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The Hidden History Behind the $600 ‘Cat Poop’ Coffee

Kopi Luwak—or 'poop coffee'—is prized for its smooth flavor, but behind that steaming cup hides a complicated history and dubious animal practices.

Deprived of the spoils of their own labor, 19th-century farmers in Indonesia found an innovative way to claim their fair share of coffee beans under the watchful gaze of the Dutch colonizers. Unbeknownst to the Dutch, the native Asian palm civet had been stealing and stashing a considerable collection of the crop. Following the sneaky cat-like critter through their plantations, the farmers meticulously recollected whole beans of the caffeinated contraband… straight from the droppings of this adorable mammal. Thus, the coffee, known as Kopi Luwak, was born and a century later named one of the most highly prized coffee products in the Western world.

Humanity’s initial discovery of the robust energizing beans we now consume daily was always inextricably linked to the animal kingdom. Legend has it that frisky goats in the horn of Africa munched the crisp red cherries of the coffee bush and became endowed with seemingly boundless energy. Thus, the initial idea of harnessing the power of the plant was seeded.

Today, we’re employing more innovative techniques involving the fermenting power of the civet gut biome to give our favorite beverage the right balance of flavor. But this unique process was “discovered” by unlikely sources centuries ago.

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How the Innovation of Indigenous Indonesian Farmers Created Kopi Luwak

During the 1600s, as Dutch colonizers seized power, Indonesia became one of the most abundant coffee producers in the world. Unfortunately, this was all at the expense of local farmers across the island nation. By the 1800s, Dutch rulers faced financial ruin and decided to remedy their situation by implementing “The Cultivation System.” Essentially this handed over all farming property and produce to the Dutch government or East India Trading Company, including the precious coffee beans that the previously land-owning farmers had grown to love.

Under this system, the farmers were to continue working their land, growing the Dutch-desired cash crops of sugar, coffee, and indigo. But now, instead of owning their products, they were obliged to turn every bean over to the government in exchange for a meager wage. Considering they now also had to pay rent to their “landlords,” this system was effectively a form of indentured servitude. Around this time, an unlikely hero, in the form of Luwak or Asian palm civet, gets involved.


Native to Indonesia, this narrow-nosed long-tailed weasel frequented farms eating a varied diet of insects, snakes, and apparently, coffee cherries. Lodged inside the animal’s waste products were seemingly whole and unaltered beans. They were then collected, cleaned, roasted, and brewed, allowing the farmers to enjoy the fruits of their labor without risk of reprimand from the ruling government. But the Dutch took notice of the farmer’s coffee habits over time, accusing them of violating the slave-like laws and “stealing” beans. After learning the civet-assisted process and sampling the coffee, they were stunned to discover that the brew was far superior to their own. Throughout the 20th century, the so-called poop coffee trade boomed. Wealthy Europeans paid top dollar for the sweeter, less acidic beans fermented in the intestinal tract of the weasel rather than the boring old “ferment-in-water” way.

Today, Kopi Luwak is sold for astronomical prices in the U.S. and Europe. At up to $600 per pound, it is easily one of the most expensive coffee products on the market. It’s still primarily produced in the islands of Indonesia, but the market has expanded into other native habitats of the Asian palm civet. On the chaotic streets of Vietnam and Cambodia and the hill country of Laos, you can find shops selling poop coffee–usually for under $2 a cup.

Ethical Concerns of Poop Coffee in the Modern World

Unfortunately, this story of human ingenuity in the face of oppression doesn’t have a happy ending. Today’s dollar-driven society has made this prized commodity an animal welfare nightmare. Where once local communities banded together to protect the civet, previously seen as a pest for raiding fruit-bearing farms, they now cage and force-feed the animals to ensure supply meets the high global demand for the product.

Rather than roaming free and scouring the plantation for the choicest beans, the Luwaks are confined to cages for their entire lives, often in egregious conditions, and fed any old coffee cherries lying around. Not only does this dramatically affect the taste of the coffee beans gathered, but this restrictive diet of only coffee cherries is detrimental to their health. It negatively affects the very gut biome that made the coffee beans superior in the first place.

Not to mention poop coffee fraud. The countries that produce Kopi Luwak have notoriously low wages, so the temptation to pass off regular old coffee beans as expensive civet beans is high.

What Exactly Makes Kopi Luwak so Prized?

The digestive enzymes present in the intestinal tract of the civet work to produce a less acidic, smoother cup of coffee. Connoisseurs claim notes of earthiness, musk, chocolate, and caramel. But this is only true when the civets are left to forage for beans of their own free will. The adorable animals seem to know which are the choicest beans by scent alone. This likely means the inferior beans produced today are unlike the novel tasty coffee pulled from weasel feces in the 1800s.

Coffee is one of the most heavily consumed beverages in the entire world. Some studies claim that up to 40% of the global population starts their day by brewing an aromatic cup of liquid energy. But few of us are swapping our daily beans with Southeast Asian poop coffee. And that might be a good thing for the longevity of the Palm Civet as a species. And not just with the civet.

Black Ivory Coffee Company in Thailand has copied the methodology and begun to use the gut biome of elephants to ferment the cherries. This product has quickly risen to claim the title of most expensive coffee in the world at nearly $2,000 per kilogram. This expansion of using other animals in the coffee trade highlights the importance of ethics in the industry. Those of us eager to try this delicacy should only purchase products from “wild” farms and only then with diligent research to confirm the animals are roaming free of their own volition, indulging in only the choicest beans and getting a natural and varied diet.