The first thing you need to know about cat poop coffee is that it’s not really cat poop. It’s civet poop. Civets are, according to Wikipedia, “cat-like creatures.” To me they look more like possums. I leave it to you whether this distinction makes the notion of drinking coffee brewed from the beans excreted with their feces (cleaned first!) more or less appetizing.
The second thing you need to know is that this story is going to take a couple of dark and unexpected turns. This jocular tone I’m taking is really gallows humor because cat poop coffee has zero redeeming qualities once you get past the gimmicky name.
Cat poop coffee, as I’ve indicated, is a gross misnomer. Most of the coffee is produced in Indonesia, where it’s known as kopi luwak. “Kopi” means coffee and “luwak” is the Indonesia word for the Asian Palm Civet (that eponymous “cat”).
Coffee is a pretty big deal in Indonesia (Java, Sumatra—all Indonesian islands) and was definitely a big deal during the days of colonization. Here’s where things start to turn shitty (I’m sorry…I can’t help myself).
So the Dutch came in to colonize the area—the Dutch West Indes—and forbade the native Indonesians who worked on the plantations from harvesting any of the coffee crops for their own consumption. Greedy European colonizers… nothing new here.
But, the inventive and evidently caffeine-dependent Sumatrans discovered that the civets ate the coffee beans in large quantities, mostly for the fleshy fruit around it, and then pooped out the seed bit in the middle—what we think of when we think coffee bean, also called the cherry.
After some THOROUGH washing (emphasis optimistically mine), the Sumatrans roasted and brewed the civet shit leavings and were delighted to discover that the resulting coffee was… coffeeish.
The poop coffee is less acidic and smoother, allegedly. There are two schools of thought as to why the civet shit coffee is so “good.” 1) The civets have discerning taste and choose only the best beans to eat and 2) the digestive process strips away some of the acidity. Something about peptides. So this new, thin, low-acid coffee really started to take off and the kopi luwak became somewhat of a rare delicacy.
Word spread among the locals and it eventually got back to the Dutch plantation owners and then cat poop coffee was all the rage around the world. At the time, because the process depended on waiting for civets to drop loads, the coffee was really expensive. Now, despite dramatically different harvesting techniques, kopi luwak still isn’t cheap, about $150 per pound.
According to coffee tasting experts, kopi luwak tastes like shit. And not in an exciting, this-coffee-literally-tastes-like-feces sort of way, but in a much less dramatic, bad, boring, old, stale coffee way. Stripping away all the acidity, and peptides or whatever, means you’re left with coffee that has no body or depth or complexity. On taste tests, kopi luwak consistently ranks at the bottom, like a couple points lower than the next worst one.
And yet, people can’t get enough. The demand stays strong because of the novelty. Like the cricket lollipops at Spencers Gifts or pickled duck fetuses, people love to try novel, exotic foods. Doesn’t matter if it’s extremely bad-tasting, or has a shady moral past, and a present rife with animal cruelty (oh yes, I’m about to get into that too). People want to try it so they can tick it off their life Bingo sheet and say “I did that once.”
Let me take this opportunity to veer off on a wild and mostly irrelevant tangent: I totally understand and relate to that instinct of curiousity. I want to be open to everything and experience everything and fill in every square on my life Bingo sheet. I love learning brand new things and accumulating experiences. This is the only chance at Earth that you’re going to get, and it’s not like the secrets of Tasmania or Fiji or Bali or the Badlands of South Dakota are going to reveal themselves to you after you die. So if you want to see those awesome flat-bottomed boats in Cambodia or Hadrian’s wall for yourself, you have to go there and see them.
There’s this other instinct, though, that I think is muddying people’s wanderlust. Somewhere near the joy you feel when collecting experiences is the pride you feel about the collection, not the experiences themselves. The Mona Lisa is covered by plexiglass, surrounded by a railing with a five foot perimeter, in a room packed with tourists being held back by nylon stanchions, each one of them holding their cell phone high above their head to document… what, exactly? The experience of seeing the Mona Lisa has been far removed from aesthetic pleasure, or even historic awe (da Vinci touched that, y’all!). Generally speaking, all those tourists using cell phone cameras aren’t there to document the Mona Lisa; they’re there to document having seen the Mona Lisa. There’s a consensus that visiting the Louvre and seeing the Mona Lisa adds intrinsic value to the collection of your experiences; and where else to assess the value of your life if not the collection of your experiences?
David Sedaris and Ira Glass walked around Paris for an old This American Life episode and David Sedaris explained why he’d never visited the Louvre or Notre Dame before. He hates the notion of visiting a place just because someone else told you that you should. David Sedaris never went to the Louvre when he lived in Paris because he doesn’t like art museums, and the experience of standing around looking at art isn’t meaningful to him, and had no place in his collection. Why not fill your life with experiences that are personally meaningful to you, instead of what is culturally agreed upon? Maybe that includes catching a blurry glimpse of the Mona Lisa from 15 feet away surrounded by sweaty foreigners, but it probably doesn’t.
The value that society places on your collection of experiences as a way to measure status is being made worse by social media sharing. Obviously, I’m part of the problem. I write about my personal experiences, I shoot photos. As much as I enjoy the process of creating, I also love the validating feeling of having been seen and understood. I see this thing you’ve created; I relate to it; I understand you. It’s a powerful thing.
That being said, when we create visible evidence of our life collections, we’re inviting judgment and comparison. It’s not all bad. Comparing your life to others can sometimes be inspiring, or motivating, or a giant relief (I’m not the only one who does that, that looks awesome, I want to try that, I’m so grateful I avoided that mistake, etc.).
But it can be toxic, too. I try to be conscious of that nasty impulse to one-up or brag. I try to share my experiences in the spirit of artistic value or connectedness, not so that you’ll have the chance to see how interesting and better-than-yours my life is. There is an epidemic of capturing evidence of our experiences simply for the purpose of proving to others that we had them. And I think that’s awful.
But I digress. Obviously. Back to cat poop coffee (remember that?).
To really end on a downer, the last thing you need to know about kopi luwak is the conditions that the civets now live in, as a result of the coffee’s mass appeal and production. Nobody has time anymore to follow a wild civet around, waiting for it to poop, so the animals are captured, bred, and kept in horrific conditions, force fed coffee beans until they die or are killed. The conditions are so bad that they’ve warranted investigation by multiple organizations, and one conservation program in particular said that kopi luwak in particular was presenting a significant threat to the decline of the entire species population of civets. Yikes.
The priciest, most high-end, hipster varieties of kopi luwak claim that the beans drop from the buttholes of wild civets, or at least civets that are free to roam around a farm, because it maintains the assertion that the civets are free to select the best beans. But, like everything else, there are no real standards or regulations in place that enforce what constitutes wild-shat kopi luwak, or that protect the civets from being abused. From start to finish, the whole thing is pretty abhorrent.
And the coffee tastes like shit.