IN THE lush hills of northern Thailand, a herd of 20 elephants are brewing up the world’s most expensive coffee – in their guts.
The £310-a-pound coffee is made from beans eaten by the elephants, which ferment in their intestines and are then recovered from their dung before being processed. Its producer says the resulting coffee has a unique taste.
Black Ivory Coffee was launched last month at a few luxury hotels, in northern Thailand, tthe Maldives and Abu Dhabi selling for about £30 a cup.
The coffee’s production site is in the Golden Triangle, an area once known for producing hard drugs in the misty mountains where Thailand meets Laos and Myanmar.
The coffee’s creator cites biology and scientific research to answer the all-consuming question: why elephants? “When an elephant eats coffee, its stomach acid breaks down the protein found in coffee, which is a key factor in bitterness,” said Canadian Blake Dinkin, 42, who has spent £190,000 developing the coffee. “You end up with a cup that’s very smooth without the bitterness of regular coffee.”
The result is similar to civet coffee, or kopi luwak, another exorbitantly expensive variety extracted from the excrement of the weasel-like civet. But the elephants’ massive stomach provides a bonus, the intestinal equivalent of a slow cooker, taking up to 30 hours to process the beans, which stew with bananas and sugar cane to infuse earthy, fruity flavours. “A natural fermentation process takes place in the elephant’s gut,” said Mr Dinkin. “That fermentation imparts flavours you wouldn’t get from other coffees.”
At the jungle retreat that is home to the herd, conservationists were initially sceptical. “My initial thought was about caffeine – won’t the elephants get wired on it?” said John Roberts, director of elephants at the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation, a refuge for rescued elephants. It now earns 8 per cent of the coffee’s total sales, which go toward the herd’s care. “As far as we can tell there is no harm to the elephants.”
As for the coffee’s inflated price, Mr Dinkin half-joked that elephants are highly inefficient workers. It takes 72lbs of raw coffee cherries to produce 2lbs of Black Ivory coffee. Most of the beans get chewed up, broken or lost in tall grass after being excreted. Mr Dinkin uses pure arabica beans hand-picked by hill-tribe women from a small mountain estate. Once the elephants do their business, the wives of elephant mahouts collect the dung, break it open and pick out the coffee. After a thorough washing, the coffee cherries are processed to extract the beans, which are then brought to a gourmet roaster in Bangkok.
Inevitably, the elephant coffee has become the butt of jokes. Mr Dinkin shared his favourites: Crap-accino. Good to the last dropping. Elephant poop coffee.
Jokes aside, people are drinking it. Black Ivory’s maiden batch of 150lbs has sold out. And Mr Dinkin hopes to crank out six times that amount in 2013, catering to a customer he sees as affluent and adventurous with a desire to tell a good story.