The costliest coffee on earth has a humble proletarian beginning. As folklore has it, civet coffee, or kopi luwak in Indonesian, was discovered by plantation workers in colonized Indonesia. Forbidden from consuming coffee beans picked from the plants, they picked up, cleaned and then roasted the beans excreted by wild Asian palm civets that entered the plantations to eat the ripest coffee cherries. The civets’ digestive systems gave kopi luwak a uniquely rich aroma and smooth, rounded flavor — so much so that the Dutch plantation owners soon became die-hard fans.
In the past 10 years, kopi luwak has won the hearts — and wallets — of global consumers. A cup sells for $30 to $100 in New York City and London, while 1 kg of roasted beans can fetch as much as $130 in Indonesia and five times more overseas. The ultimate in caffeine bling is civet coffee packed in a Britannia-silver and 24-carat gold-plated bag, sold at the British department store Harrods for over $10,000. The justification for these exorbitant prices? A claim that kopi luwak is sourced from wild animals and that only 500 kg of it is collected annually. The claim is largely nonsense.
While there are some ethical suppliers of hand-gathered civet coffee, recent investigations, both by journalists and animal-rights activists, have revealed a cruel and avaricious industry. To satisfy global demand, many suppliers keep captured civets in cages and feed them almost exclusively on coffee cherries. Enduring appalling living conditions and an unhealthy diet, these nocturnal omnivores suffer mental distress — incessantly pacing and gnawing on their limbs — and succumb to illness and death. These grim farms are not confined to Indonesia. Farmers elsewhere in Asia have jumped on the bandwagon. By one estimate, 50 tons of mass-produced civet coffee from Indonesia, Vietnam, the Philippines and China flood the market every year.
One of the most outspoken critics is former coffee trader Tony Wild, who imported a single kilogram of kopi luwak to the U.K. in 1991 and took pride in introducing it to the Western world. (The coffee gained wider notoriety after being featured in The Oprah Winfrey Show in 2003 and the myth of its all-natural origins was propagated in a Jack Nicholson–Morgan Freeman scene in the 2007 film The Bucket List.) Wild, who witnessed horrific animal abuse while helping a BBC team investigate civet-coffee farms in Sumatra, has launched a petition and social-media campaign, “Kopi Luwak: Cut the Crap,” urging customers and companies to shun the product.
“The coffee trade has conspired to turn a blind eye to the wildlife suffering in order to get this business going,” says Wild, who is also the author of Coffee: A Dark History. “It is a bit of a racket.”
Teguh Pribadi, founder of the Indonesian Civet Coffee Association, admits animal cruelty is rampant in the industry. “The luwaks aren’t treated well,” he tells TIME. “Many farmers don’t understand how to keep the animals properly.” The association recommends the civets be kept in cages that are at least 2 m by 1½ m wide and 2½ m high, and for no longer than six months.
“We tell farmers to focus on the quality, not the quantity of the product,” Teguh says. “It’s better if they produce little but superior coffee, and don’t have dying civets.”
Yet animal experts say Asian palm civets — solitary and territorial by nature — shouldn’t be kept in cages, nor in enclosures, because a single civet needs an average of 17 sq km of territory. “I have seen 100 luwaks kept in a half-hectare coffee farm,” Wild says. “It’s kind of a prison camp where they fight each other.”
Besides, the harvesting of genuine kopi luwak, gathered in the wild, seems either more trouble than its worth — or hazardous to health. “We don’t know how long a dropping has been out in the wild,” Teguh says, “and civet-coffee beans that have been on the ground for more than 24 hours can be infected with fungi.” Wild has been told by a local expert that “following a luwak around all night yourself” is the only way to guarantee real kopi luwak — and, now it seems, a fungi-free drink too. Maybe we’re better off sticking to a cup of regular arabica.