Good to the last dropping: coffee from civet dung

April 18, 2010 • 10:52 am

The existence of kopi luwak coffee has long been known to java insiders, but it’s out in the open thanks to an article in today’s New York Times.  Kopi luwak is made in southeast Asia from beans that have passed through the digestive tract of the Asian palm civet, Paradoxurus hermaphroditus, also called the “toddy cat” because of its supposed fondness for the fermented sap (“toddy”) of palm trees.  The civet is not really a cat (family Felidae), but a viverrid (family Viverridae), a group of mammals related to the mongoose.

If you’ve ever eaten a fresh-picked coffee fruit, you’ll know that the hard bean in the interior is surrounded by a sweet white flesh.  The civets eat the beans, digest the flesh, and pass the coffee beans.  This supposedly causes an intestinal fermentation of the bean that makes the coffee derived from it pick up an indescribably luscious flavor.  I wouldn’t know because I’ve never tried kopi luwak. As you might expect, given the intensive labor required of man and civet, the coffee is expensive (see here, for example, which sells it for $190/lb or $40/2 oz.; this works out to be around six dollars per cup). I once pondered splitting a pound with several of my javaphilic colleagues, but never got around to it.

When I first heard about kopi luwak around two decades ago, I learned that it was made by collecting the droppings of wild civets who frequented coffee plantations (a lot of it is still made that way).  At that time I jokingly suggested that somebody could make a lot of money by building a civet farm where captive animals could be fed coffee beans.  Now, as the Times reports, that’s being done, though the description of these places (and the picture below) makes it seem as if the civets aren’t really enjoying their captivity. It’s sad, because they not only lose their freedom but aren’t given a balanced diet.

Anyone for a crappucino?

Fig. 1 (from NYT article).  A civet farm in Sumatra, with easy access to the bean-filled droppings

34 thoughts on “Good to the last dropping: coffee from civet dung

  1. I’ve heard about that often enough. Sheldon even made fun of it recently.

    Of course, now I don’t think I’ll ever try it, knowing that it’ll likely be farmed like this. Pity.

  2. I had heard that one of the additional advantages of kopi luwak was that civets were generally much more selective about which fruits they ate than human coffee pickers are. It seems to me that if you’re picking which fruits to feed them you’re losing that advantage. I wonder if that’s true, and if there are consequently quality differences between natural and farmed kopi luwak?

  3. I don’t buy this at all. Coffee connoisseurs can be rather like wine aficionados – prone to imagine they can detect subtleties that don’t really exist.

    If you did a proper double-blind test with beans from the same plant, half getting the civet treatment, half not, I’d put money on no one being able to tell the difference.

    And for the record, my daily habit is drip-brewed French roast, ground on demand. I’ll use a percolator on a camp stove when electricity isn’t available.

  4. I usually go through a couple pounds of kopi luwak per year. I buy from the site you linked to, which actually gives you a nice discount if you have them set up an account for you (they don’t have an automated account creation process yet).

    The first time I tried kopi luwak, I couldn’t tell it apart from any other high quality coffee. Personally, I really only noticed the difference when I ran out of kopi luwak and had to switch to normal coffee. Kopi luwak ruined all non-kopi luwak for me.

  5. This sad story goes to show that there is an inverse correlation between the amount of money in your purse and the amount of brain in your skull.

  6. Poor animals. I’ve known 3 varieties of coffee and none of them have much edible on the fruit; the skin and the seed+casing easily make up 95% of the fruit. I never thought of looking into breeding the plants to produce more food and less coffee. One of my favorite varieties was not a prolific fruit bearer (or maybe I didn’t have the right conditions; few of the flowers ever turned to fruit) but the flowers had a wonderful smell. I wonder what prompted folks to use the coffee in civet droppings; were they really that desperate for coffee?

  7. Just back from Bali, a friend of mine and his SO had lots of civit shit coffee. They are huge coffee connoisseurs, and hip to the best SF hip brewed stuff, and not want to miss anything that is slightly above par. They can pay, and do for coffee. Their conclusion: we could not tell the difference between good local coffee (which is very good) and civit shit coffee.

  8. Cancel that grande, make mine tea.

    It always amazes me how many people accept that “using another human being as a means to an end” is a moral wrong, but using another animal being is not. Perhaps if we stop denying evolution and accept that non-human animals are our cousins, then we can finally find a true morality.

    1. By that logic we couldn’t eat plants and animals for food. And we would have a hard time explain the existence of a taboo against eating own species.

      If you argue that the eating taboo _should_ extend to our closest ape relatives, I agree that it is both feasible and practical. (For example, HIV jumped the species barrier.)

      Dunno if morality extends that far though, our moral responses seems pretty hardwired into us. (For example, no difference between non-religious and religious moral reactions AFAIU.) And since people do eat apes, they apparently think of them as “not us” – so no taboo.

      1. Correct: by that logic we should not eat plants or animals, because of our “morality”. But if we eat nothing, we will die, which is not acceptable either. So the logical thing to do is walk it backwards from the “cannot eat anything” to “eat to survive and have minimal harm to others.” So, restricting the diet to plant-based food is an acceptable form of harm minimisation; Being aware of the effect on others of the choices we make is very important. Exploitation/inprisonment of animals just so some others can “enjoy” a pretentious cup of coffee is very sad.

        1. I don’t think it’s eating animals that’s wrong, it’s making them suffer before they die. There is nothing wrong with death, only the pain and suffering that often precedes it.

  9. Civets are viverrids and mongooses are herpestids right? There are civets and genets here in Africa, wonder if I could get them to eat some ground up instant ‘Ricoffy’ cheap fauxcoffee, sell their pop and undercut the kopi luwak market? Could call it ‘Cuppa youwhat?’

  10. Sad to see that humans have found yet another way to exploit animals. And this business is especially pointless. The conditions look typically appalling, though one consolation is that these poor creatures are not living in their own shit, as so many others have to while languishing in tiny cages. But that’s a small consolation. Evolution did not prepare animals to cope with living out their entire lives in steel cages or on factory farms. It’s not fair and degrades us as a species that we would do this to other animals. I’d recommend boycotting the coffee.

  11. Stephen’s right – to counter my previous facile post I have to say this is a prime example of a completely useless industry with evident animal welfare problems. But wait – soon people will become convinced that ‘wild’ collected civet kak provides better, more nuanced coffee, with a distinctive terroir, and then those (ew) ‘farmed’ coffees (no better than instant don’t you know?) will disappear from the market. Another piece of gilded abalone? Or a slice of panda testicle? Sorry, need more coffee…

  12. I’ll bet some marketing folk were having lunch one day and one of them made a bet that he could get people pay good money to eat shit.

    1. Although a certain amount of criticism of royalty is allowed in the UK, getting them to drink animal poop while pretending to enjoy it is beyond a republican’s wildest dreams. Well done, Mr. Fry!

      Although I have to admit that some friends from Indonesia served us some “civit coffee” after dinner one night, although I think/hope it was imitation poop and actually just coffee.

  13. Honey is another digestive tract processed food.

    There’s a little shop in my neighborhood that will make kopi luwak by the cup. Yes I tried it once and that was good enough for me.

  14. My wife bought me some of this not long ago, and I have to admit it is really incredibly good coffee. Whether it would be as good without all those added civet enzymes (some actual chemistry goes on within the bean while it’s in the civit) is certainly debatable… but on the whole, kopi luwak sure beats the hell out of Starbuck’s!

    1. I once shopped at Starbuck’s. The ambiance is so obnoxious that it was hard to enjoy the brew. The civit story makes me wonder if SB is not intestinally processed, by hominids.

      1. If you really want to mess with them, follow my example and order a small cup of plain tap water. It absolutely freaks them out, when they’re “sure” that you’re going to request some sort of “venti half-double-decaf-mocha-fudge-frappa-latte” or whatever it is they’re whipping up that day.

  15. I noticed kopi luwak popping up in a few news sources recently, all of a sudden.

    I suspect the importers decided the economy is improving sufficiently (and i-bank earnings season was coming) that it was time to send out some press releases and generate some publicity and demand for their overpriced poo beans.

    But generally, kopi luwak seems to appear in the media every so often. I was surprised the NY Times covered it at all, having mentioned it several times in the last decade.

  16. I remember when Dave Barry covered this in the 90s. The newspaper column was accompanied by a cartoon of a guy complaining that his coffee tasted like weasel poop.

  17. I seem to remember reading somewhere that originally, this was the ‘poor mans’ coffee, because the poor people who lived around the coffee plantations could not actually afford to buy commercially processed coffee beans, so they would just collect the ‘scat’ of the civet as it was free and just lying on the ground.

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