Civet coffee: why factory farms and questionable taste are a real turn off

Louisa Michel asks a leading expert to sample the world’s most expensive coffee – and looks at the cruelty involved  

Coffee is a serious business, especially when we are talking £50 for 100g. That is how much you would have paid for a small bag of premium civet coffee at Harrods earlier this year, before the product was withdrawn following a BBC investigation revealing the cruel truth behind the latest in caffeinated crazes.

Palm civets, sweet weasel-like creatures, are prized for their ability to seek out the ripest coffee cherries, digest the outer fruit casing and miraculously excrete the actual coffee stone – which eventually forms our treasured bean.

During the fermentation process in the civet’s stomach, much of the bitterness of the coffee is dissolved, leaving a desirably unique flavor and smooth taste.

Since featuring on the Oprah Winfrey Show and in the 2007 Jack Nicholson film The Bucket List, Civet Coffee, or Kopi Lowak as it is known in Indonesia, has surged in popularity.

Retailers market the product as ‘wild’ – that is, sourced directly from the jungle. In reality however, very little civet coffee available on the European and Asian market is actually harvested in natural conditions.

Recently however, undercover BBC reporters posing as buyers toured the private Sumatran estate supplying Harrods with exclusive beans supposedly foraged from free-roaming civets.

What they found was far from the idyllic description on the tin. Images emerged of cramped civets locked in filthy cages, fed on an unnatural diet of pure coffee cherries.

After viewing the BBC’s secretly recorded footage of caged civet cats, Dr Neil D’Cruze, of the World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA, said they appeared “absolutely depressed and miserable”.

Sadly this is not an isolated case. WSPA reports that it has seen widespread evidence of malnourished, diseased and stressed civets throughout the Kopi Luwak industry.

Paul Stephens is the Brighton-based Redroaster’s chief roaster and winner of the 2010 UK Coffee Tasting Award. Paul is also a ‘Licensed Q Grader’, accredited by the Quality Coffee Institute. As a Q Grader, he is qualified to grade samples of coffee submitted by coffee growers all over the world. I’ve come to talk to him about whether he thinks the fashion for feline faeces is really worth the fuss.

I’ve brought some wild civet coffee that an Ecostorm investigator sourced during a recent trip to Ache, Indonesia. Paul has tasted the notorious coffee once before, but has never had the opportunity to roast and grind it himself.

Talking me through the official coffee-tasting procedure, he explains how the flavours of a good bean must hit the palette like a fine wine. When I open my small bag of prized civet droppings, he immediately demonstrates his capacity to detect even the most subtle of scents.

“Can you smell the rubber?” he asks. I take a whiff, enjoying the earthy scent, but I confess I’m not getting anything unusual. Paul’s experienced nose however, is certain it can smell rubber. The beans have either been dried on tarmac or near a fire of burning tyres, he says.

We set about preparing the three simple fragrance tests, opening a bag of his best Sumatran so we can compare the civet stuff to with a coffee of similar origin.

Following the dry aroma test, Paul adds boiling water to release the underlying fragrances of both sets of beans. Finally after a patient four minutes of waiting for the coffee to brew, we wipe away the top layer of granules known as the crust, and sip.

I’m expecting fireworks, but to be honest I can’t taste much difference between the two. We hock back the coffee like wine tasters, swilling and spitting. It is smooth, nutty, and sweeter than Paul expected, but he’s obviously not that impressed.

Paul points to his current price list. Green (unroasted) civet coffee is currently wholesaling at £97 per kilo, that is £90 more than a kilo of this year’s best Kenyan arabica coffee.

Echoing the words of Tony Wild, former coffee trader and author of Coffee: A Dark History, Paul explains how continuing the myth that civet coffee is incredibly rare, the price can remain as inflated as the sellers want.

“It’s a con”, he states simply. “The ridiculously high price doesn’t account for the fact that it doesn’t taste as good as the top quality coffees on the market.

“Smell this”, he says, passing some freshly roasted Guatemalan grounds under my nose, “now this is good coffee!” It’s delicious, like berries and citrus, and chocolaty too. ‘Cup of Excellence’ is one of Redroaster’s best coffees, grown by Lucia Zelaya de Asension on her family farm in Sacatapequez, Antigua.

ith so much exquisite coffee available from every corner of the globe, campaigners encourage us to make the obvious choice. By drinking quality beans grown with care, you can support small-scale farmers like Lucia without the need for any animal to suffer in the making of your cuppa.

For more about Paul Stephens, Redroaster café and Redroastery visit: www.redroaster.co.uk

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