It was slaves, ironically, who discovered the recipe for what is now widely regarded as the world’s most expensive and controversial coffee: kopi luwak.
The root of kopi luwak, coffee beans semi-digested by civet cats, goes back 200 years to Dutch-colonised Indonesia. The native coffee farmers were forbidden from consuming the produce they picked, but discovered some undigested beans in civet dung. Curious, they cleaned and roasted the beans to brew a milder, smoother and (jokes aside) more fragrant alternative. The flavour is derived from the way the enzymes in the animal’s stomach acid break down the protein in the beans, eradicating bitterness and refining the subtle notes.
Fast forward two centuries and a rise in disposable income and a boom in coffee consumption have gone hand in hand, along with the popularity of civet-processed coffee. Considered a rare delicacy, the average retail price per kilo is US$500. In Indonesia, the same kilo means around US$15 for the farmer, compared to a kilo of regular coffee beans for US$1.5.
As the industry grew more lucrative the production methods turned ugly. The high prices have led to horrifying cases of mass production, where battery-caged civets are fed nothing but coffee beans, leading to short, miserable lives. Counterfeit civet coffee is widely peddled to the world’s top hotels and affluent coffee drinkers. Fifty to 70 percent of kopi luwak is fake, according to Dr Massimo Marcone of the University of Guelph, considered to be an expert on kopi luwak.
Last year Tony Wild, a former kopi luwak trader, was at the forefront of a media exposé revealing the murky side of the industry. The campaign gained ground and hotel groups, including The Mandarin Oriental and The Four Seasons, banned farmed kopi luwak from their menus.
Now a number of ethically minded young entrepreneurs are adding their voices to the fray, finding alternative ways to harvest animal-processed coffee and proving that luxury can still be ethical.
Thirty-six-year-old British-born Matthew Ross is one such pioneer of sustainable kopi luwak. As a former Goldman Sachs banker he used to frequent Michelin-starred restaurants but was always disappointed with the end-of-meal coffee.
“My light-bulb moment was after a 22-course degustation menu in Tokyo. The food was incredible but we finished with a US$2 espresso. ‘Why can you never end a great meal on a delicacy?’ I thought.” Ross began research and, along with two partners, pooled around US$500,000, quit his city job to set up a sustainable production line in Indonesia.
Sijahtra was thus born, a company employing poor farmers to collect coffee beans from wild civet dung in the remote mountains of Aceh in Indonesia. From his outpost in the village, Ross has whittled a group of 34 trusted suppliers from more than double that amount. He admits establishing trust was the hardest part. “Some brought us beans they had rolled in civet dung or mud. But after two years we can tell the difference.” Sijahtra’s guarantees are based on what he calls a meticulous monitoring of the collection process and the payment of substantial premium to kopi luwak farmers for the genuine article to reward honesty. They also impose production quotas so that the temptation to fake wild civet beans is reduced. Sijahtra is now the only kopi luwak coffee sold at Harrods. Packaged in a sleek black walnut case, the roasted beans have a price tag of £2,000 per kilo.
Sijahtra’s efforts are part of a wider campaign it calls Just Trade — a drive to help farmers through community aid, as well as a cut of the sales each month. “We call it Just Trade as we just want to just get on with it, and we think it is justice,” says Ross. “We bought one farmer a motorbike; we fixed another one’s roof; if one of them needs food we will help, even if they haven’t fulfilled their quota,” he adds.
Sijahtra’s farmers get paid five percent of the price of the coffee, which can be up to US$300 a month. “This is 10 times what anyone else is paying them,” says Ross. “We believe the system of ‘Fair Trade’ is broken; the farmers get paid a pitiful fraction of what the large producers make, which misleads consumers too. We are trying to fix it, step by step.”
Bespoke Beverages, co-founded by former diamond-dealer Richard Hardwick and native Indonesian Ade Makmursyah, is another sustainable coffee evangelist. The firm produces between 900–1,200 kilos a year priced at an eye-watering US$50,000 a kilo or around US$525 a cup, although it is only available through referral and private tastings. Hardwick says it is considered a price worth paying among the world’s wealthiest and fussiest coffee drinkers. “I remember a well-known Italian fashion designer [who] insisted he wouldn’t drink our coffee as he only drank espresso. He hadn’t been in a good mood during the dinner but the rest of his table convinced him to try it. His face lit up, his eyes sparkled and with an enormous smile he said: ‘If I ever drank a coffee that wasn’t espresso, it would be this one.’”
Hardwick believes the key to cleaning up the industry is through three things: local education, better wages and a global and local regulator. Bespoke Beverages donates a percentage of profits every year to the Indonesian community. The firm provides educational bursaries, as well as coffee education courses for bean growers, and aims to contribute to the building of new schools in the region by 2015.
There are other ways of creating ethical animal-processed coffee, according to Blake Dinkin, a Canadian entrepreneur. Now, where Sijahtra uses civets, 44-year-old Dinkin has found a more scalable alternative: Thai rescue elephants. Dinkin is based in Thailand, deep in the jungles of the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation, a centre for 26 elephants that have been rescued from poor conditions. Through his firm Black Ivory Coffee, Dinkin sells around 200 kilos of elephant-processed coffee, contributing eight percent of sales to the foundation. Black Ivory Coffee sells for as much as US$50 a serving and US$1,500 a kilo. “Black Ivory Coffee is tea-like and has notes of chocolate, malt, hints of grass and spice without the burnt or bitter taste of regular coffee,” says Dinkin. He is also trying to help the local community by paying workers what he says is 15 times the average wage for coffee.
While awareness is no doubt spreading, sustainable producers admit they are small fry against the growth of caged kopi luwak production, which is finding increasing traction in east Asia, particularly among traditional tea-drinking cultures such as China. In the West, the industry can be cleaned up through education and press, reckons Wild, but the taste for kopi luwak in the East will be harder to constrain. “With regard to Asia, I’m not sure whether the precise origins of the coffee is regarded with importance — by some people, certainly, but many others don’t seem to mind.”
A crucial development will be the emergence of a third-party regulator. Wild, through his Kopi Luwak: Cut the Crap campaign has argued for an independent third-party certification initiative for genuine wild kopi luwak. If it proves viable, the scheme would encourage smallholder production of kopi luwak as opposed to the super-battery farms that are currently planned by some major players in the trade that would effectively cut smallholders out, according to Wild.
Only time will tell but, for now, chances are that your kopi luwak could be a bitter cup to swallow.