COFFEE connoisseurs are rushing to pay $50 a cup as the wives of elephant keepers in northern Thailand eagerly pick through piles of fresh elephant dung.
In a world first, coffee made from pure Arabica beans are being slow-cooked in the stomachs of a herd of 30 elephants, plucked from their dung 30 hours later, then washed and roasted.
And, no, the result is not a crappuccino, nor is it promoted as "good to the last dropping".
A Thai mahout's wife jokingly poses with a plastic basket containing coffee beans freshly cleaned from elephant dung Photo: AP
It's called Black Ivory Coffee and, according to those who have sipped the brew, it has a fragrance that tastes of "milk chocolate, nutty, earthy with hints of spice and red berries".
Anantara Hotels, Resorts and Spas, a luxury hotel group, is selling the coffee at its hotels in northern Thailand, the Maldives and Abu Dhabi, and business is brisk, despite the price tag of $US1100 ($A1050) a kilogram.
Correspondents from Bangkok have made the journey into the Golden Triangle - where Thailand, Laos and Burma meet - to witness the jumbo baristas at work and to sip the finished product.
"When an elephant eats coffee, its stomach acid breaks down the protein found in coffee, which is a key factor in bitterness," said Canadian Blake Dinkin, 42, who has spent $US300,000 developing the brand. "You end up with a cup that's very smooth without the bitterness of regular coffee," he said.
"My theory is that a natural fermentation process takes place in the elephants' gut … that fermentation imparts flavours you wouldn't get from other coffees," he said.
The coffee beans, handpicked by villagers, stew together with bananas, sugar cane and other ingredients in the elephants' vegetarian diet.
It takes 33 kilograms of raw coffee to produce one kilogram of Black Ivory. Many of the beans get chewed up, broken or lost in tall grass after being excreted. The wives of the elephant keepers, mahouts, collect the dung, break it open and pick out the coffee. It is then ground by hand and brewed using technology developed in 1840 in Austria.
The first batch of 70 kilograms of Black Ivory has already sold out and Mr Dinkin hopes to produce six times that amount in 2013.
The elephants used in the production once tromped around the streets of Thailand's tourist resorts with their keepers relying on donations to feed them. Now they are at work in grounds owned by Anantara with some of the proceeds from coffee sales going to provide healthcare for them, including the hiring of an elephant veterinarian.
Black Ivory is not the first novelty coffee blend to hit the market in recent years. Coffee passed through civets, a cat-like tree-dwelling mammal in the Philippines, Vietnam and Indonesia, sells for a similar price.
In 2010, Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono raised a few eyebrows when he presented then prime minister Kevin Rudd with the packet of Kopi Luwak, or civet coffee, during a visit to Australia.