Coffee beans aren’t always vegan.
It’s something you never think about, because coffee, by nature, is a plant crop and, therefore, vegan. But coffee is processed in multiple ways, and one method includes animals.
Animal-produced coffee is marketed as rare and unique, ‘unlike no other’. Almost every variant is claimed to be the most expensive coffee in the world, their high prices resulting from increased manual labour, low outputs, and the fact that animals don’t work on a schedule.
But these varieties are largely frowned upon within the coffee community. Some have widespread reports of animal cruelty, some have fake versions sold for high prices. What most coffee connoisseurs agree on, though, is that they all taste bad, are unethical, and shouldn’t be celebrated.
Here’s a rundown of the most well-known animal-produced coffee varieties:
This is, by far, the most popular and well-documented animal-produced coffee variety. Produced in Indonesia, kopi luwak uses a cat-like mammal called the Asian palm civet (‘luwak’ in local language). This variety has almost become a false novelty. The production process is, to say the least, unappetising. Coffee beans grow in cherry-like fruits, and these civets supposedly pick out the best cherries off the plants, which they then consume. Once partially digested, the story goes, the enzymes in the civet’s stomach develop the coffee’s flavour. The cherries are then excreted out, dried and cleaned.
For all the claims of which coffee is most expensive, this probably does hold true. While the general price is upwards of $80 per cup, there are varying reports of how much it actually costs, and a big reason for that is forgery. Because it’s promoted as a prized, high-value coffee, some traders have started fraudulently passing low-quality coffee off as kopi luwak.
The other major problem with this coffee is animal cruelty. There are countless reports of intensive farming for production, including a BBC investigation. For almost all commercial kopi luwak, the wild civets are kept in battery cages, force-fed the coffee cherries, and are subject to unethical and abusive treatment that includes poor diets, high mortality rates and isolation. In Indonesia, civet populations are threatened due to poaching and illegal trade, bolstered by the increasing production of kopi luwak.
Many have started using certificates as a measure to ensure the coffee you’re buying is cruelty-free. But, honestly, why? Kopi luwak’s ‘excellent’ flavours are all unattributed — the consensus within the coffee industry is that it tastes unpleasant — and you’re drinking insanely high-priced coffee that came out of animal faeces. There have been efforts to study and replicate the fermentation process that goes on inside a civet’s stomach, with plant-food company Afineur developing cultured coffee, a vegan take on kopi luwak.
Another poop-based coffee, Black Ivory is a company in Thailand that offers animal-produced coffee at the expense of elephants. They claim that the elephant’s digestive enzymes break down the coffee’s proteins but retain the caffeine content. The output is very low, because a lot of the beans are destroyed by the elephants as they chew them. It’s marketed as an attempt to turn human-elephant conflict into positive efforts to help elephants.
The process takes place at the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation, which houses 20 elephants specifically for this purpose. Black Ivory says 8 percent of the coffee’s sales go to the foundation for the healthcare and well-being of the elephants. There are no obvious reports of cruelty in this case, but it’s still animal faeces-produced coffee, and a lot of the beans are wasted.
This variety is native to Costa Rica and, more recently, Madagascar. Bats apparently choose perfectly ripe beans. But instead of ingesting and excreting the cherries, they nibble on them. They chew off the exterior of the cherries still on the plant, tearing the outer skin and licking the pulp to obtain its natural sugars.
The half-eaten cherries then interact with the bats’ digestive acids, and are left on the plant to dry naturally, before being processed. Producers claim the bat’s enzymes react with the natural sweetness of the coffee to produce a more flavourful cup.
Originating in Brazil, this is the only bird-produced coffee out there. The Jacu bird, native to Brazil, is vegetarian. When they consume the beans, their digestive system alters the flavour to something that resembles their diet. It originated on a farm that’s a model for environmental sensitivity, but it didn’t start out that way.
Henrique Sloper set out to build a biodynamic agricultural practice for growing coffee. One day, a host of jacu birds invaded his farm, and he couldn’t get rid of them. But he realised that the birds were picking off the best cherries, and their quick digestion and vegetarian diets made the coffee taste more refined once it was excreted, cleaned and processed.
There are no reports of animal cruelty for animal-produced coffee, with the Brazilian environmental ministry reporting it did not find any signs of wildlife captivity. But there are concerns around population declines of the Jacu bird in southwest Brazil, largely due to large-scaled agriculture, road construction, logging, and other man-made work, and wildlife foundations have been making efforts for its preservation. The IUCN Red List lists it as a vulnerable species, which suggests a declining population, one step away from being endangered.
Certain species of monkeys in India and Taiwan are also used for coffee production. Similar to bat-produced coffee, the monkeys are apparently drawn to high-quality cherries, which they pick and chew off, spitting the remainder out. These partially-eaten cherries are then rinsed and processed.
These monkeys kept visiting plantations in those regions, and there was no way to avoid them, so the producers turned it into a tool. These beans are grey in colour, instead of the traditional green, and many of them have the monkeys’ toothmarks on them.
This is labelled as the South American kopi luwak. Produced in Peru, this is a result of coffee produced by the raccoon-like mammal called coati (locally known as uchunari or mishasho). They eat coffee cherries along with fruits and vegetables. The top layer of the excreted coffee is affected by the enzymes and bile juices of the coati.
The producers say the digestive system removes the proteins from the coffee, which gets rid of bitterness. But that’s a dubious claim, bitterness in coffee isn’t a result of one particular substance; it’s characterised by multiple things, which include where it’s from, how it was grown, how it’s roasted, and how it’s prepared.
These coatis are domesticated, but free to move around the countryside and given free coffee meals every week. One producer claims that overfeeding them with coffee cherries would lead to anaemia, as the sweetness of coffee eliminates their red blood cells.