When Blake Dinkin first developed Black Ivory Coffee, he thought it was going to be as simple as feeding coffee cherries to elephants, allowing them to be digested and excreted, and the outcome would be even better coffee beans. He was wrong.
"It tasted horrible," Dinkin recalled. "It was worse than you could imagine. And you couldn't drink it."
It took Dinkin 10 years and about US$400,000 (12 million baht) to figure out how to process the coffee, so the end result would be a great cup of joe.
Today Dinkin is recognised as founder of Black Ivory Coffee _ a business that has manufactured and distributed coffee that bears the company's name _ which claims to be one of the most expensive and exclusive coffees in the world.
Also known as elephant dung coffee, Dinkin's brainchild was first inspired by his one-year experience working with African civets in Ethiopia.
While engaging himself in the production process of civet coffee, Dinkin saw some farmers taking the dung from the civets, rubbing it on to the coffee beans and then simply labelling them civet coffee.
"That was counterfeit civet coffee," he said. "And I didn't feel comfortable dealing with that."
The 2004 Sars outbreak also made Dinkin move from civets to elephants. The outbreak saw more than 10,000 civets exterminated in China as they were blamed for spreading the disease to humans. But why elephants?
According to the Canadian entrepreneur, there are many different factors for choosing elephants as business partners. First, elephants are monogastric, meaning they have only one stomach and therefore do not chew the cud.
Animals that have more than one stomach such as cows are not suitable for coffee production given they will keep chewing the portion of food that returns from their first stomach and the coffee beans will consequently be chewed up in the process.
Using the tuskers in his business is also part of his socially responsible plan.
This brewing machine dates back to the 1840s and according to the inventor of elephant dung coffee, Blake Dinkin, it is the best way to make a cup.
"I leant that in certain parts of Asia, during drought elephants were rampaging through coffee plantations because the fields were irrigated and they were trying to get the fruit from the coffee [trees] and other fruit that were in the area. Because of that, homes were destroyed. As a result, elephants were being killed.
"So I thought perhaps I could take a negative [aspect of elephants] and make it into a positive one," said Dinkin.
To look for the right place for production, Dinkin travelled to more than 35 elephant sanctuaries in Indonesia, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam before ending up at the Golden Triangle Elephant Foundation in Thailand's Chiang Rai province.
"People use the word 'sanctuary' in Thailand very liberally. Many of the so-called sanctuaries are actually for profit initiatives," commented Dinkin.
"As an entrepreneur, if I give 8% of sales proceeds to an organisation, I wanted to know what it was being used for. The Golden Triangle Elephant Foundation is very transparent in its operations. There, a lot of elephants were rescued. Eighteen of them were saved from the streets."
The entire production process, he explained, starts with finding good-quality coffee beans in Thailand. After spending a couple of months travelling around northern Thailand, including Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai, finally he found good-quality Arabica coffee cherries. After that, the coffee cherries are mixed with fruits and fed to elephants, which can be of any gender and age before allowing 15 to 17 hours for the coffee to be digested and excreted.
Interestingly, after the coffee cherries go into elephants' stomachs, there is an enzyme that breaks down a protein in the coffee beans. Protein is one of the factors responsible for the bitterness. Therefore, less protein means less bitter coffee.
Elephant stomachs also acts as a natural container for the coffee to ferment. And because elephants are herbivores, they eat a lot of green leafy materials, which benefits the coffee fermentation.
Even without elephants, fermentation is very significant in the coffee making process.
Thailand’s Arabica coffee beans are used in the production process.
Wives of the mahouts handpick the coffee beans from the elephant dung, one bean at a time. The beans are washed and dried at the sanctuary before being transported to Bangkok for further processing, which includes removing the flakes and being roasted. It takes approximately 32kg of coffee cherries to make 1kg of Black Ivory Coffee.
"The reason behind such a high ratio between the coffee cherries and the end product is due to several factors," Dinkin explained. "A lot of beans get chewed up by the elephants and they are broken. We cannot use those. And when elephants swim, we lose beans in the water. When they deposit the coffee on the ground, many times we lose the beans on the grass. Lastly, it's because of the sorting process in which we discard small beans because if you keep them, you have a high risk of an uneven roast resulting in a burnt flavour."
When it comes to elephant-processed coffee, perhaps among the most important questions are: Are there any health impacts on the world's largest land mammal? Are they at risk of caffeine overdose?
"No, definitely not," Dinkin stressed. "Heat releases the caffeine in the coffee, which is why coffee is roasted at 200C and brewed it at 93C. The heat draws the oil from the beans. When they are green, the oil is nestled deep inside the beans, plus you have all the extra layers which prevent caffeine from coming out when elephants start eating it." Dinkin hopes the elephant dung coffee makes some social impacts, too. "What I am trying to do is allow elephants to be elephants. Elephants like eating and on a short-term basis, this helps captive elephants live a better life, and helps mahouts and their families also. It's not going to be millions of dollars but it's going to make a difference," said Dinkin, adding the reason he named it Black Ivory Coffee is because he wanted to represent the idea against ivory smuggling, elephant exterminating and animal poaching.
Last year, Dinkin produced only 70kg of elephant dung coffee and this year, production is expected to reach 300kg. In Thailand, the coffee is available at a few leading hotels at 1,200 baht a package (for four servings).
Having worked with elephants for so many years, Dinkin hopes to see the conditions of elephants and mahouts, especially in Thailand, improve.
"As an entrepreneur, I can provide a steady income for families so that money can improve their standard of living. Thais have special connections with elephants. There has been a long history and association with elephants in this country. So elephants are definitely of great importance to the Thais. I don't think they can be left in isolation."
About the author
- Writer: Arusa Pisuthipan