The sun rises over a branch of the Mekong River in northern Thailand that serves as bathing waters for local elephants.
Blake Dinkin, a Toronto entrepreneur, carefully watches a few of the large mammals.
"Oh, there!" Dinkin says, cringing as he points to the river. An elephant has just taken a dump and an island of feces is now floating downstream. Dinkin stares at it.
"We can’t save it," he says.
Once the elephant poop is wet, Dinkin can’t sift through it and recover the hidden nuggets of coffee beans hidden within. He’s already lost several thousand dollars this way.
The Torontonian is the first person in the world to feed raw coffee cherries to elephants and harvest them from the elephant’s deposits to make some of the most exclusive and expensive coffee in the world.
The Black Ivory Coffee is found in exclusive hotels for about $50-60 Cdn a cup or can be purchased online for around $130 for just over 100 grams.
Each elephant eats 150 kilograms of food a day. Dinkin slips a few coffee cherries into their diet, but they can be fussy about what they eat. Dinkin mixes tamarind, salt and other fruits into their food, depending on the elephant’s preferences.
"It’s like being a waiter in a restaurant," said Dinkin. "Some elephants like it ... a little more plain. Other elephants like it with some rice. Some elephants like it with banana."
It takes one to two days for the coffee cherries to make their full trip through the elephants digestive tract. During that time, they pick the flavours of the elephant’s diet, giving the coffee a distinctive taste, says Dinkin.
To make a single kilogram of coffee beans, it takes about 33 kilograms of raw coffee cherries. Many beans are crushed when the elephant chews or lost in the river during bathing.
From civets to elephants
Over a decade ago, Dinkin was aiming to market civet cat coffee from Africa. The pricey coffee was popular several years ago. Known in Indonesian as kopi luwak, it also involves the red, ripe cherries encasing the coffee bean being eaten by the animal.
But he decided to move on after finding its production fraught with fraud. Farmers often would merely wipe cat feces over coffee beans to pass the beans off as digested, he says.
His quest led him to various animals and took him to Indonesia before he finally settled on elephants in Thailand.
The key reason he chose elephants was they only have one stomach and consume a lot of food in a day. Also, coffee cherries may naturally have been part of an elephant’s diet, if grown in an area where they were grazing, he says.
Dinkin works in partnership with the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation, a sanctuary for rescued elephants. It’s located in the far northwest corner of Thailand where the country meets Burma and Laos, an area once synonymous with opium production.
John Roberts, who runs the sanctuary, remembers his first thought when Dinkin approached him with the idea.
"Am I going to have a lot of wired elephants on my hands? Am I going to have a lot of depressed elephants on my hands with headaches and withdrawal symptoms if we aren’t feeding [them coffee]?"
Dinkin worked with a veterinarian at the Toronto Zoo to show that the caffeine won’t absorb into the elephants’ bloodstream. With his worries quelled, Roberts gave Dinkin the green light for production.
Roberts says if the idea takes off, he envisions herds of wild elephants devoted to the task of producing the coffee.
"It could pay for the total upkeep of elephants and mahouts, [a person who takes care of elephants], and families and that is a goal."
Many of the elephants’ handlers were destitute before arriving at the reserve he runs in association with the luxury hotel chain Anantara.
Thailand banned logging in 1989, leaving many mahouts without a source of income from their elephants. Many ended up living on the street, struggling to find a way to provide for their families and feed their elephants.
The broader impact
Dinkin knew he needed the co-operation of the mahouts for his business idea to work. The idea of feeding elephants coffee cherries and then sifting through their excrement to pick them out wasn’t immediately appealing to the mahouts.
To motivate them, the entrepreneur decided he would need to pay them extremely well.
Nowadays, the mahouts and their wives can make the equivalent of a day’s worth of pay in about an hour.
The impact of that extra cash is evident in the mahouts’ small village nestled in the forest of the elephant sanctuary. Every family seems to have at least one scooter and is able to send their kids to school. One woman CBC spoke with said next year she will be able to afford a car, too.
At the sanctuary, Dinkin scoops a handful of the Thai Arabica beans that have been drying in the shade after being excreted.
He holds them to his nose. "You can definitely tell there is some elephant there," he says, describing it as a bouquet.
Perfecting the brew
Dinkin says it took nine years of trial and error to perfect the coffee. At first, it tasted horrible.
The scale of Dinkin’s production is small, at about 300 kilograms a year, and the price of the coffee is steep at around $1,500 per kilogram of beans. Still, demand is outstripping supply.
"Hotels are re-ordering, and we are getting inquiries from all over the world."
As Dinkin watches the elephants dig into their coffee cherry-infused morning meal, he admits to feeling proud.
"When I first approached people with the idea, they thought I was crazy."
He acknowledges the coffee is not for everyone.
"There is always going to be people who are going to be put off by the process," says Dinkin. "This is a small niche market."
Ultimately, though, the bottom line lies in how the coffee tastes. Dinkin describes it as floral, earthy and full-bodied.
"And there are lingering notes of chocolate," he adds, with the playful glint in his eye.