Kira, a western lowland gorilla who lives at the Philadelphia Zoo Credit: Courtesy Philadelphia Zoo

Gorillas aren’t known for eating coffee beans in the wild, but if they came upon one, they would probably snap it up. Best day of banana gathering ever! Chest-beating dance party! Wooo!

We’re not making it up. The amusing notion that the world’s largest primate might enjoy a caffeinated snack comes courtesy a curator at the Philadelphia Zoo, so it’s well-informed speculation.

The zoo is bringing coffee and gorillas together in a different way by partnering with La Colombe on a new, limited-release roast called Vert. From every bag sold, $2 will go to support the zoo’s gorilla conservation efforts, including helping fund wildlife photographer-activist Gerry Ellis‘ work in Africa. Ellis will also be blogging for the zoo to bring attention to the issues gorillas face, from deforestation to disease to poaching.

This the first time the zoo has partnered with a company on a retail product in the organization’s 141-year history (yup, it’s the oldest in the nation). According to the folks at La Colombe, creating a coffee that benefits gorillas was the zoo’s idea. According to the zoo’s spokespeople, the initiative came from La Colombe.

Credit: Philadelphia Zoo

La Colombe co-founder Todd Carmichael and his wife, singer Lauren Hart (aka “The Voice of the Philadelphia Flyers”), are avid conservation activists and longtime personal supporters of the zoo — Hart serves on the Chairman’s Council, the zoo’s advisory board. The couple has also traveled to Africa numerous times, where they developed a special love for the great apes and a desire to help save their disappearing habitats. In 2008, Carmichael’s record-breaking solo trek to Antarctica’s South Pole raised $250,000 for Orangutan Foundation International.

There are currently five gorillas among the 1,300 animals spread across the Philadelphia’s 42-acre site, all of them  Western lowland gorillas (which, by the way, has the coolest scientific name ever: Gorilla gorilla gorilla). Though their population hasn’t dwindled as much as some other gorilla subspecies, Western lowlands are listed as critically endangered. Many live in the forests of Rwanda, which also happens to be a prime coffee-producing region

Finding the right bean

The quality of Rwandan coffee wasn’t always considered good. German missionaries first imported it in the early 1900s, and during the 1930s, Belgian colonialist rulers forced indigenous farmers to devote land to it. After the country gained independence, the government centralized all coffee exports, and market manipulation and low prices gave no incentive for farmers to try to grow better beans. Then came the ‘90s and civil war that led to horrific genocide.

Things slowly started to change in the new millennium, however, after the new government opened up the trade to individual farmers and cooperatives and USAID helped build coffee-washing stations across the country. Quality improved immensely, and in 2006, Starbucks even introduced a Rwandan coffee to its retail line.

It’s still not easy to find organic coffee in Rwanda, but the La Colombe team is nothing if not crackerjack when it comes to seeking out the right beans. (See also: Carmichael’s Travel Channel show, Dangerous Grounds, which documented the adventures on those searches for that something special.)

Vert, which retails for $18 a bag (including the $2 donation), is made from beans grown by an environmentally-conscious farmers’ co-op based around Rwanda’s Lake Kivu, where the soil is rich with volcanic ash. The official description says the brewed drink has “notes of cherry, grapefruit and black tea.” Whether or not you catch all that when you sip, the coffee comes with the bonus of knowing you’re helping a good cause.

A better zoo for all


You can try a cup if you visit to the zoo, because concession stands there now serve La Colombe. The switch from using a commercial national brand was made two years ago, according to VP of Development Greg Goldman, who noted that the zoo is making concerted efforts to support local businesses, especially ones aligned with the zoo’s overall mission.

“We use people’s love of animals to inspire them to make changes that have a positive impact on animals in their natural environment,” Goldman said. “La Colombe also uses their business to bring awareness of conservation issues and have a positive impact on the world.”

He pointed to a previous collaboration the coffee company did in 2010 with the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation, an environmental nonprofit started by the Hollywood star. La Colombe also partnered with Arcade Fire frontman Win Butler last year to release a coffee that benefited Haiti’s Partners in Health and the Haiti Coffee Academy.

Philadelphia Zoo’s sustainability practices actually extend beyond the concessions. Not only is all the meat in the sandwiches sold to guests humanely sourced, but so is all the meat fed to the animals.

Gorillas don’t eat very much meat (in the wild, they eat mostly produce, along with 3 percent termites, caterpillars and other insects), but their zoo neighbors the giant cats do. And thanks to the Gorilla Treeway — the newest section of the innovative Zoo360 trail, where animals roam through a campus-wide network of see-through mesh-wrapped pathways — the two species come into close proximity and apparently are fascinated by each other.

YouTube video

“It’s very exciting visually,” said Goldman. “You can see them watching each other.”

Probably a good thing neither one is hopped up on coffee when they do, though.

Danya Henninger is director and editor of Billy Penn at WHYY, where she oversees the team, all editorial decisions, and all revenue generation — including the membership program. She is a former food...