The history and ethics of Kopi luwak coffee

Produced in Indonesia, kopi luwak is one of the most expensive and rarest coffees in the world. The origin of its rarity comes from the fact that in this region of the world, coffee fruits are eaten by a small mammal: the Asian civet. The civet digests only the pulp of the fruit leaving the coffee seed intact. Coffee beans ferment in the belly of the animal. The acids and enzymes of the stomach act to ultimately produce a particular beverage. This is described as smooth, chocolatey and devoid of any bitter aftertaste.

The history and origins of Kopi luwak

How was this discovery made? For when you look for coffee in the excrement of an animal, you have to have a good reason.

Paradoxurus hermaphroditus pennantii

Our story begins in the early eighteenth century. At that time, the Dutch created coffee plantations in their East Indian colonies. Between 1830 and 1870 (the Cultuurstelsel period), the Dutch prohibited natives and employees from picking coffee for their personal use.

Cultuurstelsel is a Dutch agricultural policy set up in the mid-19th century for the Dutch East Indies colony.

Despite the forbidden, natives and employees were still eager to drip on this drink. They noticed that the civet (a local animal) ate the cherries of the coffee tree by digesting only the pulp and rejecting the seeds in their excrement. They then began to consume the coffee beans from the excrement of the civet. The reputation of this civet café soon reached the plantation owners, who made it their favorite. This coffee was expensive, even at that time, because of its scarcity and its elaboration process.

Scheme of a coffee cherry


Producers are struggling to meet the ever-increasing demand for kopi luwak. Some producers have a double exploitation: they produce regular coffee and collect the droppings of wild civet (who come on their land at night to eat coffee).

Enterprising individuals capture civets and set up mini farms, often in their back yard. One can easily imagine (and a simple internet research can confirm it) that they are feeding farms. Producers give them only coffee to eat.

On the other hand, according to a New York Times article, there is really no regulation. That is, even the government does not know the number of coffee producers.

Given the money involved, coffee beans, often of inferior quality or counterfeit ways also flood the market. In this same article in the New York Times, there are interesting stories about the methods developed to try to cheat on where coffee comes from.

Civet on a farm producing kopi luwak

An artificial imitation of the kopi luwak

Due to the decrease in the population of civets (which can be hunted for their meat), several studies were conducted to imitate this coffee without having to resort to this animal.

One of these studies was successful. You can consult the project here and here. The license was bought by a company: “Coffee Primero”, which produces and distributes this imitation at a competitive price with regular quality coffees. I personally have not had the opportunity to taste this coffee so I can not tell you more. Even if there is a biochemical treatment, the taste can approach the original. I think it’s a good alternative to try to eat.

Source used for the article: NYT

A slightly more recent article has been published in National Géographique.

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The history and ethics of Kopi luwak coffee
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