At first glance you might think a luwak (loo-wak) is just an unusually long cat. Maybe even a raccoon? Perhaps even an Australian possum. One that somehow snuck aboard a tampa to Indonesia and accidentally found itself a long way from home. But the Indonesian luwak is quite different to any of these creatures.
You see, this lithe-bodied, curious creature produces some of the rarest coffee in the world thanks to its love of eating coffee cherries. The beans pass through its digestive tract and presto, out pops a nugget of coffee. An average cup of ‘kopi luwak’ in Bali can set you back US$35 to US$80. The belief is that the digestive enzymes remove the acidity from the coffee beans, resulting in a smoother cup of joe.
The time and expense of farming these coffee beans, plus demand fed by millions of curious tourists visiting Indonesia each year, has helped drive up prices and support an unregulated industry with animal abuse at its centre. The reality is that if travellers saw how luwaks were being treated, they wouldn’t buy a cup, no matter how cute the packaging was.
Whether you enjoy a latte, long black, or old-fashioned espresso, here’s why you should give luwak coffee a miss.
1. It’s an abusive animal practice
In the wild, the luwak enjoys a rich and varied diet of insects, seeds and fruit – including papaya, pineapples and coffee. But coffee farming practices have created commercial luwak farms where the animals are forced onto a diet of coffee beans in order to maximise production. Restricting the luwak’s diet to coffee fruit also results in nutritional deficiencies, which can cause health problems.
Luwaks are also confined to cages for better use of space, and so camera-touting tourists can visit and watch them in action. The problem is that luwaks are naturally solitary creatures, and nocturnal. Holding them within close distance of each other, and keeping them awake during daylight hours for visitors, can cause them distress.
If the problem was isolated to a few wayward producers, then it might be case of some bad apples spoiling the barrel. But in 2016, researchers from Oxford University and the London-based World Animal Protection assessed the living conditions of nearly 50 wild luwaks held in cages at 16 plantations on Bali. The report highlighted the inadequate living conditions and negative impacts on luwaks as a result of caged commercial production.
The popularity of luwak coffee has also given rise to a variety of spin-off products that use other animals. like coffee beans produced from the poop of elephants, monkeys and even a variety of birds. By purchasing a cup of luwak coffee, you’re also validating the mistreatment of other animals in the industry too.
2. You’re not getting the real deal
What’s easier than buying a farm and force-feeding a luwak coffee cherries? Buying regular coffee beans and passing them off as a “premium” product! According to Nordic Coffee Culture, more than 80% of all coffee sold as Kopi Luwak today is fake. So that expensive coffee you’re drinking is likely to be just a warm cup of placebo.
Even if you did manage to track down some 100% authentic luwak poo, experts say that the commercial farming process creates an inferior product. Wild luwaks are able to pick and choose the best coffee cherries to eat, which results in only the best coffee beans being produced. It’s difficult to replicate that process at scale when you’re feeding luwaks any old coffee cherry.
3. Certified ethical coffee is hard to find
So really, all you need to do to enjoy an authentic cup of luwak coffee is to track down a bag of ethically produced, free-range luwak coffee, right? The truth is that finding certified products is a challenge. The odds are that the coffee you do buy is more likely to be from a caged plantation rather than a wild luwak operation. That’s not just in Indonesia, but around the world too. In 2013, a BBC undercover investigation revealed how coffee from caged luwaks held in inhumane conditions ends up labelled as wild luwak coffee in Europe.
Fortunately the Sustainable Agriculture Network (SAN), which the Rainforest Alliance and other well-known coffee certifiers use to issue their stamps of approval, banned coffee production from caged luwaks on its Indonesian farms in 2014. Similarly, UTZ Certified, the world’s leading label for sustainable coffee production, announced it will no longer certify producers using caged luwaks and other animals to produce coffee. This will hopefully put pressure on the luwak coffee industry to abolish abusive practices.
In the meantime, it allows customers to purchase luwak coffee from brands bearing Rainforest Alliance and UTZ certification with confidence, knowing that these companies aren’t profitting from trapping, caging and mistreating wild animals.
The hard part is just finding a certified bag of coffee. So next time you’re looking for a morning pick-me-up in Seminyak or Ubud, save your hassle and buy a cup of regular, locally sourced coffee instead.
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Feature image by Bhakpong (Shutterstock).