FOOD & TRAVEL
On the trail of 'black ivory'
Elephant-processed coffee offers something to sniff at
"It's slightly floral," says British tourist Ian Nuttall, delicately sniffing his tiny cup of Black Ivory Coffee.
"You can't taste the chocolate but you can smell it," he adds, sitting on the veranda of the Elephant Bar at the five-star Anantara Golden Triangle Hotel in Chiang Saen, about 800 kilometres north of Bangkok. "It's unlike any other coffee I've had."
"Chocolaty" might be a surprising first reaction to coffee made from beans that have passed through an elephant, but there is no doubt that Black Ivory Coffee offers the palate something different.
"This is not going to be a Starbucks brand," says Blake Dinkin, the Canadian founder of the world's first coffee brand made from beans excreted by pachyderms.
"It's a very distinctive cup of coffee, and I don't want it ending up in cheap cafes or as some sort of gimmick."
Dinkin, 42, has invested the past decade and about US$300,000 (Bt9.19 million) into turning coffee beans into black gold, or at least making them profitable enough to make the money back.
His journey started in 2002 in Ethiopia, where Dinkin attempted to convince civet farmers to use their livestock to process coffee beans.
Civets, indigenous to both Africa and Asia, have been raised for centuries in Ethiopia to produce civetone, a perfume ingredient.
In Indonesia, the civet has been used more recently to create a high-quality coffee made from coffee beans that the mammal has ingested.
But trouble struck when human-to-civet contact in China, where the animals are bred for the table, was blamed for the outbreak of the Sars epidemic of 2003.
The backlash was "a disaster" for his civet-coffee venture in Ethiopia, Dinkin says. "That's when I realised I needed an animal that was going to be considered clean, and I decided on the elephant. It's also herbivorous, majestic and the symbol of conservation."
Only single-stomached animals have the right enzymes to break down the proteins of the ripe coffee cherry and reduce its bitter flavour, which rules out cud-chewing, multi-stomached animals like cows.
In theory, humans could also be used, but we tend to chew our food too much, damaging the coffee beans and making them harder to clean and roast, aside from other marketing considerations.
The elephant has the added advantage that it takes just 24 hours to pass food through its lower intestines, in a natural fermentation process that imparts the "floral" aroma to Black Ivory Coffee, Dinkin says.
Blood tests on bean-munching elephants have shown no ill effect, as the fruit does not release its caffeine until turned into coffee.
After years of such tests and other research, Dinkin settled on Thailand as the best location for his enterprise.
The country has more than 2,000 domesticated elephants, most of whom have been unemployed since the kingdom imposed a ban on logging in 1988. It is also a producer of high-quality coffee, mostly arabica.
In March, Dinkin decided to collaborate with the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation, run by John Roberts in Chiang Saen, Chiang Rai province.
The foundation takes care of 13 elephants, saved from the streets of Bangkok, where their mahouts used to take them begging. Roberts also looks after 12 elephants used for tourist rides at the Golden Triangle Anantara Hotel.
Since June, the foundation's elephants have also been working as coffee-bean processors.
The foundation pays the mahouts Bt15,000 a month for the use of their elephants, and Black Ivory Coffee pays the mahouts' wives Bt80 per kilogram of coffee beans recovered from the dung.
"The way I see it, this is extra money for the mahouts without the elephants having to do extra work," Roberts says.
Currently, all the coffee is sold directly to the Anantara hotel group, which has properties in Thailand, the Maldives and Abu Dhabi.
The coffee fetches about $44 dollars for 35 grams at the hotels, ranking it among the world's most expensive brews.
Dinkin justifies the price, explaining that it takes 30 kilograms of coffee beans to produce 1 kilogram of Black Ivory Coffee, due to heavy losses during the eating and recovering of the beans.
"If they go for a swim and take a dump I lose the whole load," he says. He also points to the labour-intensive nature of the whole process.
Dinkin expects to produce only 30 kilograms of his specialised coffee this year, rising to 300 in 2013.
He eventually hopes to get up to 800-900 kilograms per year. I'm not trying to sell 200,000 kilos a year," Dinkin said. "I'm aiming at being a niche, feel-good product."