This might come as a surprise, but not everything that comes out of an elephant’s ass has to taste like it came out of an elephant’s ass. And while flavor might not be the first thing most of us think of when we see elephant dung, that’s not necessarily true for everybody.
Blake Dinkin was thinking about both flavor and texture when he started Black Ivory Coffee in 2012. You won’t be paying peanuts for it, either. At roughly $1,000 per pound, it has since become the most expensive coffee in the world, only available roasted to order or at some of the world’s most exclusive resorts and hotels.
Making Black Ivory Coffee is a process similar to the once popular but now controversial kopi luwak coffee. Somewhere in Indonesia, someone figured out Asian palm civets choose the best coffee cherries and eat them whole. When the catlike creature defecates, it leaves whole-bean coffee in its fecal matter.
Then someone else had the idea that these whole beans could be roasted (presumably after an intensive cleaning process), ground, and served. The civets’ digestive processes are said to cut down on the proteins that cause bitterness in the taste, allegedly producing a very smooth cup.
Later, after the idea (and the price tag) took off, someone else decided to mass farm the once-rare delicacy. They started caging the animals and force-feeding them coffee to increase the output available, making the idea of coffee picked out of cat poop somehow less palatable.
Although the basic process is the same for Black Ivory Coffee, you can (mostly) feel good about where Dinkin’s coffee comes from.
Black Ivory Coffee passes through the digestive tracts of the endangered Asian elephant, which he has access to through a partnership with Thailand’s Golden Triangle Elephant Sanctuary. The sanctuary rescues abused and mistreated elephants, giving about 200 elephants a home where they can roam free and eat their natural diet — which includes coffee berries.
There’s no force-feeding elephants to get Black Ivory beans. The elephants eat them when they want to and excrete them as they normally would. The wives of mahouts, lifelong elephant herders bonded to their animals, are Black Ivory’s primary bean pickers. They have to go out and find the droppings, pick through them, and gather the beans. If they can’t find a pile, it’s okay. There’s always more where that came from.
Not being able to find an elephant dump is just one of the reasons it takes 33 pounds of coffee berries to produce 1 pound of Black Ivory beans. And the sanctuary “runs on Dinkin,” as donations from his company support the animals, their handlers, and other workers — that’s how you get a $50 cup of coffee.
While the idea of spending that much on coffee might be hard for some to swallow, Dinkin believes it’s the elephant’s natural diet that gives Black Ivory Coffee its smooth flavor.
In elephants, coffee cherries are digested over the span of 15 to 30 hours, along with whatever else the elephant would normally eat, which often includes bananas and sugar cane. He says a kind of fermentation process takes place, infusing the fruit flavors into the bean while releasing natural sugars and cutting the acid.
Dinkin knows his shit. He’s worked with civets before and even moved to Ethiopia to learn the ins and outs of the coffee world. The controversy surrounding kopi luwak spurred him to search for other animals that could produce a better brew without being the butt of a joke.
After experimenting with rhinos, hippos, and giraffes — without mentioning what happened during those trials — he determined that elephants would be the ideal animals. There was one lingering question: Did elephants absorb the caffeine from the coffee? The sanctuary wasn’t worried about the elephants getting their fix; they were more worried about what happens if they don’t.
“It’s not necessarily elephants getting buzzed that I’m too worried about; it’s elephants missing their caffeine fix and having headaches and being bad-tempered,” John Roberts, director of the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation, told NPR in a 2014 interview. “The last thing you want is a cranky elephant.”
Dinkin hired a veterinarian to see if the elephants absorbed the caffeine from the coffee. When he was given the green light that they did not, he looked to a place that had both elephants and coffee: Thailand. There, elephants eat choice Thai Arabica beans, harvested at an altitude of 1,500 meters.
Instead of the animal choosing the best berries, they’re chosen by caregivers and fed to the elephants as a snack. Once harvested, the beans are cleaned and dried by local high school students, usually the children of the mahouts. The beans are then sorted, as only the biggest and best beans will be roasted to order.
To top off the decadence, the ideal brewing method for Black Ivory Coffee is an elaborate 1840s French-style copper siphon brewer that costs roughly $600. The end result is a smooth cup that Dinkin says is truly unique.
“The aroma is floral and chocolate; the taste is chocolate malt with a bit of cherry,” he said. “There’s no bitterness; and it’s very soft, like tea. So it’s kind of like a cross between coffee and tea.”
Black Ivory Coffee is available on the Black Ivory Coffee website, sold as whole bean, a blend called “The Mahout’s Blend,” or in Nespresso pods.