Coffee: some think it tastes like dishwater, while others “need” it to get themselves out of bed in the morning. Whatever your stance, it’s hard to deny that coffee has a huge global presence.
The world’s most expensive blend is civet coffee (or kopi luwak in Indonesian), which was concocted by workers on Indonesia’s plantations during the 19th century. The cost of a cup varies, depending on which source you trust; Time magazine claims that in London or New York, a cup costs between $50 and $100 (1), while Wired says that a serving “can cost $80” (2). What is true is that it’s a cost not many of us can incur on a regular basis!
Despite its hefty price tag, the origins are far from glamourous – the beans come from coffee cherries that have been eaten and excreted by the Asian palm civet (a small, weasel-like creature that is native to Indonesia). The digestion of these coffee beans by the civet gives them a smooth, rich texture, which has resulted in thousands of dollars changing hands for the smallest amount overseas – in Harrods (London), a Britannia-silver and 24-carat gold-plated bag has changed hands for over $10,000.
A shy and nocturnal animal by nature, the best way to collect these rare coffee beans is to follow one around, with claims that just 500kg is collected each year – supposedly from wild animals. However, unscrupulous dealers have ensured that tons of mass-produced kopi luwak enters the market each year. Unsurprisingly, the traditional practice of following the animals around patiently has largely ceased, with civets taken from the wild and kept in cages, for the sole purpose of producing vast quantities of kopi luwak.
PETA has started a campaign to end this cruelty (3), which was launched after an undercover investigator from the organisation visited farms in Vietnam and the Philippines, and saw for themselves the cramped, dirty conditions the civets were forced to live in. The animals are force-fed a diet of coffee cherries and kept in appalling conditions. This resulted in many of the animals contracting skin infections and displaying neurotic behaviour, such as whirling around in circles and pacing around their cages, which experts term “zoochosis”. This is a direct result of being kept in captivity and is a classic sign of depression and sheer boredom.
However, there is hope for civets and their campaigners. Through the wonders of science, start-up firm Afineur has found a way to recreate the fermentation process that goes on inside the digestive system of civets (4). It is this unique (if undesirable-sounding) process that gives kopi luwak the distinctive, smooth flavour that keeps the coffee at a premium price. Those who have sampled the drink have said that it is less bitter than standard coffee, as the fermentation process changes the ratio of acids in the liquid.
Camille Delebecque, a synthetic biologist and one half of Afineur, says that the price of this engineered coffee will probably be between $50 and $100 a pound. So cheap it won’t be, but this is probably for the best, as the premium price may persuade those with a full wallet and a taste for coffee to switch from standard kopi luwak.
For more information on kopi luwak and how you can help end this cruel practice, visit the links below.
Words: Wendy Davies
Image: Alejandro Rodriguez