What is Luwak Coffee and is it Ethical?

musang, crawling cats, bali coffee-7393051.jpg

What is it?

Luwak coffee, known as weasel coffee, is considered the world’s most prestigious coffee and can be sold for as much as 300 USD for 200 grams on the Western market. It’s no wonder that it holds the Guinness World Record for the most expensive coffee.

By Praveenp – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0 (from Wikipedia)

So, what exactly is luwak coffee? Basically, it’s a type of coffee made from coffee beans that have been eaten, digested, and then excreted by a civet – no weasels involved (confusing, we know). A quick Wikipedia browse will tell you that civets are a family of mostly nocturnal wild cat species found in the tropical forests of Asia and Africa. As it happens, Southeast Asia is home to the widest species variety of civets. We’ll be using the term ‘civet’ rather than ‘weasel’ for the rest of this post.

And what do civets eat? Well, aside from small vertebrates and insects they also eat coffee berries – which nowadays is pretty unfortunate for them. How people figured out that you could drink wild civet poop-coffee, is something that we would rather be kept in the dark about.

How is luwak coffee made?

Civets eat coffee berries that contain the coffee bean. The animal’s gastric fluids are only able to break down and digest the pulp. This means that the bean itself is left untouched in its shell. The beans then get excreted in the form of a rectangular cluster that weirdly resembles a piece of tempeh.

The coffee farmers break the excreted shells, and because the beans are still intact inside, they’re ready for roasting and enjoying – that’s if you still can after reading this.

What makes civets particularly good coffee farmers (not that they have a say in the matter), is their ability to pick the ripest and juiciest coffee berries.

Should you boycott luwak coffee?

Well, that’s for you to decide, and not us. We’ll just lay out some more context.

Luwak Coffee Practices

Initially, farmers would collect the civet dung in the wild. As you can imagine, scouring the rainforest floor looking for poop is a pretty arduous and time-consuming job. This is before they even get around to extracting the coffee. Basically, it’s far from cost and time-efficient for the farmers.

You can guess what happened next. As kopi luwak grew in popularity, civet farms started to emerge and things went downhill from there.

Current Reality

Nowadays, civets are often kept in small and unsanitary cages. Their varied, nutritious diet of small vertebrates and insects has been scrapped and reduced to only coffee berries. Sadly, many civets are driven insane from being kept in this kind of condition for such a long time. You can see it yourself in this PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) video.

Warning: it’s not an easy watch. And all of this for an extortionately priced pack of coffee. 

The inhumane conditions have raised many widely voiced criticisms, to the point where farmers are now insisting that animal welfare practices are in place. To be honest, we’re skeptical about this. On our tour, we were told that civets were released back into the wild after two weeks. Like the luwak coffee, we didn’t buy it. A quick trip into the rainforest to capture a civet, bring it back to a farm, harvest its poop for a couple weeks, and then release it? Unlikely. Personally, we think this was just a made-up ‘animal welfare practice’ to help improve the bad reputation that this coffee is getting. 

Tours to luwak kopi farms are included in packages, however they are not always mentioned in the itinerary which was the case with us when we hiked Mount Batur. It meant that we saw the civets up close and, to be honest, we think the civets had long outstayed their two week welcome. There was a sense of resignation in their behaviour; one of growing accustomed to their environment. This is unusual for an animal that’s supposedly been so recently plucked out of its environment.

The evidence

We’re no zoologists and don’t claim to be. Of course, these are just our opinions. But there’s a fair amount of evidence to back them up.

In fact, these practices have been under scrutiny for quite some time. Many retailers still advertise their product as cage-free; however , this 2013 BBC investigation found otherwise. And if that alone wasn’t enough, a recent study conducted in Bali and published in January 2023 deemed these farms as unethical and found the living conditions of the animals inadequate. 

We strongly suggest you check out this thorough article by National Geographic .

What can we do?

Regardless of the ethics surrounding this practice, we understand that there are farmers who have incomes that are dependent on it. Our suggestion (and a choice that we consciously make) is to buy locally produced, organic Balinese coffee. It’s delicious, sustainable, and supports local coffee farmers. Civets aren’t exploited, and you’re saving money too.

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