Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Paying Out The Ass for Poop Coffee

No, this isn't some strained analogy to teach a moral lesson, it's apparently a real coffee trend. From the WSJ's pop economics column this weekend:
During a recent trip to Los Angeles, I stopped by a coffee shop offering a very expensive coffee called kopi luwak, or civet coffee. I asked about the steep price, and the barista told me the story of the special process required to make this coffee: A catlike Indonesian animal known as a civet eats coffee cherries and then poops out what are basically beans. People then collect these "processed" beans and use them to make a highly unusual brew that is said to be smoother than its journey. It can sell for hundreds of dollars per pound. I was curious but not interested (or brave) enough to buy it—let alone drink it. Can you explain why people are willing to pay for this?

The promotional material that I found says that civets know how to pick the best coffee beans and that their digestive systems ferment the beans, reducing their acidity and providing a much better coffee. (I have no idea how this works, but the story piqued my curiosity, too.)

So why are people willing to pay so much for civet coffee? It is probably for the novelty and the story—and because the amount (and type) of labor involved is clearly so much higher than for your average cup of Java. People are generally willing to pay more for something that requires more effort to produce even if the product itself isn't better—and civet coffee sounds like a prime example of this effort-based-pricing principle.

Finally, I wonder how much people would be willing to pay had the beans passed through an American human rather than an exotic Indonesian animal. My guess: That would be too strong a brew for any of us.
Personally, I'm quite comfortable with my coffee only being digested once, by me, but I had to find out more. Apparently this cute little fellow is the source of all this excitement:

Apparently people discovered this way of getting coffee because the native workers on Dutch coffee plantations in Indonesia were forbidden to have any coffee beans for themselves, so they started collecting the droppings of civets which got into the plantations at night, ate beans, and then dropped them out later. The coffee turned out to be strong and mild, and soon the plantation owners were drinking it too. More recently, word of the product was spread by globe trotting coffee connoisseurs and the specialty coffee industry stumbled onto its most expensive product.

Of course, the problem with getting coffee drinkers all over the world excited about the idea of something which is produced by such a circuitous process (and thus is so rare and expensive) is that it creates a demand far too high for the original method of production. So apparently these days people have tried to increase the supply of civet coffee by caging the civets so they can be fed more coffee and their droppings collected more easily.

Animal rights advocates report that the civets, who are naturally nocturnal and solitary, do not do well in the cramped conditions of caged living, and also that since it's the process that has such cache unscrupulous operators often feed the civets low quality coffee varieties which wouldn't fetch a high price otherwise.

In our mass society, there's still a desire to discover that unique item which only people-in-the-know can get hold of. Yet there's a reason why these sorts of finds were traditionally only enjoyed by locals and the occasionally traveler. Quirky local finds aren't the same when you try to mass produce them for all the consumers who want to think they're in on the quirky local find game.

In this case, this is probably something which should remain a fascinating story for the travel literature, not a mass consumer product, while the civets go back to wandering the trees and pooping our beans wherever it seems best to them.


TS said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
TS said...

Interesting story. This part: "People are generally willing to pay more for something that requires more effort to produce even if the product itself isn't better" reminds me of something I read from Charles Krauthammer about marathoning and other extremely draining self-ordeals:

“Now that everyone can afford status items like designer jeans, conspicuous consumption gives way to conspicuous exertion….Thorstein Veblen hypothesized a new kind of good, demand for which, contrary to economic law and common sense, increases with price.”

Just realized my initial comment could be read wrong, so here's try numero two.

Donald R. McClarey said...

Convince some people that something is stylish and there is no end to what they will put up with in order to be "cutting edge", including drinking feces coffee. said...

It's the new taste sensation! Go give it
A try: From the poop of the civet
Comes coffee that's swell
(And expensive as hell):
Live the life of Lucullus - just live it!