The Value of A Good Story, Or: How to Turn Poop into Gold

By Lily Kubota

Story | stawr-ee, stohr-ee | noun

1. a narrative, either true or fictitious, in prose or verse, designed to interest, amuse, or instruct the hearer or reader; tale.

It is hard for me to imagine the marketing plan that incorporates images of an animal’s fecal matter into promotional efforts. As unappealing of an approach as that may be, it seems to have worked: the Kopi Luwak “campaign” has certainly established and even maintained an allure in some markets. Selling for hundreds of dollars a pound, this coffee is harvested from the droppings of the Asian Palm Civet, otherwise known as the Luwak. The process begins when the civet selects and consumes the ripest coffee cherries. After the animal passes the undigested beans, they are collected and processed, resulting in a coffee with a unique and distinct flavor profile that is often touted as the world’s rarest gourmet coffee.

When I first learned of the product, after confirming it was not a joke, I dismissed it. Surely, this fad would find its way into oblivion soon enough, I thought. Surprisingly, that has not happened.

Media Hype and Industry Response

After Kopi Luwak got a mention in the popular movie, The Bucket List, the media swirled around the topic and here at SCAA, we fielded numerous questions from interested journalists (and still receive a few inquiries a month). It was disheartening, to say the least, to witness the attention being directed at this particular topic when there is so much else to talk about.

Others in the industry have responded more fervently to the renewed interest. Specialty coffee professionals have cried out against Kopi Luwak on various forums and industry blogs. Thompson Owen of Sweet Maria’s in Oakland, CA started a Facebook page titled “No to Kopi Luwak Coffee,” stating in the page description, “Send a message to the coffee industry that Kopi Luwak coffee is unacceptable, tastes bad, does not serve the coffee farmer’s interest, distracts from the message of quality coffee, and that we condemn animal cruelty.”

Quality Assessment

One of the strongest arguments against this coffee—and one that seems to meet a general consensus within the industry—is that it just tastes bad. Often quoted for his opinions on this coffee, George Howell has also been one of Kopi Luwak’s most outspoken critics. On his company’s website under Coffee Myths, it makes this very clear.

“Some coffees demand a higher price because of their longstanding reputation or limited supply, like certain island coffees, or coffees from regions like Yemen. Other coffees, like Kopi Luwak, have a certain ‘mystique’ which can drive the price up to, in some cases, $200 a pound or more. Kopi Luwak is known for its bizarre processing, in which it is digested by a civet, then picked off the ground, before it is roasted. Yum! So buyer beware, higher price doesn’t necessarily mean higher quality.”

Rocky Rhodes of International Coffee Consulting Group offers a more detailed analysis and shares his experience with this coffee. “At a farm in East Java, I was given the opportunity to evaluate their lots of coffee, which they had separated into sizes: large, medium, and small. On this farm were caged Luwaks that fed on the exact same coffee, which was also included in the cupping. After cupping the four samples, it was apparent that Luwak coffee sold for the story, not superior quality.”

According to Rhodes, “Using the SCAA cupping scale, the Luwak scored two points below the lowest of the other three coffees. It would appear that the Luwak processing diminishes good acidity and flavor and adds smoothness to the body, which is what many people seem to note as a positive to the coffee. The medium-sized coffee, as an aside, scored the best due to overall flavor and balance. It was a full four points above the Luwak version.”

Questions of Labeling

Kopi Luwak has been around since the early days of coffee production in parts of South East Asia, but only recently has the product been marketed and sold as a luxury good. The coffee was originally gathered and processed by coffee pickers who were prohibited from harvesting coffee for their own use, but along the way this product became a novelty item. Someone realized that they could market this coffee as an exotic, unique brand and that people would pay top dollar for this experience. Gradually production of Kopi Luwak increased, but annual production of this coffee is still extremely low. The imbalance between the estimates of how much coffee being produced that is authentic Kopi Luwak and the amount that is being sold each year under this name has led many coffee buyers and those in the industry to question the integrity of this coffee.

Mark Prince of the popular industry forum Coffee Geek has stated, “There is probably 5,000 percent more Kopi Luwak sold each year than there is actually produced (production of the legit stuff runs less than 5,000 pounds per year). Why? Because there’s lots of snake oil salesmen packaging up plain Jane inferior commodity grade Indonesian coffees under this banner and trying to get $300 per pound for it.”

Animal Rights

So we have a product gaining attention and growing in value. At the same time, knowledgeable coffee professionals are working to explain its lack of quality while also questioning whether there is enough production to meet what is being sold under such labels. Furthermore, let’s not forget Thompson Owen’s comment about animal cruelty. One of the primary concerns cited by opponents of Kopi Luwak production is the practice of caging. On the subject of caged animals, PETA states that, “Studies have shown that long-term confinement is detrimental to the physical and psychological well-being of animals. Animals caged for extended periods can develop eating disorders and anti-social and/or aggressive behaviors. They can also become withdrawn, hyperactive, or severely depressed.” Granted, caging is common in most forms of food production, but let’s at least acknowledge we have little understanding of production practices and how civets are treated.

So What’s the Appeal?

Kopi Luwak is extracted from…let’s go ahead and just say it…poop. It tastes bad, it’s expensive, and may not be the nicest experience for the animals that produce it. So, what exactly is it that people are responding to? If the experts vehemently deny any redeeming properties, is it possible for consumers to actually like it? Or are they responding to its reputation, earned only from its media hype?

Although the average consumer won’t pay the extraordinary price that this coffee demands, there is a segment of the population in the United States, Europe, and East Asia that are willing to pay for the experience of perceived luxury or high quality. Apparently, it doesn’t have to taste good, coffee drinkers don’t have to like it, and it doesn’t have to be “affordable” for some to want it. It’s the story. And whatever your thoughts are on the quality of Kopi Luwak, there seems to be a market for products that claim rarity or superiority in quality. Does that in and of itself make it special?

We’re going to go out on a limb here and say no. Sure, the case can be made using other examples where story has driven the value of a product up, even in coffee, but not often as a singular element. This industry has worked too hard to risk entering less defendable realms. Granted, the same could be said for someone abusing quality terms, but at least then we’re in territory where an informed debate can take place. At least with trends based on a platform of quality, we can begin to distinguish a trend that has potential from one that should go away. We want this one to go away, not because we want to dismiss the power of a good story but because we want richer stories and ones rooted in things we value, such as quality. We want both a good story and a good product (and for the media to stop calling us about it).

Lily Kubota began her career in coffee at age 15 with her first job as a barista and became increasingly interested in coffee over the years. As communications specialist for the SCAA, she has been privileged to observe and reflect on the intricacies and nuances of the coffee industry on both the consuming and producing side of the supply chain and gain a deeper understanding of this exciting community. 

Resource List:

No to Kopi Luwak Coffee on Facebook (http://www.facebook.com/pages/No-to-Kopi-Luwak-Coffee/269009553115596)
CoffeeGeek Forums (http://coffeegeek.com/forums/coffee/general/427366?Page=1)
George Howell’s Coffee Myths (http://www.terroircoffee.com/myths)
PETA (http://www.peta.org/about/why-peta/crating-dogs.aspx)

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