Thailand’s Black Ivory brew is a coffee with a conscience

Expensive espresso: Thailand’s elephant dung coffee sells for about $1,880 per kilogramme – or $13 for an espresso-sized cup.

A mahout’s wife picks coffee beans out of elephant manure. AFP
Powered by automated translation

In the lush, green hills of northern Thailand, a woman painstakingly picks coffee beans from a pile of elephant dung, an essential part of making one of the world’s most costly beverages.

This remote corner of Thailand, which borders Myanmar and Laos, is better known for drug smuggling than coffee. But Blake Dinkin, 44, decided it was perfect for a legitimate enterprise that blends conservation with business.

“When I explained my project to the mahouts (elephant riders), I know that they thought I was crazy,” says the founder of Black Ivory Coffee, which uses the digestive tracts of elephants to create a high-end brew for coffee connoisseurs.

The rarity of the drink is a key part of its branding. Black Ivory produced 150 kilograms of coffee this year, its third successful harvest. At about US$1,880 per kilogram, or $13 for an espresso-sized cup, it does not come cheap.

But making coffee from pachyderm poop was harder than expected. “I thought it would be as simple as taking the beans, giving them to the elephant, and out will come great coffee,” says Mr Dinkin, adding that it took him more than nine years to succeed in his quest.

The enzymes in the elephant’s stomach serve as a kind of slow cooker, where the coffee beans marinate alongside the herbs and fruits that the animal eats.

As the beans work their way through the elephant’s digestive tract – a 17-hour process – the digestive acid eliminates the bean’s bitterness.

The mahouts’ wives collect the coffee beans from the elephant dung before washing and drying them in the sun, a division of labour that is boosting the local community’s income.

To make a kilogram of coffee, the elephants have to consume about 33kg of the beans, along with their usual ration of rice and bananas.

But Aleaume Paturle, the owner of Cafe Lomi in Paris, says the coffee brand is more gimmick than taste sensation.

“It’s fun but it’s not the best product. To make the best coffee, you’ve got to control fermentation. And when this is happening in the stomach of an animal, this is harder,” he says.

q&a coffee with a conscience

More details about elephant dung coffee:

Why elephants?

Initially, Mr Dinkin considered using civet cats to make “kopi luwak” coffee, which uses beans collected from the droppings of the Asian cats. But the quality of product has weakened as demand has grown in Southeast Asia. Civet cats are also often kept in cages and force-fed beans, contrary to Mr Dinkin’s desire to support the environment.

Any other animals in the mix?

Lions and giraffes also made the shortlist of prospective coffee filters, but Mr Dinkin settled on elephants after discovering the creatures sometimes eat coffee in Southeast Asia. He also teamed up with an elephant rescue charity which saves the creatures from the excesses of the tourist trade.

Does consuming coffee beans harm the elephants at all?

John Roberts, the director of the foundation which rescues elephants from the tourist trade, was initially sceptical of feeding elephants coffee beans but he changed his mind. “The caffeine doesn’t come out of the coffee bean until it’s boiled … so it’s fine for them to eat it,” he says. Also, families of mahouts are paid for collecting beans and 8 per cent of the sale price is donated to the charity.

Is it popular among tourists?

At the Anantara hotel in Chiang Saen, the coffee is prepared in front of guests in a 19th century French coffee machine. “It is a unique taste,” says Barbara Schautz, a German tourist, adding she could detect notes of caramel and chocolate in the brew.

Follow The National's Business section on Twitter