of approval, prohibit the hunting and trapping of wild animals on farms. the ban on caged civets is specifically highlighted in the san guidelines for coffee in indonesia.

utz, another major certification standard for sustainable coffee, also prohibits caged wildlife on farms and will not certify any kopi luwak.

alex morgan at the rainforest alliance, which uses san standards, says it’s too risky to certify kopi luwak. it’s too difficult to establish whether the beans are 100 percent wild-sourced or not .

“My personal advice is generally to avoid it,” he said. “most likely coming from a caged production landscape.”

This story was produced by National Geographic’s Special Investigations Unit, which focuses on wildlife crime, and is made possible through grants from the Band Foundation and the Woodtiger Fund. read more siu stories at wildlife watch. Send suggestions, comments and story ideas to [email protected].

See also: The 5 best coffee mugs we tested in 2022

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