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Meet the Canadian Trying to Make Elephant-Poo Coffee a Thing

Blake Dinkin is trying to revolutionize coffee. Just don't think about where those beans have been.

Blake Dinkin, right, feeds an elephant in Thailand coffee cherries. Photo courtesy of Black Ivory Coffee

This post originally appeared on VICE Canada.

Picking through a giant pile of shit to find coffee beans might not sound appealing, but what if you could sell said coffee for $50 to $60 a cup? Maybe you'd reconsider your career path. Ask Blake Dinkin. In 2002, after hearing that Kopi Luwak coffee (made with beans that are first digested by an animal called a civet) fetched those kind of prices, he decided to leave his job working for a Japanese trading company in Toronto and go full-tilt into the animal-poop coffee game.

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"It really appealed to me as something that was international, entrepreneurial, and I thought I could try to do it on my own," Dinkin says. But other than these aspects, he says, making a positive social impact and ensuring the animals' health and safety during the process was crucial.

With the help of an expert from University of Guelph, he learned more about this exotic type of coffee, and eventually relocated to Ethiopia—one of the only places in the world, he says, where civets were kept in captivity at the time.

"[The farmers] totally thought I was nuts, and as a result, what they tried to do at first was take the dung of this animal, rub it on the beans, and sell it to me that way," Dinkins says. On top of that, he wasn't happy with the conditions the civets were being kept in.

Of course, just covering beans in civet shit doesn't make them taste better. What makes coffee that's been ejected out of civets' buttholes so yummy is that their digestive system removes the protein—the main culprit responsible for bitterness in coffee.

An African civet. Photo via Flickr user Cliff

In 2003 and 2004, while Dinkin was dealing with bogus, shit-smeared coffee in Ethiopia, he hit another snag: the SARS outbreak. He quickly learned that civets were one of the animals that could be infected with the deadly virus. "It was a disaster; it's not good PR, it's not good marketing," Dinkin told me over the phone in Bangkok, where he now works. Scrambling to find an alternate animal, Dinkin looked into everything from hippos, rhinos, and giraffes to cows and buffalo. For various reasons—their dental structure, accessibility, and safety of being near them (gathering rhino shit is pretty terrifying)—none of those animals worked out.

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Around the same time, he heard stories of elephants rampaging through villages in West African and South Asian countries during times of drought to eat coffee cherries because their usual food supply was scarce. There were accounts of elephants destroying crops and homes in the process, which eventually led to humans improvising some pachyderm pest control using poisoned watermelons.

Returning to Toronto armed with his newfound knowledge of coffee-hungry elephants, Dinkin says he convinced a local zoo near Guelph, Ontario, to let him conduct trials with elephants to ensure they could safely digest coffee beans.

According to Dinkin, getting that final balance of flavors wasn't easy. "I honestly thought it was going to be as simple as giving them some good coffee, out it comes, wash it off, and you could start to drink it," he says. "I can tell you that first time, it tasted and smelled exactly as you would think; it was disgusting." After an exhausting number of trials, Dinkin headed back to school, temporarily defeated, to finish his MBA, and worked another job. But during his holidays, determined to make it work, he traveled to an elephant sanctuary in Indonesia to perform more trials.

In March 2012, he finally was happy with his recipe. The resulting taste, according to Dinkin, is "dark chocolate, malt, spice, a hint of grass." He quit his job and looked for a place to set up his elephant-poop coffee empire. After surveying 35 different elephant sanctuaries, he landed on one in Thailand, intrigued by the country's strong history with elephants and their quality locally grown coffee (of the Thai Arabica variety). Other important factors, he says, were that this sanctuary was charitable (8 percent of his sales go to the foundation he works with), included a full-time vet or technician on site, and its elephants were rescues—almost all had gone through some kind of physical or mental abuse. And while his struggles in Ethiopia had set a precedent for cultural differences to be an issue, the ones he encountered in Bangkok were of a different variety.

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At the elephant sanctuary in Thailand, the organization doesn't own the elephants, other people do. Therefore, Dinkin has to work with individual owners one on one. "Communication is difficult because never mind Thai, they're speaking a local language, so I have to rely on a translator," he says. "In the beginning, I discovered the translator was horrible. For example, if I said, 'Can you please work with me?' It would be translated as, 'You better get your ass over here and help me out or else!'"

In Thailand, Dinkin says, elephants are considered an important asset, almost like a house. The average income is around $3,600 per year and an elephant is worth about $30,000, so people are very protective of them. He had to constantly reassure elephant owners that the caffeine in the coffee beans wouldn't harm their animals, and his documented scientific proof didn't seem to make a difference. According to Dinkin, convincing elephant owners that their animals wouldn't die was one of the hardest parts since "they care more about their elephants than maybe their own wives or extended family."

Only the finest accoutrements for your morning cup of elephant poop coffee. Photo courtesy of Black Ivory Coffee

"To be blunt, I was hoping to have this nice, romantic vision where we're all one big, happy family, but it's not like that—it's kind of just monetary gain for them," Dinkin says. He does offer a lucrative wage for those willing to pick coffee beans out of elephant dung. Within 45 minutes, one of his workers earns about $10, an amount equal to a whole day's regular pay in Thailand.

Today, he sells his Black Ivory Coffee's beans to select five-star hotels in Asia and the Middle East and is expanding this year to Europe and North America. Online, his coffee can be purchased for $180 per 100 grams plus shipping.

So what's next for Dinkin? He has a harvest coming up this spring; last year he produced 200 kilos (an amount that would bring in roughly $250,000), and this time around he's hoping for more. Oh, and he's currently at work with one of the top brewmasters in the world to create a beer tentatively pending release at the end of this year. Hopefully there won't be any animal poop involved.

Follow Allison Elkin on Twitter.