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Kopi Luwak - The World's Most Expensive Coffee

19 May 2017

To truly appreciate the history of Kopi Luwak, you need to have an understanding of the general history of coffee in Indonesia and the socio-economic structure that existed at the time within the Dutch colony of Batavia -  today, the capital city of Jakarta.

 

In 1696, the Dutch governor of Malabar sent the first Coffea arabica coffee plants to the Dutch governor of Batavia as a goodwill gesture. Due to flooding in Batavia at the time, these seedlings failed but a second shipment of seedlings was again sent as a gift in 1699. Unlike the first plants, these took took to the soil and, in time, bore generous fruits and could be harvested for export. Java's first shipment of coffee was sent to Europe by the Dutch East India Company (widely referred to by their Dutch acronym, VOC) in 1711. A mere six years later, by 1717, over 2,000 pounds of coffee was was being shipped to Europe. By this time coffee was widely cultivated in the region and the Dutch had established themselves as the most important coffee supplier in the world.

 

In 1830, with Dutch finances suffering as a result of their involvement in the Java and Padri wars, the outbreak of the Belgian Revolution was a swift blow to the nation's already-dwindling resources. A new governor general, Johannes van den Bosch, was appointed to the Dutch East Indies in order to increase exploitation of the colony's natural resources. Under a governmental policy known as 'Cultuurstelsel', a cultivation system in which 20% of village land was to be devoted to export crops, coffee, sugar, and indigo were delivered to government warehouses instead of taxes. Alternatively, peasants or those not appearing on village rosters had to work in government-owned plantations for 60 days of the year.

 

This proved to be extremely profitable for the the VOC and for the government of the Dutch East Indies. At the start of the 18th century, the coffee that shipped from Batavia sold for 3 Guilders per kilogram in Amsterdam. The average annual income in Holland at the time was between 200 and 400 Guilders so, by today's standards, this was equivalent to several hundred dollars per kilogram.

 

Averaging an export growth of approximately 14% within a year, the policy brought the Dutch and their Indonesian allies enormous wealth. As early as 1831, less than a year after implementation, the Netherlands had been brought back from the brink of bankruptcy and the Dutch East Indies were not only a self-sufficient enterprise but an extremely profitable endeavour.

The cultivation system, while immensely profitable for the Dutch,  was linked to widespread famine and epidemics for the local people. Prior to the implementation of Cultuurstelsel, the majority of villages relied on subsistence farming for survival and the diversion from rice cultivation to cash crops (for which they saw no return) caused a huge portion of the population to die of starvation and those that remained became desperate.

 

They observed the scat from the Asian Palm Civet, known locally as luwak, contained undigested beans and, with no other alternative available to them, the workers began to gather the droppings which were then cleaned and processed as regular coffee would be.  Forbidden from harvesting on lands designated under Cultuurstelsel and as possession appeared to be indicative of thievery, the Dutch overlords began questioning the natives as to where their coffee was coming from. It was explained that the Asian Palm Civet naturally selected only the ripest coffee cherries for consumption but then passed the bean intact. Demanding a cup be brewed as proof and tasted along side of those beans collected and processed on site, the aromatic qualities of Kopi Luwak soon caught the attention of growers. To their surprise, it was the preferred flavour profile.

 

Word spread throughout the region but, due to its rarity, demand outweighed supply and the price of coffee collected from civet scat began to soar. By the 20th century, kopi luwak, as it had come to be called, had attained legendary status among connoisseurs. It became, simultaneously the world's rarest and most expensive coffee. However, with the high prices and limited supply, the temptation to pass off regular coffee as coffee originating from the animal proved to be too much for many to resist. Fraud became rampant and led to decreased trust and interest tempered.

 

It wasn't until 1991 when Tony Wild,  the Coffee Director of Taylors of Harrogate in London, visited Indonesia that there was a resurgence of interest in kopi luwak. Remembering a paragraph he had read in a 1981 copy of National Geographic Magazine about its quirky origins, he sought out the coffee and brought a single kilogram home with him to the United Kingdom.

 

Conjuring images of plantation workers discovering a delicious secret and then spiriting animal droppings away as if they were gold, he thought the story might be of interest to the local media. 

 

Indeed, it was.

 

After appearing on an episode of the Oprah Winfrey show and being referenced in the film 'The Bucket List' kopi luwak was coined the 'holy grail of coffee' and was again on recognized, this time on a global scale. Demand for authentic kopi luwak proved so great that local natives began trapping the civet, keeping them confined to small cages and force-feeding them a diet that consists exclusively of coffee cherries. It didn't take long for PETA and other animal rights activist groups to catch wind of the cruelty associated with kopi luwak production methods. Numerous maltreatment campaigns emerged in order to educate consumers.

 

To his credit, none have been more vocal in the condemnation of the industry's maltreatment of Asian Palm Civets than Tony Wild himself, the man responsible fo re-introducing kopi luwak to the western world. Today, he urges consumers to avoid kopi luwak altogether though various governmental authorities and wildlife protection agencies have worked together to establish certification programs to encourage kopi luwak production from free-roaming wild civets.

 

Unfortunately, temptation has again proved too great for many producers and, during a recent PETA investigation, farmers openly admitted to labelling kopi luwak as 'wild sourced' when, in fact, the coffee was produced by caged animals.

 

It remains yet to be seen what the ultimate fate of the Asian Palm Civet will be but it one can only hope that more stringent certification measures are enforced and consumers insist on responsibly-sourced kopi luwak. Much like the foraged beans themselves, the alternative is difficult to stomach.

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