The Most Expensive Coffee in the World Comes From Civet Poo, but That’s Not the Bad News

The pricey coffee is posing an unexpected problem to multiple species.

The threatened Asian palm civet. (Photo: Praveenp/Wikimedia Commons)

Apr 22, 2013· 1 MIN READ
Joanna writes about environment and energy for the NYT, Popular Science, OnEarth Magazine, and more.

You might think your $4.25 Starbucks Macchiato was on the expensive side—and you'd be absolutely right—but it's nothing compared to Kopi Luwak, or civet coffee, which can go for as much as 30 bucks a cup.

The civet, a small Asian mammal that looks like a cross between a weasel and a raccoon, is not just a cute logo for the brand. Civet coffee is made from coffee beans found in civet excrement. The civet's digestive enzymes ferment the beans, and after much rinsing, the beans extracted from the feces are said to make a dark, smooth, rich, smokey cup of Joe—or as one tasteless term goes, "crappuccino."

Now, while there is no good reason why people shouldn't be allowed to waste their perfectly good money on novelty weasel-poop coffee, the growing knowledge and prestige of Kopi Luwak as the most expensive coffee in the world is threatening the wild civet population in Asia.

"People throughout Indonesia, Java, Thailand, Bali, Vietnam, and Cambodia are jumping on this opportunity to take advantage of the civet coffee trend," says Chris Shepherd, Southeast Asia Senior Program Officer at TRAFFIC, the World Wildlife Fund's wildlife trade monitoring network. "They are catching as many civets as they can, and not just the common palm civet anymore, either, but all different kinds now, and shoving them into cages, and feeding them nothing but coffee berries. It's one thing to make coffee from poop you find on your plantation, it's quite another to capture civets and try to farm them for their caffeinated crap."

Many of the civets now being caught don't even naturally eat coffee beans; they are carnivores that normally eat rats, bird's eggs, and lizards.

"The problem is everybody has heard of this new exotic coffee, but very few people know what a civet actually is. I've talked to a lot of people who have had civet coffee but had no idea that a civet was even an animal," says Dr. Shepherd. "If people knew what it was, I think they would either be completely horrified and grossed out, or have some compassion for the little guy. Either way, hopefully the crazy demand in America and Europe would go down."

While some civet species, like the Binturong, are extremely rare, a lot of civets are believed to be relatively common. Unfortunately, donors aren't particularly interested in funding weasel conservation work with so many elephants and tigers in need, so population data is extremely spotty. From his travels throughout Southeast Asia, Dr. Shepherd has seen more and more civets of all different species being sold in wildlife markets, and he says traders are complaining that they are getting harder and harder to catch. Anecdotally, at least, as the coffee fad grows, civets appear to be in serious trouble.

"You could sell anything to people if you charged them enough," says Dr. Shepherd in amazement. "I've been doing work in Malaysia for 20 years, and this is one of the dumbest yet."


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