Civet Shit

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In the late seventeenth century, traders brought a new type of beverage to Europe called coffee. Prized for its bitter taste and stimulating properties, coffee quickly became a favorite amongst the European aristocracy and rising merchant class. Coffee became a craze that swept the continent, with thousands of coffee houses opening in a relatively short period of time. This of course was accompanied by the usual hand wringing, worrying, and conspiracies from some religious types and folks who in general don’t like change. Though rather expensive, many people were more than willing to pay an arm and a leg to get their hands on those bitter aromatic beans. As with anything where there is money to be made, people of course got a little carried away and in general just started acting in as shitty a manner as possible.

At the time of its introduction to the world, coffee was only grown in Ethiopia and Yemen, and its cultivation was a closely guarded secret, you know, because it was worth a butt load of money. However, the high value of coffee eventually attracted the attention of the Dutch East India Company, perhaps one of the largest and most powerful corporations in world history. The Dutch East India Company, through a combination of subterfuge and bribes, managed to get their hands on a bunch of coffee plants and took them to the islands of Indonesia, where the company had a stranglehold on international trade and increasingly the islands themselves. Indonesia quickly became the leading source of coffee in the world, a fact that remained true up until the mid-nineteenth century when it was at last eclipsed by supplies from South America. The growing availability of coffee, thanks to increased cultivation throughout the world, eventually made coffee cheap and affordable for the masses, but also helped drive the Dutch East India Company into bankruptcy in 1800. After the bankruptcy, all of the Dutch East India Company holdings, including all of Indonesia, was seized by the Dutch government.

Unfortunately, the Dutch government found itself in much the same situation in Indonesia as the corporation that came before it, namely controlling the islands was costing a shit ton of money. Not being the type to just cut their losses, the Dutch government instead created a system where all Indonesian farmers were required to pay their taxes via exportable luxury crops; namely sugar, indigo, and coffee. This was great for the Dutch since it allowed them to increase exports from the region, but it was not so great for the farmers who suddenly found it difficult to grow enough food for themselves. To add further insult to injury, the Dutch made it illegal for the Indonesians farmers to consume any of the coffee they grew. So you know, all in all it was a pretty fucked up situation.

Now of course the Indonesian farmers were rather curious about the coffee they were growing. After all, anything involving so much bullshit had to be pretty good. This curiosity and the Dutch being shitty people eventually led to one of the strangest workarounds in human history. The Indonesians noticed that a certain cat looking critter called a civet had the habit of eating coffee beans, but not digesting them very well. Yeah, you can probably see where this is going. While the law said Indonesians weren’t allowed to pick coffee beans for their own use, it said nothing about picking coffee bean filled shit up off of the ground. They called the coffee brewed from these shit beans kopi luwak, which sounds really creative until you know its just Indonesian for civet coffee. Now eventually the Dutch colonial officials noticed what the Indonesians were doing, but instead of being grossed out by the whole thing they instead decided to try a cup. Surprisingly enough, the civet coffee was the best tasting coffee they had ever tasted, a fact they attributed to the civet’s being rather selective about what beans they ate and possibly something to do with the enzymes in the small animal’s gut. Civet coffee quickly became a big hit amongst the Dutch, and fortunes were paid for literally shit.

Now that might have been the end of this story, just a bunch of fancy people drinking shit coffee, but it wasn’t. Things actually found a way to become more fucked up. For a time in the early twentieth century, civet coffee was heavily sought after by the rich and powerful of Europe, but the high cost and low supply eventually left it largely forgotten, a curiosity little found outside of Indonesia. That changed at the end of the twentieth century thanks to a combination of the internet, increased world travel, and the rise of Starbucks and other such high end coffee joints. Always on the lookout for the newest crazy thing, people with money in their pockets re-discovered civet coffee and the whole thing went viral. Once mostly forgotten, demand for civet coffee went through the roof as people increasingly felt the need to brag to their friends about how their coffee had come out of some animal’s butthole. There was just one little problem, there wasn’t enough shit to go around.

With people literally shoving wads of money in their faces, the locals in Indonesia and many other Southeast Asian nations got creative. By which I mean they began locking civets up in tiny cages and force feeding them pretty much nothing but coffee. While decidedly bad for the animals, such a practice isn’t really all that great for the coffee either considering part of what made it so good was the civet being selective about what beans it ate. Of course none of this really matters given that our brains are wired to assume that if we pay a lot of money for something than it has to be great. Recent campaigns have started to try to end the practice, but have had little affect. Today you can buy kopi luwak for between $100 to $500 per pound.