In northeastern Thailand, Arabica beans are fed to elephants, and then picked out from their waste before being washed and roasted to produce Black Ivory Coffee. Sound familiar? That’s probably because you’re likening it to kopi luwak, aka civet coffee, which is made from coffee beans plucked from the faeces of Asian palm civets. Funnily enough, that’s how Black Ivory Coffee Canadian-born founder Blake Dinkin’s story begins.
“Around 2002, before there was Black Ivory Coffee, I was trying to commercialise kopi luwak. I ended up in Ethiopia for about a year and was working with about 1,000 wild civets and civet farmers. I faced all kinds of problems then, from matters around counterfeiting to ethical issues,” says Dinkin.
“Then in 2003, there was the SARS epidemic. Some authorities claimed that civets were the ones responsible for spreading the disease. This bad reputation civets were getting, coupled with the fact that I wasn’t comfortable with the conditions the animals were kept, made me decide to exit the kopi luwak scene.
“Then I discovered that elephants actually eat coffee beans naturally, especially in times of drought, and decided to explore my options with the gentle giants.”
What makes Black Ivory Coffee so special?
Black Ivory Coffee is made from coffee cherries that are collected from the excrement of elephants in the remote village of Ban Taklang in Surin Province, Thailand. The entire process is a long one, involving steps such as incorporating coffee cherries into the elephants’ favourite snacks like bananas, tamarind and rice, and hoping it will eat it. (In the words of Dinkin: There is no way you can force-feed something so massive – that’s wrong – and, at the end of the day, elephants just do what they want, really!)
Once the cherries are ingested, they go through the elephant’s digestive tract – a process that can take anywhere from 12 to 72 hours depending on the amount of food that’s already in their stomach– before being deposited by the elephants. The cherries are then handpicked from the dung by the elephant caregivers and are washed, dried in the sun, and then roasted and packed in a one-way valve bag to guarantee freshness. It takes about 33 kilograms of the beans to produce just 1kg of Black Ivory Coffee, and its limited quantities are why many consider this to be one of the rarest coffees out there.
The production process aside, Black Ivory Coffee is also known for its unique taste, and a lot of it has to do with the science of how the beans are broken down while in an elephant’s digestive tract. “Elephants are herbivores, and for their systems to break down the cellulose found in all the green matter they consume, fermentation is required and that’s what happens in the elephants’ guts,” explains Dinkin.
“As we all know, fermentation is great for many things, including beer, wine, and even coffee, as it helps to bring out the sugar in the coffee beans and it ultimately removes the bitterness in the beans.” Tasting notes to expect include chocolate, earthiness with a hint of grass, spice (think tobacco and even leather), and some dried fruitiness. As much as Black Ivory Coffee caters to coffee lovers, Dinkin is quick to point out that tea enthusiasts would also know how to appreciate this special beverage, which is found at several five-star properties around the world and costs about US$50 per cup – because it’s smooth and very delicate.
The ethical questions
Over the last few years, there’s been talk about kopi luwak and how certain brands selling the civet coffee have come under fire for unethical production methods that involve animal abuse. Coming to this realisation early pushed Dinkin out of the controversial industry, and today, he’s glad to be giving back to society and doing his part for Mother Nature while being at the forefront of Black Ivory Coffee.
“It’s completely different from kopi luwak, where major problems like caging the civets, letting them live in poor conditions, and force-feeding them were (and still are) everywhere. It isn’t in line with what I wanted to do, which is make a positive difference in the world,” says Dinkin.
The Black Ivory Coffee founder thinks about all the good that has come out of this particular project of his: “We’re working with rescued elephants that were formerly under abusive owners, and what I pay in wages goes beyond fair trade. In Thailand, a coffee picker typically earns about seven baht per kilo. For Black Ivory Coffee, I pay 350 baht per kilogram of picked coffee. That’s 50 times more than the average.”
As part of their commitment to elephant welfare and conservation, Black Ivory Coffee also works closely with the Golden Triangle Elephant Foundation to educate younger generations on the importance of protecting elephants in Thailand as well as addressing the issues of human-elephant conflict, including cases where local farmers have been known to kill the large mammals because they blame them for causing serious crop damage. With Black Ivory Coffee, Dinkin simply wants to offer a product that helps, not hurts, the elephants, and for man and animal to work in unison.
Of course, all of this does not come without a set of challenges. Dinkin says that even though he’s happy with the reputable elephant caregivers and owners he’s working with, he admits the elephants that are part of the Black Ivory Coffee process could use a little more time stretching their legs and wandering around. “I’m working towards changing that. I want to try and get funding to put pedometers on the legs of these elephants to monitor how much they’re walking and moving around, and hopefully, this creates a sort of benchmark.”
Does Dinkin have any other future plans in mind? The answer is ‘yes’. “I’m playing around with various processing techniques to create different kinds of coffee under the Black Ivory label so people can have a choice when it comes to flavours and so on.”
Visit the official website of Black Ivory Coffee to make a purchase or to find out more.