I s#&% you not: The world’s most expensive coffee is now being produced in Thailand’s Golden Triangle, a region better known for another high-priced, if illegal, export: opium.
Canadian entrepreneur Blake Dinkin, 44, is betting his life savings he can turn his idea into, well, gold. Here’s the catch: His Black Ivory Coffee is made by passing coffee beans through the not insubstantial stomachs of elephants and then picking the beans out of, well, yeah, that.
It’s similar to Kopi Luwak, the civet coffee that was all the rage a few years back; Dinkin has just supersized the idea.
He knows Kopi Luwak’s image has been trashed because of concerns over counterfeiting, disease and animal abuse. But he insists there’s nothing fake — or frivolous — about Black Ivory Coffee.
“Look, there are easier ways to make money,” he says. “I wouldn’t spend 10 years and put my life savings if I didn’t think it was real, or I thought it was just going to be an overnight gag.”
Gag. Right. Let’s just dispense with the jokes here and now, shall we?
“Crappacino,” “Brew No. 2,” “Good to the last dropping” — Dinkin has heard them all.
And while he’s a good sport about it, it’s clear he’s tired of them, too. He’d rather talk about what makes his brew different — and better — than Kopi Luwak. And it starts with the idea that elephants, unlike humans or civets, are herbivores.
“They eat a lot of grass, green leafy matter. So a herbivore, to break that down, utilizes fermentation to break down that cellulose,” he says. “Fermentation is great for things like wine, beer, coffee because it brings out sugar in bean and imparts the fruit from the coffee pulp into the bean.”
And that fermentation that helps remove the bitterness, Dinkins says, is what makes his coffee unique.
“I want people to taste the bean, not just the roast,” he says. “The aroma is floral and chocolate, the taste is chocolate malt with a bit of cherry. There’s no bitterness. And it’s very soft, like tea. So it’s kind of like a cross between coffee and tea.”
To get to that point, the coffee beans are mixed into a mash with fruit then fed to the elephants either by mouth, or hoovered right up the trunk. The latter pretty much sounds like a whole lot of change being sucked up a vacuum cleaner hose.
Then you wait anywhere from one to three days for the elephant to offload its cargo, pick the beans out of the elephant dung (if you can find it), lather, rinse, repeat. It’s not always easy finding “the result,” which is one of the reasons it takes about 33 pounds of coffee beans to make just one pound of Black Ivory Coffee.
And it’s not just the slower cooker that makes the coffee different, Dinkin says. He sources his Arabica beans from hill tribes in the north of Thailand near the border with Myanmar. The drying process is long and the roasting process is precise.
And then there are the elephants. Specifically, how do you go about finding willing vessels? What would you do if some guy cold-called you and said he wanted to use your elephants as slow cookers?
John Roberts, the director of the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation, remembers this.
“As long as we could prove there wasn’t any caffeine or anything harmful leaking out then it was worth trying, at least,” he says.
Was Roberts worried about the elephants hitting the mash a little too hard? Not really.
“It’s not necessarily elephants getting buzzed I’m too worried about, it’s more elephants missing their caffeine fix and getting headaches and being bad tempered … it’s very dangerous. The last thing you want is a cranky elephant,” says Roberts.
So what does brew No. 2 taste like? I bought a serving — five or six espresso cups — for $70, and sat on the terrace of the five-star Anantara Golden Triangle hotel to watch Dinkin prepare the “experience.”
First, he ground it lovingly. Then he brewed it, again with love. And then, after it cooled, I was ready.
The first thing that came to my (admittedly) juvenile mind was a scene from an Austin Powers movie where he says, “It’s a bit nutty.”
And in fact the elephant poop coffee was a bit nutty. But also very flavorful and not at all bitter — just as Dinkin had promised.
I then went inside to pimp a few cups to hotel guests. And as luck would have it, the first I met was a Finn. And the Finns drink more coffee per capita than anyone else in the world. Which made Juha Hiekkamaki the perfect subject as he sipped—tentatively.
“Yes, that’s kind of very interesting, because usually I use a lot of sugar with coffee, but this is a very gentle taste and I really quite like it,” he noted.
And then it got better, because his wife, Claire is a Brit. And she doesn’t even drink coffee. Her verdict?
“It’s sort of fruity. Well, OK, it’s raisin-y to me,” she said. “I normally describe drinking coffee as bit like drinking puddle water. But it doesn’t have that terrible muddy water flavor afterward. It’s really nice. I really like it.”
Don’t expect Black Ivory in a Starbuck’s near you. Dinkin is selling an experience, limited — for now — to five-star hotels and resorts in Asia and the Middle East. And one tiny store in Comfort, Tex., called The Elephant Story, where the profits go to elephant conservation.
“I’m not looking to sell a lot of it,” Dinkin says. “I want to keep as small, niche business, I get to work with people in enjoy being with and I can make a decent living doing it and everyone’s happy, that’s what I want.”
So far, he’s still not quite there. But he says he’s close to breaking even.