The world is addicted to coffee. Globally, it is estimated that 1.6 billion cups of coffee are drunk everyday with the Fins being the worse culprits, cruising into the lead at a whopping 4.7 cups per person per day. Even amongst the British, traditional tea-drinking is ‘grinding to a halt’, with your average brew being replaced by a George Clooney approved Nespresso.
Pride of place at the very top end of the luxury market is the rather fancily named ‘kopi luwak’ coffee, costing a heart stopping $25 a cup (and I thought Costa prices were extortionate). Infused with diamonds? Dusted with gold leaf? No. The reason this ‘cuppa joe’ is so expensive is due to the fact that it is made solely out of coffee beans excreted by Indonesian palm civets (a rather sweet, mongoose-like creature that looks a bit like Rikki Tikki Tavi from the jungle book).
Sounds like something out of Horrible Histories, right? However, civet coffee specialists argue that this concoction boasts a superior flavour due to the fermentation processes that occur within the digestive tract of the civet, making it less bitter than the average kenco.
But there is a very sad twist in this tale. Originally designed as a novelty item for a niche market of eccentrics, demand for civet coffee is now booming, following its appearance on the Oprah Winfrey show and the Jack Nicholson/Morgan Freeman box office hit, ‘The Bucket List’.
As its popularity grows, so do the problems. In order to meet consumer demand, production has had to increase from a couple of hundred kilograms per year to 50 tons or more, spread from Indonesia to China, Vietnam, India and the Philippines. Producers have resorted to essentially ‘battery-farming’ civets, entrapping them in small cages and feeding them a diet that consists almost entirely of coffee-berries (a move that could almost resemble the cruelty of foie gras). Civets are naturally shy animals and the poor diet, compounded with the stress of being kept in close proximity with other civets, results in health problems, fights and often death. Some civets become so distressed they bite their own legs off.
Animal-welfare groups currently believe that tens of thousands of wild-caught civets are subject to these horrific conditions (*¹click on link below for some graphic video footage). Although Indonesian palm civets are not endangered, a closely related species called the binturong (also used in the trade) has been listed as ‘vulnerable’ by the IUCN*² and it won’t be long before populations of Indonesian civets also start to suffer. Improvements to trade management mean that scientists are now able to distinguish real civet coffee from its imposters (other ‘crap coffees’ are made using the digestion abilities of Bonobo monkies, Brazilian jacu birds and even Thai elephants ). However as yet no test exists that enables us to discern wild from farmed kopi luwak.
Is there a light at the end of the tunnel? Scientists believe that a test for farmed civet coffee may be on the cards, but this is still in the early stages. A far more effective approach would be to target the demand side of the industry and aim to reduce it; something that is already being carried out by Tony Wild (ironically, this is the gentleman that first introduced civet coffee to western waters). Wild’s campaign, which hopes to end the sale of civet coffee for good, has already had some success, and in 2013 Harrods made headlines by removing civet coffee from their shelves .
We’ve all had a crap cuppa but this ‘cup of shit’ really is taking things a step too far. We can only hope that this expensive trade is ground out completely, before it really is too late.
*² The IUCN or International Union for Conservation of Nature is an international organisation that aims to find solutions to the world’s environmental and developmental issues.
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