In both Britain and the United States, there has been a wave of activity over the ethical acceptability of the most expensive coffee in the world. It is suggested that by pandering to consumer tastes over a novelty product, the coffee trade is helping to perpetuate animal cruelty in certain parts of the world.
The coffee in question is Kopi Luwak, which can be translated as ‘cat coffee’. This is the product in which coffee ‘cherries’, the complete fruit of the coffee plant, are eaten by the palm civet cats of the far East, typically in Indonesia. The cats digest the cherries but excrete the inner beans, which are then roasted and brewed as any other coffee bean – some people say that the digestive process gives the coffee a distinctive taste.
Others say it tastes awful, but the story of the process is sufficiently unusual that every so often, a newspaper somewhere in the world comes across the product and produces a novelty feature on the subject of ‘cat-poo coffee’. The image of the coffee as ‘the rarest in the world’ has led to its high value – it can be sold for as much as, or more than, Jamaica Blue Mountain.
Although the coffee has for a long time been regarded as a novelty, it was for many years considered to be a relatively harmless one, in the belief that digested beans were gathered more by luck than judgment in the wild, or at least by farmers who knew where to look for the cat droppings.
However, there is now increasing disquiet about what has become effectively the factory-farming, or battery-farming, of civet cats.
The allegation is that farmers who have realised the high price of the coffee have begun capturing the civet cats from the wild and keeping them in tiny cages, allegedly force-feeding them coffee beans to produce the high-priced coffee.
It has been known for some years that some farmers in Indonesia had taken up some kind of ‘farming’ practice, but it was not realised until quite recently that such intensive small-cage processes were involved – one international newspaper has now reported on a typical small farmer keeping 102 civets and collecting 550 pounds of beans a month.
In Britain, the issue has been highlighted by Mike Haggerton, a coffee shop owner in Aberfoyle, who says that he has actually seen caged civets on a trip to coffee-growing regions, and who was upset to see Kopi Luwak coffee featured in recent speciality coffee events.
For the coffee still to be seen as a harmless novelty, he has said, directly contributes to more westerners thinking ‘hmm, let’s try that’, which in turn results in more animals losing their freedom by being caught and put in small cages for the rest of their lives.
“Members of the coffee trade who do not speak out are, by their silence, advocating Kopi Luwak,” he has said.
Elsewhere in the coffee trade, there has been support.
In the US, a Facebook group has been created to highlight the issue, and “to send a message to the coffee industry that Kopi Luwak coffee is unacceptable, tastes bad, does not serve the coffee farmer’s interest, distracts from the message of quality coffee, and that we condemn animal cruelty”.
In Britain, unrest among the coffee trade is certainly growing.
Typically, the craft roaster Steve Leighton of Has Bean in Stafford has said: “We bought 20 kilos of it in 2003, and I’ve regretted it ever since. The farming thing doesn’t sound nice at all, and I do not condone any of that.”
The managing director of the London coffee importer Mercanta, Stephen Hurst, has said: “The stories are quite correct – I have seen these battery farms myself and do not agree with them.
“If there is now a movement against Kopi Luwak, it will be the result of ourselves and others mentioning this unpleasant practice. This coffee is a gimmick, and these poor animals need not be kept as chickens – but whenever someone is going to pay a ridiculous price for something, then abuses will arise.”
The latest aspect of the debate suggests that not all Kopi Luwak coffee is the product of battery farming. The Sea Island coffee company of London, which specialises in rare and exotic coffees, has said that all the ‘cat coffee’ it imports comes from beans collected in the wild, not from factory farms.
This news item from Boughton’s Coffee House, the trade news magazine for those who run coffee-houses and tea-rooms.http://www.coffee-house.org.uk