Not just a distilled load of crap
DENPASAR, HANOI––A vogue for pricy civet coffee has brought the civet farming industry back perhaps bigger than ever––and certainly in many more places, more than a decade after China tried to bring civet farming to an end.
“Liquid speed kills”
China banned civet farming in 2004 because of the association of civet consumption with more than 800 human deaths from Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS).
But that was when civets were farmed almost exclusively for musk and meat, before civet coffee reached upscale coffee bistros catering to western tourists and spread from there to western venues.
Sold to coffee snobs as kopi luwak, the Indonesian word for it, or coffee alamid, as it is called in the Philippines, civet coffee is brewed from the beans that civets excrete after eating coffee berries, one of their favorite foods. Civet coffee is by reputation stronger and usually more aromatic than most coffees.
“Tainted by more than just anal glands”
But, as Patrick Winn of Global Post pointed out on March 21, 2016, “Kopi luwak is tainted by more than a furry animal’s anal glands. Just as off-putting is its cruelty. 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.
Civet traps, Gauntlett told Winn, “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.”
Civets are also sometimes caught with steel-jawed leghold traps, which according to Gauntlett sometimes sever the civets’ paws.
“Similar to foie gras”
“The suffering doesn’t end there,” continued Winn. “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.”
Assessed Winn, “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.”
The rich & jaded
Collecting and salvaging the excreted beans from wild civets is so laborious that civet coffee, known for centuries, has historically been so costly to produce as to be consumed only in small amounts by the very rich and jaded. But civet farming in coffee-growing country has brought civet coffee within occasional reach of the merely affluent––at prices of from $50 to $100 a cup.
Summarized Winn, “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,” author of Coffee: A Dark History, “to start campaigning against it. He began publicly denouncing the ‘cruel, fraudulent’ trade in 2013,” founding an organization called Kopi Luwak: Cut the Crap.
Wrote Wild for The Guardian in September 2014, “The story of kopi luwak has a certain repulsive charm. A shy cat-like wild creature wanders out of the Sumatran jungle at night onto a coffee plantation and selects only the finest, ripest coffee cherries to eat. Only it can’t digest the stones (the coffee bean), and craps them out, its anal glands imparting an elusive musky smoothness to the resultant roasted coffee.
“And when, as coffee director of Taylors of Harrogate,” Wild admitted, “I first brought a small amount of kopi luwak to the west in 1991, that repulsive charm worked wonders with the press and public. My kilo of luwak beans caused a stir wherever I took it.
“But the charm has now evaporated, and the only thing left is the repulsive.”
But Wild does not oppose the civet coffee industry altogether. Instead, Wild explained in his Guardian essay, he favors “the creation of an independent certification scheme for genuine, wild kopi luwak.“
Unfortuately, the continued existence of a wild civet coffee industry and the existence of some free-range civet farms, selling civet coffee at up to $2,500 per kilo, allows consumers to believe that the civet coffee they drink is not factory farmed, that the civets who ingest and excrete the beans will not eventually be sold to slaughter at live markets, and that their pelts will not go into the fur trade.
Sometimes this may be true. As the civet coffee industry grows, however, and competition for the fast-expanding market increases, consumers have less and less way to be sure of knowing exactly where their beans have been.
Animals Asia Foundation
Recalled Animals Asia Foundation founder Jill Robinson, in a November 2010 posting to the Asia Animal Protection Network, “Someone sent me a packet of civet coffee beans last year. Our then-animal welfare director Mark Jones, now with Care For the Wild, kindly did some research.”
The company that sold the civet coffee beans “claimed to use only beans collected from wild civets, and that most of the profits go to a civet conservation project in Vietnam. Naturally this causes concern,” Robinson said, “that others less ethical might cash in on the established market and farm the civets.”
Which had already occurred.
The Animals Asia Foundation today advises would-be visitors to Vietnam, “So-called “weasel coffee” is advertised for sale in many cafes in city tourist areas. In reality the product is more likely produced from civet cats…Of course, much of the coffee being marketed as “weasel coffee” is in fact nothing more than ordinary coffee beans with a picture of a weasel or a civet on the front. Vietnam has great coffee. You’d be pretty dumb to drink civet poo.”
“Growing demand is fueling a gold rush in the Philippines and Indonesia,” reported New York Times correspondent Norimtsu Onishi in April 2010, and the rush appears to have accelerated since then, as wild civets become fewer.
“Harvesters are scouring forest floors in the Philippines,” Onishi wrote. “In Indonesia, where the coffee has a long history, enterprising individuals are capturing civets and setting up mini-farms.”
Civet dung collectors Alberto Patog, 60, and his son, Lambert, 20, of the Cordillera district in the Philippines, “wished they could expand their business but said there were not enough civets around,” Onishi recounted. “Local residents still prize civets less for coffee-picking ability than for meat.”
Civet farming boom
The Patogs were then among about 20 collectors who sold the defecated coffee beans they find to Vie Reyes of Manila, who founded her company, Bote Central, in 2002. Reyes told Onishi that she only buys coffee beans from wild civets, but that limits her ability to compete to fill the rising demand–and leaves more market share to the fast-expanding farmers.
Sumatran civet farmer Mega Kurniawan, then 28, in business just two years, already had 102 civets at three locations when Onishi visited. Each civet produces just over five pounds of “processed” coffee beans per month.
“During the day,” Onishi wrote, “Kurniawan’s civets sleep inside small wooden cages before growing active at dusk. At night, the animals eat from fresh plates of coffee cherries, replenished every two hours, or pace at a brisk caffeinated clip.”
Increasing the poop output
A neighbor, Ujang Suryana, 62, “has found a way to increase the civets’ output exponentially by mechanically stripping the coffee beans from the cherries and mixing them in a banana mash,” Onishi continued. “The civets gobble it up. This way, no beans are wasted. He has raised their dung production from 2.2 pounds a week to a whopping 6.6 pounds a day.”
The Association of Indonesian Coffee Luwak Farmers, formed in 2009, does not appear to work with any recognized humane organization to maintain high animal care standards, but does try to counter growing concern–including elsewhere in Southeast Asia–that civet coffee farms are operating like civet meat and fur farms.
“On our Sumatran civet farm, located in Lampung province, civets are kept in cages at night but allowed to roam protected courtyards during the day, where they can forage for coffee beans hidden for them to find by the farmers,” asserts the Vietnamese coffee company Trung Nguyen, describing the inverse of the normal activity cycle of civets, normally a nocturnal species.
“The farmer selects beans for the civet to eat,” Trung Nguyen continues. “The civets become quite tame and can be handled and accept treats from their caretaker’s hands. Their population is preserved by the farm’s breeding programs.”
Trung Nguyen also sells Bantai civet coffee.
“This environmentally and ethically sound coffee comes from the Julia Campbell Agro-Forest Memorial Park in the Philippines,” the Trung Nguyen web site says. “The park shelters the rare Philippines civet,” Paradoxorus Philippinensis, “and is also home to native people who live in communion with the civets and their forest…Coffee civets live in an organic preserve and no non-organic coffee grows within their range.”
That all sounds good to people who don’t ask more than the most trendy questions.
“Every street corner”
Though Trung Nguyen courts expanded sales abroad, the company primarily produces for domestic consumption–and Vietnamese consumers get a different brew.
In Hanoi, “Trung Nguyen Weasel Coffee sells on every street corner,” reports Kairos Coalition founder Robert Lucius, doing humane and environmental education in Vietnam since 2010.
“My sense is that it is more of a label than the actual product of civets,” Lucius added. “Friends told me civet coffee was available in Hanoi,” but Lucius himself had not actually seen any.
“The price for Trung Nguyen’s version certainly belies its rarity,” Lucius observed.
Synthetic civet coffee
According to the web site PoopCoffee.com, “The Trung Nguyen Coffee Company hired a German scientist to research the chemical processes that occur in the civet’s stomach. In 1996 scientists were able to isolate six specific digestive enzymes and then use these enzymes to create a synthetic soak known as Legendee, which they patented. Two varieties of Legendee coffee are offered. Legendee Gold simulates civet coffee from Arabica coffee beans. Legendee Classic simulates the civet coffee that comes from a mix of coffee bean varietals including Arabica, Robusta, Liberica, and Excelsa.
“Other companies market other products that are sold as simulated civet coffee,” PoopCoffee.com continues. “Some of these are created by adding flavorings to coffee beans. Several other animals besides civets have been used to produce this type of coffee. One animal used in Malaysia and Indonesia is the barking deer,” or muntjac. Coffee produced by gathering beans from muntjac droppings is known as kopi muntjak or kopi muncak. Virtually all kopi muntjak is gathered in the wild.”
Factory civet farms
Despite civet coffee industry efforts to promote the images of beans collected from the wild and tame civets who eat from farmers’ hands, contrary observations are frequent.
“The Bali Animal Welfare Association received two reports this week,” BAWA founder Janice Girardi e-mailed in November 2010, “from tourists who were taken on buses to coffee houses here in Bali that not only served kopi luwak but had cages where civets were kept just for viewing. The tourists were upset that the cages were too small and the animals obviously distressed.”
Photographer Kemal Jufri illustrated Onishi’s New York Times article with a close-up of a miserable-looking civet standing on a wire floored cage on the second floor of a grim structure resembling a prison.
“Civilized eating habits”
This was the reality of civet farming that the Chinese federal health ministry addressed on November 2, 2004, banning the slaughter and cooking of civets for human consumption to promote “civilized eating habits,” the state-run Beijing Daily reported.
About 10,000 captive civets were slaughtered, beginning 10 days after the health ministry received data showing that 70% of the captive civets in Guangdong province had tested positive for SARS. Wild civets appeared to be unaffected. Though horseshoe bats rather than civets are believed to be the host species for SARS, and the captive civets were apparently infected by human contact, civets are capable of transmitting SARS back to people.
Civet farming continued
The Chinese prohibition of civet consumption was stringently enforced for several years in Guangdong. Seven thousand health inspectors in January 2007 visited 10,000 Guangdong restaurants, finding just one live civet and several frozen civet carcasses.
But Guangzhou Forestry Public Security Bureau commissar Chen Xibiao alleged to Ivan Zhai of the South China Morning Post that civet farming continued in Hubei and Shanxi provinces, to the north.
As the Chinese government has encouraged rapid expansion of the coffee industry in Yunnan, to the southwest, there is the possibility that civet coffee could eventually be produced in China as a lucrative export product––and a strong likelihood that if China entered the civet coffee industry, the Chinese product would soon be priced low enough to drive most of the competition out of the market.
Amid the SARS crisis, then-U.S. Health & Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson in mid-2004 halted imports of either live or dead civets, plus civet parts, such as civet pelts, but exempted products “processed to render them noninfectious.”
Though this exemption allowed the import of civet coffee, the purpose of it was apparently to allow continued imports of finished civet fur garments.
Civet fur hit the U.S. and European markets in abundance in fall 2003, coinciding with the Chinese civet ranching boom that preceded the SARS pandemic.
As the connection between SARS and civets emerged, the fur was said to be from “Lipi cats” and “genottes,” the French and Italian spelling of “genet.” Taxonomists recognize genets and civets as different branches of a closely related family.
Meat and fur sales are secondary revenue sources for civet coffee producers.
“Civets will be exploited”
“Because civet coffee pulls in money, I imagine civets will be exploited to get it,” opined Primates for Primates founder Lynette Shanley from Australia, where civet coffee has come into vogue among trendy thrill-seekers. “But realistically civet coffee is very expensive, so I think that will stop it from becoming an everyday luxury item. Civet coffee will only appeal to some, and then even among those who can afford it once in a while there will be people who find it revolting, as it has been through the civets’ digestive tracts. Hopefully,” Shanley said, “civet coffee will be a short-lived trend.”
But civet coffee has already been around for a while.
Willie & the Pope
“Give me an ounce of civet, good apothecary, to sweeten my imagination: there’s money for thee.” ––William Shakespeare, King Lear
History does not record precisely whether William Shakespeare was familiar with coffee, let alone civet coffee, but the passage appears to describe taking a substance to be ingested, unlike other common civet products and byproducts.
Shakespeare wrote King Lear between 1603 and 1606, soon after Pope Clement VIII in 1600 refused to condemn coffee as a “bitter invention of Satan,” and instead recommended that, “We should cheat the devil by baptizing it.”
Long known in Asia
Civet coffee had already long been known in Asia. The same traders who popularized civet musk perfumes in Shakespeare’s time were introducing coffee throughout Europe. The first British coffee house whose existence is recorded would not open for another 40 years, but Shakespeare moved among the intellectual avant garde who would become known as “coffee house society,” and paid rapt attention to whatever was said to be fashionable in Italy, the setting of many of his most famous plays.
Dutch traders had begun importing coffee from Java by 1603, when the first Dutch/Malay dictionary was printed in The Netherlands. The Dutch went on to rule most of Indonesia from circa 1650 to 1950.
Rudy Widjaja, 68, whose family has operated the Warung Tinggi coffee store in Jakarta since 1881, told Onishi of The New York Times that civet coffee was popular with the Dutch, and with the Japanese troops who occupied Indonesia during World War II.
After that, though, Warung Tinggi did not again sell civet coffee until 2007.