Civet Coffee, Bird Droppings and the Disgust-Desire Scale
The most likely reaction to the news that India is producing premium coffee made from beans eaten and excreted by civet cats will be disgust – and, oddly enough, that’s just what the producers want. Most products aim to first fit consumer comfort levels, and then be liked by them, but civet coffee, as it is called, does the opposite. Its brand appeal is built on discomfort and disgust. We would normally find the idea of consuming anything faecal absolutely repellent, yet civet coffee is a profitable industry.
It originated in Indonesia. After the Dutch established coffee plantations there in the 18th century it was noticed that the native palm civets, small arboreal mammals, liked the sweet coffee berries. They would eat the fruit and excrete the seeds, which are the coffee beans, and at some point these were collected, cleaned and roasted to make coffee, known as kopi luwak.
It is this process that is being recreated in India. Civets are found here too and, according to reports, some coffee producers now want to use them to make an Indian version of kopi luwak. Narendra Hebbar, who runs a start-up called Coorg Consolidated Coffee, was quoted saying they want to name this Coorg Luwark Coffee. Hebbar hopes to harvest half a tonne this year, which is quite an increase from 60 kgs produced in 2015-16 and 200 kgs last year. In American scholar Wil l i a m I a n Mil ler ’s study The Anatomy of Disg ust he di f ferentiates between how “the disgust of surfeit makes the once alluring now disgusting, while the disgust of reaction formation uses disgust to create desire, or if not precisely to create it, then surely to augment it to those dam-breaking levels.” Civet coffee would seem to be an excellent example of the second category, where initial disgust at the idea operates to make the appeal even stronger. The problem is that evidence for any such special f lavour is rather elusive. Research on kopi luwak shows that the civet’s gastric juices do affect the beans, but evaluating what this means for the flavour is complicated by what could be called the wine label effect.
This is the finding, confirmed repeatedly by research, that when people think they are drinking a fine bottle of wine they automatically rate it better, regardless of the actual quality of the wine. Flavour is a physical sensation, but clearly mental expectations play a role too. Kopi luwak may have been a local oddity, treated almost as a joke in the coffee industry.
But when that oddity came to wider attention, playing on the disgust-desire appeal outlined by Miller, it became a selfreinforcing trend. As is often the case, American popular culture played a key role. Kopi luwak was mentioned in the film The Bucket List, as something people had to try before they died, and it has featured in several TV shows. Demand for kopi luwak started rising and as the prices people paid for it rose, it became easier to persuade them that it really did taste better.
The rising prices were also an incen- in elephant dung.”
In reality, of course, the selling point is the pleasant frisson that consumers get when they use a product they know was once dung. It’s similar to the pellets soaked in lion urine that are sold in the USA as cat repellent. Again, there is proffered logic: cats are territorial and mark boundaries with urine, so when they sense a really big cat they run away. But who can doubt that using lion urine has its own appeal?
Some products derived from animal wastes do have practical value. Cow products are a special case due to their link with religion in India, but in one case they found a wider market. In the 18th century a pigment named Indian Yellow became popular with European artists for providing a vivid yellow. This was found to be made from the urine of cows fed mango leaves in Bihar, but the practice died out in the 1920s, partly because of the availability of synthetic pigments. Ambergris is a fatty substance used in perfumery, both for its own distinctive odour and its ability to ‘fix’ other aromas into lasting scents. Marco Polo was one of the first to discover and describe its strange origin: “voided from the entrails of whales”. Certain species of whales live on squid, which are boneless, except for their sharp beaks. Whales convert these in their guts into the substance that becomes ambergris when it is vomited out by living whales, or emerges from the carcasses of dead ones. It is collected on sea shores and is hugely valuable, but hard to harvest in any practical way. Guano is perhaps the animal waste that had the biggest impact on history. These deposits made by sea-birds in their roosting colonies on remote coral islands, were found to be very rich in phosphates that made it an extremely ef fective fer ti lizer. Regular bi rd droppings, for example from chickens, weren’t as useful – it required a combination of the diet of sea-birds of mineral rich fish from coral reefs that were subject to the heat and desiccating power of tropical suns.
Guano was used by people like the Incas in Peru for ages, but farmers across the world only became of its fertilizing properties in the early 19th century. This was exactly the time when large-scale farming was taking off, with plantations and the giant farms of the American Midwest. Guano fertilizers were a huge boon for such farmers and it set off a frantic hunt for remote guano islands. The real guano grab was made by the USA in the Pacific. In 1856 the US Congress passed the Guano Islands Act that authorised American citizens to take possession of any unclaimed islands that might contain guano. The result was the sudden addition to the USA of a number of islands that would come to play a critical role during World War II in the fight against Japan.
The other effect of guano mining was to focus attention on the bird colonies that had produced these rather strange riches, but which were being decimated by the extraction. In time this would contribute to the growth of the environmental movement. Perhaps any use of animal wastes must focus attention on the animals that produce them. Kopi luwak’s growing popularity has had one awful side effect – to cater to the growing demand it is increasingly being produced not from wild but caged civets. These animals which in the wild are used to roaming widely, are cooped up and force fed coffee berries. This has caused a backlash against kopi luwak, with some of its early importers in the West renouncing anything to do with the coffee.
It is not clear how Indian producers are planning to increase the scale of civet coffee production in India. Hopefully they will avoid using caged civets – but it is something that animal protection agencies should consider monitoring. And consumers might ask themselves if it is really worth buying a product whose actual taste benefits are dubious, simply to get a thrill on the disgust-desire scale.