Coffee. Those six small letters make up a word that stimulates the imagination, wakes the brain, and kickstarts the day. Conjuring a rich, dark aroma and the sensuality of heaping soft brown sugar dissolving into a bold foamy crema, love them or loathe them there’s no denying that espressos, pour-overs, Americanos, cappuccinos, lattes are all here to stay. On a daily basis we consume an estimated 2.2 billion cups and global demand shows no sign of slowing down, even as periodic concerns arise in areas of sustainable harvesting and labor ethics. But on one front, at least, coffee lovers can celebrate the news that caffeine intake from coffee (as opposed to tea) may actually be a good thing. According to Dr. Michael Greger, founder of 501(c)(3) non-profit NutritionFacts.org and author of New York Times bestseller How Not to Die, a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine revealed that coffee drinkers enjoy a lower total and cause-specific mortality rate than their abstemious counterparts. Male coffee drinkers who drank 6 or more cups per day had a 10% lower risk of death, while women in the same category scored a 15% decrease in mortality.(1) Great news for those of us who enjoy the (more than) occasional espresso shot!
And this is not new information. As we discussed in our earlier article, How Do You Take Your Coffee – With Wine or Cockroach Milk?, coffee has a long history as an important part of our diet, with European demand for the beans well established by the mid-17th century. And with the 1773 revolt against the British tea tax, coffee was feted as the national – and patriotic – drink of choice in the USA. And with a growing demand comes innovation: coffee drinkers of the 1650s would scarcely recognize the oftentimes bewildering array of modern varieties. But the overwhelming number of beans, sources, roasts, flavors, and grinds do still have one thing in common: as a consumer, you are usually the first to ingest them. Except for one kind…
In terms of ideal food contact surfaces, the inside of an animal’s digestive tract is perhaps the least likely place we’d associate with safe, clean, hygienic food preparation. In fact, in most contexts, even the presence of animal bodies close to food intended for human consumption is anathema. But let’s set aside our natural squeamishness and understandable concern from a contamination-control perspective while we consider the case of kopi luwak, arguably the most expensive coffee in the world and a creation that sees animals as an integral part of the production process. Closely associated with the history of Dutch coffee production in Indonesia, kopi luwak rose from being a beverage enjoyed only by the indigenous tribes to one coveted by Dutch plantation owners. During the era known as the Cultuurstelsel (1830-1870), the government of the Netherlands instituted a system of forced planting of export crops for its then Dutch East Indies colony, the area we now know as Indonesia. As with most if not all stories of colonization, it was the local peoples who suffered, with farmers prohibited from harvesting coffee cherry crops for their own use. Observing that wild civets also enjoyed the fruit as a part of their natural diet, the plantation workers noticed that the animals digested the flesh of the cherry but eliminated the bean. Collecting, sorting, cleaning, and roasting the beans created an aromatic beverage that, in time, Dutch plantation owners also came to prize.
Wait! Are you really saying that coffee beans are excreted from civets to make this kopi luwak? Yes, exactly. Civets are a type of mainly frugivorous mammal indigenous to South Asia, sub-Saharan Africa, the Iberian Peninsula, and southern China. Resembling a cat with a very long tail and pointed muzzle, they are predominantly nocturnal creatures belonging to the Viverridae family. In their natural environment, they dine on mainly on fruit – and are especially partial to mangoes – and some insects and small reptiles. And, of course, coffee cherries…which leads us to the reason they are so useful to the coffee industry. Within the civet’s digestive tract, enzymes alter the protein structure of coffee beans and in effect remove some of the acidity before the bean is eliminated whole, ready for collection. Research at the University of Guelph, Canada, identified the mechanisms by which civet digestion acts upon coffee beans, with secreted proteolytic enzymes breaking down proteins to yield shorter peptides and an increase in amino acids. Within the civet’s body, the beans also begin to germinate in a process known as ‘malting’ wherein enzymes such as proteases are developed and starches are turned into fermentable sugars. The volatile compounds of the partially digested beans are also transformed, resulting in flavor changes in the final coffee product. Traditionally, trackers hunt for wild civet droppings studded with coffee beans, collecting them for later processing into the product known as kopi luwac. The civets range freely and the coffee cherries are a natural part of their diet.
In a BBC investigation of civet farms in Indonesia, undercover reporters posing as potential buyers ‘witnessed battery-style conditions, animals in cramped cages and a severely injured civet cat’ held in deplorable conditions.(2) Tens of thousands of wild animals were confined within factory-farms, often force-fed a diet consisting only of coffee cherries in an attempt to increase output levels. Chasing the profit margins that exist when low operating overheads meet an artisanal market willing to pay between $100 and $500 per pound for beans, the industry’s move away from the wild harvest model has resulted in widespread animal abuse. Deprived of veterinary care, exercise, stimulus, and a natural diet, the civets quickly manifest neurotic behaviors such as pacing and circling, biting cage bars, and losing their fur. According to Chris Shepherd of TRAFFIC south-east Asia, a wildlife monitoring initiative established from a partnership between the World Wide Fund for Nature and the World Conservation Union, ‘There is a high mortality rate and for some species of civet, there’s a real conservation risk.’
If you are still reading this article after our tour of the civet’s digestive system and modern living conditions, we commend your curiosity and dedication to the pursuit of caffeinated trivia. And in the spirit of taking this article to ever greater heights, let’s move from the civet – a relatively small creature, after all – to one exponentially bigger. In the spirit ‘Go big or go home’ let’s talk elephants…
Blake Dinkin, a former trader in Toronto, Canada, is an entrepreneur in Thailand who is looking to pachyderms as allies in the production of artisanal coffee. In 2002, Dinkin first learned that while fortunes were to be made from coffee that sold for $50 and $60 per cup, the controversy raging around bean production was a significant problem. Investigating the dark side of civet farming and concerned at its potential impact on human health and the potential for the communication of disease, Dinkin considered how the process could be improved to both ensure animal welfare and product safety. First he decided to cut civets out of the loop, experimenting with a veritable Noah’s ark of animals in their place – from cows to giraffes, hippos to rhinos. But, as Allison Tierney writes in an article published on Vice.com, ‘gathering rhino shit is pretty terrifying […and so] none of these animals worked out.’(3) Until Dinkin learned that in South Asia a drought-related food scarcity was causing elephants to destroy villages and crops in their search for coffee cherries. The penny dropped and Dinkin’s attention turned to the pachyderm.
Experimenting with the diet of elephants at a zoo near Gueph, Ontario, Dinkin spent the next decade on trials to perfect the taste of beans that have been partially digested by the animals. By 2012 he had his recipe and left the colder climes of Canada to relocate in Surin province, Thailand, where he founded Black Ivory Coffee. Partnering with Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation, a sanctuary that is home to rescued elephants, Dinkin now produces 330lbs of beans in an annual harvest. Cared for by a team of staff including an on-site veterinarian, the elephants are fed a diet of coffee cherries, bananas, and rice bran and the beans are separated by hand from their droppings. Although this may not sound like the most enviable employment, local workers are keen to get involved. In an agrarian economy, Dinkin offers more for one hour’s work than laborers would make in a full day of backbreaking work harvesting rice. The beans are sorted, washed, cleaned, and laid out to dry. The process is slow and precise and the product’s retail cost certainly reflects Black Ivory Coffee’s luxury branding, with hotels across Asia paying the equivalent of $1,886 per kilo ($855.48 per pound). And unlike the civet farmers in Indonesia, this is a model that works for Dinkin who is determined to keep production small and expansion slow.
So in terms of end product, both elephants and civets are able physiologically to partially digest coffee cherries and eliminate a bean that has been enzymatically transformed and which, when processed, will result in a singularly unique (and uniquely expensive) cup of coffee. But neither process is necessarily good for the animals. And it may not be good for humans either. According to research by Yuen Kwok-Yung, a microbiologist at the University of Hong Kong, civets carry the coronavirus thought to cause Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and may be a significant vector in the transmission of the virus.(4) In 2002, an outbreak of the disease, an atypical pneumonia, sickened more than 8,000 people, killing 774, in Guangdong province, China. What followed was a mass extermination of approximately 10,000 civets in farms, despite experts being unsure as to whether they were the real culprits or only peripherally involved. In an article in National Geographic, Barry Kent MacKay of the Animal Protection Institute, based in Sacramento, CA, questioned whether the Chinese authorities were simply scapegoating the civets:
‘“They’re looking for something where they can say, ‘We’ve done this, and it’s now OK.’ But this does not address the real problem: the trade in and use of wildlife species for food.”’(5)
So with the (albeit contested) link to SARS and the potential for other communicable diseases, could it be that the producers of kopi luwac need to find an alternative to the animal-based model? The short answer is yes…
Just as the interest in lab-based meat is growing steadily with companies such as Impossible Foods, Mosa Meat, and Memphis Meats (among others) investing in technologies that create meat without slaughter and move animals out of the picture, it just may be time to remove the civets and elephants from the equation. Afineur, a biotechnology company based in Brooklyn, NY, certainly thinks so and has launched their first product, Cultured Coffee, as a crowd-sourced project on Kickstarter. ‘Designed by evolution, crafted in Brooklyn, USA,’ Afineur began as a small start-up, the brain-child of two PhDs – Camille Delebecque, a bioengineer in synthetic biology, and Sophie Deterre, a food process engineer with a specialist interest in food and flavor science. The corporate mission of Afineur is to use biotechnology to create designer fermentations for plant-based ingredients with the aim of crafting ‘healthier, tastier, and more sustainable food.’(6) And the company seeks to work on a molecular level with each microorganism used in the process being specifically selected for ‘its ability to naturally tailor a subset of molecules in a target food product and for it’s [sic] ability to cooperate with other microbes.’(7) Cultured Coffee’s low acid levels and enhanced bioactive compounds are said to be easy to digest and to offer sustained energy in a pleasant beverage.
And Afineur is not alone in its pursuit of synthetically enhanced coffee. Break the Cup, a Costa Rican company, owns a patent on a fermentation process that emulates kopi luwak’s flavor without passing the source beans through an animal’s digestive tract. Edgar Salgado launched the company which roasts its beans in Miami, FL, after he patented a process in which green coffee beans are fermented in the thermal hot springs of Costa Rica. Celebrated for their rejuvenating properties, the springs allow a fermentation that is said not only to decrease acidic bitterness but also to enrich the coffee with minerals that encourage easier digestion. As Salgado noted in an article recently published in FoodNavigator.com: “When you go to the supermarket in the US you realize the antacid department is really large, but then you realize the coffee they are drinking and you start saying, ‘Wow, there is a reason.’”(8)
In terms of food safety, although the true kopi luwac beans originate in a less than hygienic place, from a contamination control perspective there is little concern about imbibing the beverage. In the cleaning process, the partially digested endocarp (flesh around the bean) must be completely removed and this necessitates a perhaps more thorough washing than other beans would receive. And according to findings by Massimo Marcone of the University of Guelph, Ontario, kopi luwac actually has a lower level of bacterial contamination than other coffee. In a news alert published by the university, Marcone said: ‘“As a food scientist, I’m skeptical that anything being in contact with feces is safe. But tests revealed that the Kopi Luwac beans had negligible amounts of enteric (pathogenic) organisms associated with feces.”’(9)
So is it really time to set aside our natural squeamishness about consuming something that has already voyaged through the intestines of another creature? Maybe. But as caffeinated thinkers, we at Berkshire just might wait for wider distribution of the synthetic designer fermentations to reach our coffee mugs before we’ll buy into the mystique of this most unusual morning pick-me-up.
We’d love to know your thoughts! Have you tried civet-poop coffee? What was your impression? Please let us know in the comments…