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Cutting the Crap on the World's Most Expensive Coffee

Kopi luwak, a.k.a. 'wolf coffee', 'cat coffee' or 'crap coffee' reveals our selfish vanity, that so many are prepared to pay so much for 'crap' merely to make a 'statement'. The monied are now driven to acquire ever more extreme purchases, in order to possess something that nobody else does.

A 24 carat gold foil bag of kopi luwak coffee is available for £6,500 at Harrods, the luxury department store in Central London. But if you can only stretch to just a cup, then a speciality coffee shop in West Village, New York City will relieve you of $30 for a shot, while there's a place in Rupert Street, London, W1, which will serve a cup (or should that be chalice?) for £60. Meanwhile the Grand Hyatt Hotel, Singapore lets it go for 80 Singapore dollars a hit (£40).

This was the ultimate bling coffee for over twenty years, and a furtive, cherished secret amongst coffee aficionados. But the cat was finally let out of the bag when kopi luak starred in a crucial scene of the Hollywood blockbuster movie The Bucket List, as the coffee of choice for Jack Nicholson's exacting billionaire. Impoverished Morgan Freeman triumphantly breaks the news to an incredulous Nicholson, that the coffee acquires it's unique flavour, because it's found in animal pooh.

For film fans who may have been nonplussed, if this part of the otherwise fictional movie was indeed true, we can confirm that genuine Indonesian kopi luwak is collected from the droppings of a wild cat-like animal called the luwak (otherwise known as common palm civet, Paraxorus Hermaphroditus). A shy, solitary nocturnal forest animal that freely prowls nearby coffee plantations at night in the harvest season, eating the choicest ripe coffee cherries.

Unable to digest the stones (i.e. the coffee bean) of the cherry, it craps them out along with the rest of its droppings. The beans are collected by farm workers. Cleaned and washed, they have acquired a unique and highly prized taste from their passage through the luwak's digestive tract, and the anal scent glands used for marking their territory.

Being wild, hard to collect, variable in age and quality, plus very rare, kopi luwak was never intended to be a commercially viable crop. When first discovered, it was just an interesting coffee curiosity for true coffee connoisseurs, or hard core bling junkies. Part of their caffeine buzz was recounting the story behind these precious beans.

But, there's a secret which the billionaire coffee slurpers don't know yet, which will cause much choking on their connoisseur coffee.

Nowadays, it is in fact practically impossible to find genuine wild kopi luwak. The only way to guarantee that would be to actually follow a luwak around all night yourself. Kopi luwak, as the BBC TV report to be broadcast on Friday September 13, featuring one of us (AW) shows, mainly comes from caged wild luwaks, often kept in appalling conditions.

Nonetheless coffee companies around the world still market kopi luwak exactly as if it involved that original quirky story involving a wild animal's digestive habits, many claiming that only 500 kilos are collected a year, a scarcity that justifies its huge retail price tag (usually between $200-400 a kilo, sometimes more).

In fact, although it's impossible to get precise figures, one estimate is that the global production - farmers in India, Vietnam, China and the Philippines have all jumped on the bandwagon, too - is at least 50 tonnes, possibly much more. One single Indonesian farm claims to produce 7,000 kilos a year from 240 caged civets.

So kopi luwak is no longer wild: it's become industrialised.

The naturally shy and solitary nocturnal creatures suffer greatly from the stress of being caged in proximity to other luwaks, and the unnatural emphasis on coffee cherries in their diet causes other health problems too; they fight among themselves, gnaw off their own legs, start passing blood, and frequently die.

Wild luwaks - the trapping of which is supposed to be strictly controlled in Indonesia - are caught by poachers, caged and force-fed coffee cherries in order to crap out the beans for the pleasure of the thousands who have been conned into buying this 'incredibly rare' and very expensive 'luxury' coffee.

The kopi luwak trade makes big bucks, and it attracts big spending consumers and as a result many kopi luwak-lookalikes that have now sprung up worldwide to compete in the 'crap coffee' trade. Thai elephants, Brazilian jacu birds, and Bonobo monkeys have all been press-ganged into servicing the consumers' insatiable desire for the weird and supposedly wonderful.

In the case of Harrods department store, their latest variant is produced by the Peruvian uchunari, a long-snouted Andean animal about the same size as a luwak.

Naturally, it's supposed to come from well-treated animals, be incredibly rare, and - until the next absurd luwak-lookalike comes along - is now the most expensive coffee in the world. But as far as we know, neither the uchunari or any other of these animals have the anal glands of the genuine luwak that lends kopi luwak its distinctive flavour. So the only virtue of the coffee they produce is the gimmick of their production method.

The BBC are broadcasting a programme made with one of us (AW) on Friday September 13, in the Our World slot on BBC World News, which exposes the cruelty and corruption rampant in the luwak coffee trade. This coincides with AW founding Kopi Luwak: Cut the Crap Facebook campaign launching today.

Kopi luwak, a.k.a. 'wolf coffee', 'cat coffee' or 'crap coffee' reveals our selfish vanity, that so many are prepared to pay so much for 'crap' merely to make a 'statement'. The monied are now driven to acquire ever more extreme purchases, in order to possess something that nobody else does. Something with an exotic story. And it doesn't matter what brutality occurs along the way.

No one gives a sh*t.

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