Shannon was expressing a longing that we teachers all feel, similar, perhaps, to the yearning our students must feel: the need to escape the confines of four walls and expand our world. This time the getaway would only comprise a walk to one of several coffee shops near our school campus in Shanghai, China. But the getaway promised to expand our world if, perhaps, in a minor and indulgent way.
Raw civet coffee. Photo courtesy of tisskananat/Shutterstock.
Coffee With A Side Of Controversy
Known as kopi luwak in Indonesia, where it originated, this coffee, made from beans that has been ingested and expelled by civets, was being featured at a new shop at the mall. The civet, long sought after as a producer of musk, has a new aura of exotica because their feces can make coffee even more delicious than its ordinary self, the vile becoming the delicious, a paradoxically scatological elixir. It wasn’t that the three of us really wanted to consume excrement – but we were intrigued. We wanted to consume the unusual, the bizarre. And being coffee lovers only spiked the curiosity.
“It’s controversial, you know,” Wessie told us as we walked across the campus, ignoring the unusually high pollution level that had transformed a blue Shanghai sky into a gray haze. “The animals are kept in small cages and forced to eat a lot of coffee berries.”
Later we found out that in many cases the civets are fed so many coffee berries that they chew on themselves and constantly pace back and forth in their solitary living space.
“They would eat the same thing in the wild, wouldn’t they?” thought Shannon out loud, and then, realizing that her question sounded like a defense of the force feeding, shifted her tone. “Of course, now it’s become something totally different.”
“It’s become a new consumerism,” said Wessie.
“And we’ve bought into it,” I added, thinking about the consumerism that had fueled the unprecedented spikes of pollution during the previous few weeks.
Kopi Luwak Coffee…is it ethical? Photo courtesy of Kunut Mahudthanaviroj/Shutterstock.
The Price Of Consumerism
We exited the campus, crossed the street, entered the mall, and soon arrived at the new shop, conveniently nestled next to another coffee establishment near the tree-lined canal. We scanned the menu, written on large tablets above the baristas, who seemed to eagerly await customers in a café that was empty despite the natural light streaming through the wall of windows, the warm wood of the simple tables, and the comfy invitation of the leather armchairs burnished by the mid-morning sunbeams. On the menu tablet to the left we read a list of commonplace offerings: cappuccinos, lattes, and the like. We were about to ask if these were the “special” drinks when our eyes fell upon the tablet to the right, which featured the special“Kafelaku” coffee, over twelve times the cost of the drinks listed on the other tablet.
“Is that for the coffee beans?” asked Wessie, like Shannon and I thinking that the equivalent of 45 U.S. dollars must be for a mass of beans.
“That’s for one cup,” said the female barista, surely having before been in the position of answering this question, as few could imagine that the price of a cup of coffee could be twenty times the cost of an average cup.
“This is expensive shit,” intoned Wessie, and we all laughed.
“We could share it,” said Shannon somewhat eagerly, this from someone who had lived on the margin of subsistence as an aid worker in Cambodia. Actually, all three of us had stretched a dollar at some point in our lives, made sacrifices for good causes. This, in contrast, would be like nonchalantly tossing a bundle of bills in the air for greedy animal abusers to collect.
“Yes,” said Ms. Barista cheerfully. “You can share it.” Mr. Barista nodded in eager agreement. They were very friendly. Too friendly, perhaps, their enthusiasm tinged with the desperation that the empty coffeehouse had likely induced.
With “Why not?” shrugs, our agreement to go ahead and try it became a swift and silent pact, a determination to live our dreams – well if not our dreams at least our frivolous whims. After each of us forked over a nice clean bill of an equivalent denomination, we looked at each other with an incredulous complicity, realizing we had really just spent a ridiculously large sum of money on a single cup of coffee.
There was no turning back.
The next step was to choose the setting for our little experiment in decadence. We decided upon a high wooden table in the middle of the empty café, and were promptly brought three glasses of water with which to cleanse our palates before, during, and after the tasting experience. Our enthusiastic barista consultant also told us she would be happy to bring us some regular espresso; we assumed this would provide a basis of comparison as we sipped the coffee that had been transformed by digestive juices.
“This has to be just this once, OK?” Wessie’s voice had an edge of urgency, vocalizing the guilt we were all feeling for acting so bourgeois.
We began talking about the animal abuse into which we were tapping, the forced feeding that transforms a fleet and nimble civet into a passive restrained creature, no longer a discriminating wild coffee cherry consumer but a slave whose raison d’etre was to serve as a processing machine for discriminating – or perhaps not-so-discriminating – coffee consumers.
Photo courtesy of My Good Images/Shutterstock
Civet Coffee: Origins & Science
Legend has it that the fermented beans, extracted from the feces of the Asian palm civet, became popular in Indonesia when local workers, forbidden to eat the coffee crop they were paid slave wages to harvest, picked them out of the droppings they found and took a liking to the fermented beans. Did workers try the beans out of curiosity, to see what all the fuss was about? Did they want to escape their workaday world to sample the leisure habits of the elite? Were these our own motives? But wait, the three of us were the elite, compared to most people in China, and we knew that someone else would have already scraped the poop off for us – probably today’s workers in Indonesia, most likely forbidden to try the precious beans, a handful of which would sell for the equivalent of their monthly wages.
The science of the civet -digested coffee beans, as I learned from later research, involves a civet’s digestive secretions seeping into the beans after ingestion. After that, however, the bean remains relatively undigested, its intact casing protecting the now-fermented bean from the nasty feces surrounding it. The malting process that transforms the bean does indeed affect its flavor by altering the protein structure and changing the volatile compounds of the bean. A difference in taste was proven by several blindfold tests – but the changed taste of the bean, primarily less bitter but nevertheless acidic, was not universally deemed more tasty by the coffee-sipping guinea pigs.
I thought of the coffee I’d known and loved. My favorite had always been Blue Mountain Jamaican, which, though the most costly coffee in the world when I first tried it in the 70s, was not outrageously expensive at the time. But was it the limited supply, the high cost, or the mystique that made it my favorite, or was it the actual taste? Whose coffers were I filling in those days, spending three dollars for a cup of coffee when the average price was fifty cents? And who was being exploited in Jamaica?
How ethical is your coffee? Photo courtesy of Dima Sobko/Shutterstock
I then recalled that I had once served coffee to point out the exploitation it represented in the Torajan communities of Indonesia. Required to lead a class discussion of an ethnography from the professor’s list, I had chosen Contentment and Suffering: Culture and Experience in Toraja. I had found the book full of ridiculous assumptions about the motives and emotional states of the Torajan community studied, and had learned that the authors had not even lived in the community.
I read many other books about the Torajas and realized that the coffee plantations for which most of the Torajas worked dominated their lives in many ways, and the omission of any mention of coffee in the book symbolized, to me, the lack of sociopolitical analysis in the ethnography. To prove my point, I peppered the room with printed quotes and questions and set up a table from which to serve Toraja coffee, to see if my graduate student comrades would also conclude that the authors had been blind to their subjects’ exploitation by the coffee plantation owners. The professor, however, was horrified at the thought of her students choosing their own discussion questions as they wandered around the room sipping coffee, so she cut short the discussion and ordered everyone to sit down.
The coffee sat in the corner getting as cold as the political questions that were never explored.
The Taste Test
My reveries about past coffee experiences were interrupted by the arrival of the male barista with a “Moka” pot, its empty glass receptacle above and water boiling in the glass chamber below, heated by licking blue flames. Mr. Barista’s cheerful explanation of the process reminded me of yet another former coffee life, when I lived in Tokyo and would splurge on gourmet coffee at the Gu Coffeeshop. The waiters always shouted a warm welcome as I passed the splendid ikebana displays near the entrance.
I loved watching Gu’s paraphernalia in action: the kettle with a long, thin neck that poured a concentrated stream of water, just the right temperature, onto the mound of freshly ground granules in the waiting filter. The steaming water would caress the grounds in a spiral pattern, oh so evenly, releasing the oils and coaxing the grounds into swelling up to form a bigger and bigger mound, a chocolate-colored hill of foamy bubbles. After the climactic rise, the mound would sink back down in a fragrant wave of coffee vapor.
“This is how the coffee smells,” said Mr. Barista, wafting it under our noses. Did it smell different from ordinary coffee? We thought it did. The two baristas explained the Moka brewing process as we watched the bubbles rise and the precious grains of ground coffee expanding as they absorbed the water.
At last, the taste test. I was first.
“It’s very acidic,” I said, surprised.
Wessie was next. “Too acidic.”
Shannon third. “It doesn’t have that much taste.”
By this time both baristas were shoulder to shoulder, peering at us, anxiously gauging each person’s response.
“Compare it to the regular espresso,” Ms. Barista urged, pointing to the little cups she had just set on the table. The espresso tasted acidic too, but in a different way.
Civets in a cage. Photo courtesy of My Good Images/Shutterstock
We continued to compare our reactions, passing the cup around as if it were a holy chalice, and after another two tastes we wanted to try it with hot milk. Eager to please, the baristas granted our request.
With milk, the coffee tasted much less acidic, distinctly different from other coffees. But worth the extra price? Hardly, the three of us agreed. Overly acidic when black and bland with milk, it had none of the pungency that made coffee so distinctive. The baristas backed off as they realized that we were less than enchanted. I wondered if they had ever done more than smell the coffee. And did they ever think about the animal rights issues we had discussed?
The three of us looked at each other, our faces revealing an impish embarrassment. Had the taste been sublime, we wondered, would we have ever touched another drop? Surely not, we decided – or at least that’s what we hoped. We had arrived at that uncomfortable but convenient plateau where just a little bit of exploitation is OK, but any more would cross some sort of invisible ethical line. One try, and we were still victims of exploitation; two and we would be the perpetrators of it.
So now we were in the leagues of the idle rich, like the 17th-century aristocrats in the Netherlands who paid a fortune to glimpse a single tulip, the Swiss jetsetters who buy chocolate with gold leaf sprinkled on it, or the French connoisseurs who pay a thousand dollars for the perfect bottle of wine. Actually I felt a bit more akin to the Japanese businessmen who pay a fortune to eat sushi off a naked lady, supine and immobile, because that practice involves compromising the dignity of a sentient being, as did the creation of poop coffee.
Even if the friendly baristas would lose their jobs, I hoped that this trendy coffee chain would fail.
These three frolicking teachers had become consumers of the bizarre and had expanded our knowledge. But had we become more aware? Hardly, as we had known from the first that the civet-excreted coffee business involved exploitation and was perpetuated by curiosity seekers. Would the coffee chain thrive only if new novelty seekers like us were lured, or were there repeat offenders coming back for more? How far could we novelty seekers stray from principles of animal protection, free trade, or reasonable spending choices? Were we just as vulnerable to corporate hype as anyone else? And if this new coffee chain becomes a resounding success, how much will we have contributed to its success?
What is your opinion on the ethics of civet -processed coffee? Please share in the comments below.
Contributed by Allen Koshewa who has published essays, poems, short memoirs, and professional articles.