Every day, around 2 billion cups of coffee are consumed worldwide, making it one of the most popular beverages globally. And while many beverages might not be suitable for vegans, coffee in its purest form – minus creams, milks and other questionable additions – is absolutely suitable for a vegan diet. But what about Kopi luwak, the very rare, very valuable ‘civet coffee’?
Given the chequered past of Kopi luwak, not to mention the murkiness of its present-day production, it’s safe to say that Kopi luwak is not suitable for a vegan diet.
Kopi luwak, famed for its novelty and rarity, has been the subject of increasing scrutiny in recent years. Claims of animal cruelty and exploitation have been leveled at producers of kopi luwak, going directly against the very essence of what it means to be vegan.
What is Kopi luwak?
Kopi luwak is an incredibly rare specialty coffee made from partially digested coffee beans which are collected from the excretions of the Asian palm civet – a weasel-like creature native to Africa and Asia.
Palm civets, whose diet is primarily made up of insects, small reptiles, and various fruits, produce these beans by eating coffee cherries, the fruit of the coffee plant containing the coffee bean.
When palm civets eat these coffee cherries, the proteins in the coffee bean are altered by the palm civets’ digestive enzymes. Kopi luwak enthusiasts believe this process removes the acidity from the coffee beans and results in a smoother cup of coffee.
Today, kopi luwak is one of the most sought-after gourmet coffees in the world. With a single cup of kopi luwak commanding prices of up to US$80, it is perhaps not surprising that a highly lucrative trade has opened up around this rare coffee bean.
How is Kopi luwak produced?
Kopi luwak is most closely associated with Indonesia, where it was originally discovered by Indonesian farmers in the 19th Century. The name kopi luwak, which literally translates as “coffee civet”, also comes from the Indonesian language.
Today, many of the plantations that produce kopi luwak are still based in Indonesia. However, modern production of kopi luwak is a far cry from its sustainably foraged, wild-sourced origins.
With an increasing number of coffee drinkers attracted to kopi luwak by its rarity and novelty, larger scale, commercial kopi luwak plantations have begun operation.
Enticed by the prospect of maximizing production of this premium, high-value product, kopi luwak plantation owners now catch and keep wild palm civets in wire-caged enclosures. Once in captivity, these palm civets are exclusively fed on coffee cherries, and the plantations harvest the resulting coffee beans.
Animal welfare groups who have examined the living conditions of these captive palm civets have found the situation to be, at best, disturbing. These plantations have also been the focus of activist groups such as PETA, who call for bans on the sale of kopi luwak.
As well as keeping the palm civets confined to small, unhygienic enclosures, plantation owners are likely to be damaging the health of these animals by only feeding them coffee cherries. Wild palm civets usually have a very diverse diet and are a key player in their native food chains.
In addition, it is also thought that commercially-produced kopi luwak is an inferior product to wild-sourced kopi luwak. As wild palm civets only consume the choicest coffee cherries when in their natural habitat, the indiscriminate feeding of captive palm civets with substandard coffee cherries is having a negative impact on the quality of the beans produced by these operations.
Why should we be concerned about Kopi luwak?
Considering that the very heart of veganism is about excluding and avoiding the exploitation of animals, it is clear that the modern-day production of kopi luwak exists in direct opposition to this ideal.
However, as long as kopi luwak remains a novelty, demand will still exist and kopi luwak plantations will continue to capture and use wild palm civets for their own gain.
But what about ‘wild-sourced’ kopi luwak?
Given the lack of transparency and regulation around the civet coffee trade, consumers can never be completely certain that the kopi luwak beans they are buying are truly wild-sourced.
Investigations by PETA Asia have discovered evidence of plantations deliberately and deceptively labeling their products as ‘wild-sourced’ when in reality these products have come from captive palm civets.
For anyone who is concerned about the wanton suffering of wild animals, Kopi luwak is a highly controversial product and should be avoided.