Photographer: Taylor Weidman/Bloomberg

World's Priciest Coffee Is Hand-Picked From Elephant Dung

Ever since the Kopi Luwak craze began more than a decade ago, coffee connoisseurs have sought unusual ways to make the perfect brew. Kopi luwak is an Indonesian coffee originally made from part-digested beans defecated by wild palm civets, the gastric process of the animal helping improve the taste of the coffee. But as the luwak label became tarnished by accusations that some producers were force-feeding caged civets and others were selling counterfeit blends, an entrepreneur in Thailand supersized the operation. Blake Dinkin doesn't use civets to process his beans. He uses elephants. Photographs by Taylor Weidman/Bloomberg

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    A mahout washes his elephant in Ban Ta Klang Elephant Village in Thailand. Elephants and their owners have been living together in the area for hundreds of years, with the pachyderms being trained for logging transport and even fighting in battle. Today, most pairs make a living giving rides to tourists or participating in religious processions.

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    Dinkin and an elephant owner prepare a mixture of bananas, rice bran, and coffee cherries. Dinkin began making civet coffee in Ethiopia in 2002 but switched after an experiment feeding coffee to an elephant in a Canada zoo. He launched Black Ivory Coffee in October 2012 in Chiang Rai, before moving to Ban Ta Klang in Surin province.

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    As well as eating them, elephants can suck the beans through their trunks in a slushy fruit mixture - a kind of pachyderm smoothie. Dinkin says the diet for the elephant is important, and they must also have the option not to eat the coffee cherries.

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    Like most captive elephants in Thailand, the animals at Ban Ta Klang are chained part of the time or under the control of a mahout, a practice criticized by animal-rights groups. Dinkin says he works with the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation to help teach mahouts humane training techniques.

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    A family separates coffee cherries from the dung of their elephant. Dinkin pays workers the equivalent of about $10 to extract the coffee beans from the manure, a tidy sum in Thailand for 15 minutes' work. Laborers earn about $6 per day locally for harvesting rice.

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    Coffee cherries are separated from elephant dung in Ban Ta Klang. The enzymes in the elephant's stomach break down the proteins that cause bitterness, making for a smoother flavor once the partially digested bean pops out the other end.

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    Two women wash coffee cherries before they are laid out to dry. Dinkin says the elephants aren't harmed by the caffeine in coffee because the shell keeps the caffeine-bearing oils locked inside, and the beans need to be heated to extract the drug.

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    A Thai woman rakes out the collected coffee beans. Black Ivory Coffee now has about 27 elephants on the payroll and expects to produce about 150 kilograms (330 pounds) in the 2017 harvest. Dinkin says he's been invited to expand production in Southeast Asia and Africa, but he wants to develop the business slowly.

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    A coffee bean is cut in half to check if it has been dried completely. The coffee bean has invaded every corner of Earth, and consumption continues to increase. Globally, we drank the equivalent of almost 1.3 trillion espresso shots last year.

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    Dinkin prepares a cup of his coffee. For those who prefer their beverage with a bit of extra kick, he says Black Ivory Coffee Stout will be released in Denmark and Thailand in February with Copenhagen-based, craft-beer maker Mikkeller.

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    Black Ivory Coffee ready for sale. The coffee can be bought online at $198 for three 35-gram (1.2-ounce) packets, equivalent to $1,886 a kilogram. It can also be purchased in about 25 luxury hotels across Asia. Dinkin says he's looking to expand into European hotels and Michelin-starred restaurants.