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There's a New Most Expensive Coffee In the World

Every once in a while a fad comes along that makes you wonder just what people are thinking. Exhibit A for this phenomenon, for me, has always been kopi luwak, also known as civet coffee. If you're unfamiliar with kopi luwak, it works like this: the seeds of coffee berries -- the part your beans come from -- are fed to a palm civet, which is a small ground-dwelling rodent found in Asia and Africa. The beans are partially digested, and after the civet passes the beans, they're washed (we hope), roasted, ground, and sent to market.

Civet coffee has been praised for its sublime taste. During the digestive process, the protease enzyme results in shorter peptide chains and more amino acids. Because of the taste (and the unusual selection process), the beans command top dollar; at upward of 700 dollars per kilo, they were the most expensive coffee beans in the world.

Until now, that is. Kopi luwak has been displaced by Black Ivory Coffee, which we could colloquially call elephant coffee. Yes, people are feeding coffee to elephants, and packaging the... results. The price? Close to $1,200 per kilo, with a cup of the coffee, which has highly limited availability, costing $50 per cup.

While you're muttering a silent prayer of thanks for your four-dollar latte, let's examine why elephant coffee is so expensive.

Black Ivory Coffee's higher price is due in part to the fact that elephants, unlike civets, are herbivores. Therefore, while the civet only partially digests the beans, the digestion process for elephants is much more complete. The result is a much lower yield per kilogram of beans ingested by even a single elephant. By some estimates, it takes upward of 33 kilograms (more than 70 pounds) to get one kilogram (roughly two pounds) of usable coffee, since most of the beans have been digested by the elephant. The price, in other words, is due in large part to the large amount of waste (no, the other kind) in the process.

Civet cats are often caged for the production of kopi luwak.

In both cases, the coffee has a taste that's smoother and less bitter. But there's also an ethical downside to both Kopi luwak and Black Ivory Coffee. On the one hand, there's a human cost; those beans that cost hundreds of dollars per kilogram are only netting their growers and collectors an average of $20 per kilogram. Also, the high prices have led to the industrialization of the process, with civets being kept in pens by the thousands (the elephants, in contrast, are on a preserve in Thailand). Since neither of these practices are regulated, it can be difficult if not nearly impossible for the average consumer to figure out the provenance of these beans.

Are either of these coffees -- Kopi luwak or Black Ivory Coffee -- worth their astronomical price tag? On one hand, we have the taste, which is a subjective indicator at best. The process of getting coffee from plant to table includes so may variables in selection, roasting and brewing that the addition of a mammal to the equation may not have much of an impact. Besides, studies have shown that higher price tags influence perception of taste (possibly, we'd suggest, as a hedge against buyer's remorse). On the other hand, the provenance of these coffees might leave a bitter aftertaste, no matter what else the enzymes may have done to the beans in the process.

If you'd like a more ethical cup of coffee, may we suggest our Madison Ave Medium Roast whole bean coffee (civet not included)?

Find out more about the process behind civet coffee here: