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The Gross Origins Of A $100 Cup Of Coffee

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BANGKOK, Thailand — Perhaps you’ve heard of “kopi luwak,” the world’s priciest coffee. And perhaps you know its main claim to notoriety: The drink is brewed from beans swallowed and excreted by civets, small mammals that look something like a cross between cats and weasels.

Sound repellent? That’s not even the most pressing reason to avoid the boutique coffee, which can sell for as much as $100 per cup in London or New York. 

Kopi luwak is tainted by more than a furry animal’s anal glands. Just as off-putting is its cruelty.

Also sold as weasel, fox or cat-poop coffee, kopi luwak is fueling a rush to capture more and more wild civets from their native Asian habitat, says Suwanna Gauntlett, founder of Wildlife Alliance, a conservation group working with forestry officials in Cambodia to reduce poaching.

A civet eats coffee berries at a farm in northwest Vietnam.

Civet traps, she says, amount to a “bamboo stick with pineapple at the top — civets love pineapple — and when they climb the sticks, a snare catches them around the waist.” The animals are also snared by more vicious traps: metal “walls of death,” she says, that clamp onto their feet, sometimes severing their legs.

The suffering doesn’t end there. Civets unlucky enough to fall into hunters’ hands are shoved into tiny cages where, “similar to foie gras geese,” Gauntlett says, “they’re basically force-fed coffee berries.”

The process amounts to torture by caffeine. Buzzed into delirium, as animal welfare campaigners have documented, the creatures pace in tight circles, gnawing at the bars of the cage and their own limbs. Their fur grows patchy. Some die. Any adult human munching through kilos of coffee beans would fly into a sickening frenzy; the effect on a seven-pound mammal is even more severe.

Each day, the animals’ feces is scraped from their cages. The digested beans are picked out, washed and packed into a bag that can sell for hundreds of dollars per kilo. 

Kopi luwak’s purveyors contend that the animal’s digestive enzymes can lend a “musky” flavor with “hints of chocolate and caramel” to each brew. But what the coffee really offers is a sense of luxurious rarity.

The sales pitch relies on the drink’s mystique. Makers often claim that their civets are coffee connoisseurs that roam the jungle in search of the highest-quality coffee berries.

Civets do dig coffee berries. And they can be picky. But the trade is dominated by operations that rely on force-fed civets in battery cages, not locals carefully combing the forest floor for wild civet droppings.

That ugly reality led Tony Wild, an author and former coffee trader who once promoted the drink, to start campaigning against it. He began publicly denouncing the “cruel, fraudulent” trade in 2013 after he discovered that “cruel battery farms, especially in Indonesia, were pouring out tons of it a year” — even as the industry “was still pedaling the myth that kopi luwak was incredibly rare.”

 Civet droppings containing digested arabica coffee berries at a farm in northwest Vietnam.

Groups such as World Animal Protection say that there is a humane version: “Wild-sourced, ‘cage-free’ civet coffee.” But ethical kopi luwak is difficult to find — and even more expensive than the farmed stuff. 

Take Ross Kopi, for instance, an operation in Indonesia that gathers beans the old-fashioned way: Sending out workers into the civets’ jungle habitat to spot their coffee-rich poop. This tedious production method is not cheap. The coffee’s price per kilo, according to its stockist, the luxury retailer Harrods, is more than $2,500.

In the West — a few extravagant exceptions aside — kopi luwak is becoming taboo, thanks to campaigns that target American and European importers. But it is increasingly prevalent in the shopping malls of Asia. 

The drink appeals to a certain customer who seeks costly wildlife items endowed with bogus powers: tiger penis to increase virility, shark fin soup to ward off cancer, rhino horn to prevent a hangover. (In Cambodia, before authorities intervened, wealthy golfers would lap up $300-per-bowl bear paw soup to improve their swing, Gauntlett says.)

Civets aren’t endangered — for now. But the kopi luwak industry is fueling so much civet poaching that wildlife advocates fear they’ll become rare.

“At the rate they’re being poached,” Gauntlett says, “they’ll soon become vulnerable. Civet is the upcoming species under pressure … and this demand will soon outrun the natural supply.”

“Please do not buy ‘weasel coffee’ or kopi luwak,” she advises. “It’s encouraging the farming of animals in terrible conditions.”

This story was cross-posted by our colleagues at Global Post.

From PRI's The World ©2015 Public Radio International

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