The next time you get sticker shock at Starbucks, try to think of those who have developed a taste for Kopi Luwak coffee beans. A single cup can cost as much as $100, making it one of the most expensive non-alcoholic beverages in the world.
According to Craft Coffee Guru, the reason this particular coffee commands such a premium price is because of how it’s sourced. Kopi Luwak (or “coffee civet” in the Bahasa Indonesian language) is typically retrieved from countries in Southeast Asia—specifically, from the droppings of the Asian palm civet, an animal vaguely resembling a cat. The civets eat cherries from coffee plants and then excrete the beans. Harvesters extract the beans from their waste, clean them, heat them to kill bacteria, and then move them to the open market. Five or six beans can be obtained from one dropping.
The practice is thought to have started in the 1800s, with the Dutch East Indies colonies of Java and Sumatra forbidding native workers from taking coffee for themselves. Instead, the workers harvested the beans from the droppings.
Why drink coffee beans that came from animal waste? The civet’s digestive tract removes much of the bean’s bitterness by changing its protein composition, making for a smooth flavor. That distinctive taste coupled with relatively low supply keeps the Kopi Luwak’s price tag high.
Unfortunately, the money generated by the bean often leads to exploitation of the civet. Rather than wait to collect its droppings in the wild, some coffee suppliers have taken to trapping and holding the civet, feeding them a diet of coffee cherries, and then harvesting them. In addition to living in captivity, the civet misses out on a more balanced diet. The civet is also usually a better (literal) cherry-picker, choosing better coffee cherries than the ones picked by farmers.
While a cup of genuine Kopi Luwak coffee made from free-range civets may sound appealing, there’s not any great way to tell whether the coffee offered was made humanely or even if it’s genuine. At least you know what you’re getting at Starbucks.
[h/t Craft Coffee Guru]