One of the most common questions I hear when people find out I'm in coffee is, "What's the deal with that cat poop coffee?" You've no doubt heard something about the stuff: Kopi luwak is coffee cherries that have been eaten, digested and excreted by the civet cat, collected by farmers and sold to roasters to prepare for human consumption. No part of me believes that this will be the last time I have to explain kopi luwak, but I can certainly dream. It's common for coffee people to respond to questions about kopi luwak with the now ubiquitous "from assholes, for assholes," but allow me to illustrate the reasoning behind our distaste a little bit.
At upwards of $300-per-pound, kopi luwak is certainly the most expensive coffee in the world. Just as certainly, it's the grandest of all rip-offs. It is very, very bad coffee, and is in no way worth the exorbitant price tag it carries. Some of its allure comes from science that shows the enzymes in the cat's stomach mellows out the proteins in coffee that cause bitterness. The same science shows that there is nothing unsafe or unhealthy with kopi luwak, but it doesn't make it any less unpleasant.
The coffee is typically described using meaningless, platitudinous phrases like, "earthy and bold" or "smooth, not bitter," but it should really be explained as unremarkable, awful and musty (read: it literally tastes like shit).
The questions about it started a few years ago, and I blame it mostly on Jack Nicholson. Hardly anyone had ever heard of it before his film The Bucket List came out in 2007. His wealthy, entitled old man of a character drank it exclusively, and not surprisingly, the general public all of a sudden pined for it. It became a gimmick and a point of curiosity for many, leading to a slew of articles about it in the media. More and more shops began carrying it for the sake of publicity, with some cafes selling it for upwards of $100 per cup. Then Oprah mentioned it a few times on her show, and the rest, as they say...
Initially, it was a mostly harmless thing -- truly just an idiotic extravagance for the rich, a story to tell at parties. But over the past several years, with its rise in popularity, the inevitable has happened: counterfeiting and increased production. The counterfeiting issue is one the coffee industry has seen before, with other unreasonably expensive, relative to their quality, coffees with designer price tags, like Jamaican Blue Mountain and Hawaiian Kona. In all three cases, more of the coffee is sold than produced. You do the math.
However, the production of kopi luwak makes it an even more pressing issue. Since it was initially a "wild" product collected by entrepreneurial farmers, availability was limited. But when the market demand increased beyond the capacity of wild collection, an abhorrent escalation came about: caged kopi luwak was born. Not only are the helpless animals confined to cages, they are abused and force-fed a diet that ensures a short, horrible life due to malnutrition. Of course, the market has responded in kind, with the advent of "cruelty-free" and "authentic" labels slapped onto bags of kopi luwak coffee. It's truly bad fiction that such a silly product has resulted in an unethical black market of unremarkable coffee.
So as someone who literally drinks coffee professionally, I will say this: don't believe the any of the hype. Kopi luwak is in no way worth the cost, not even as a lark. The most expensive and highly recommended coffee you'll find at your local café will be immeasurably better than any coffee that has been passed through the intestinal tract of an animal, whether it be a civet cat or, recently in the news, an elephant or wild raccoons.
And it's for this reason that I thought it was important to write this post around the holidays, to give anyone who might read it some things to consider before buying it as a gift. When purchasing kopi luwak, you are -- at best -- over-paying for a wholly inferior cup or, at worst, getting ripped off for a counterfeit version or unwittingly participating in animal abuse.
The recent proliferation of this coffee is based completely on market curiosity (people buying a cup or ½ pound, just to try), not true quality or demand. The best way to stop the proliferation of kopi luwak on the market, prevent the abuse of caged civets, thwart counterfeiting and maybe even end all of the questions I have to answer about, it is for you to drink normal, and ideally really good, coffee