Coffee Culture - Catching on In Kathmandu

Features Issue 24 Aug, 2010
Text by Sanjaya Dhakal

Traditionally Nepalis are more tea-people than coffee-people.There are tea-stalls in virtually every nook and corner of the country and it is still the favorite national drink for the rich as well as the poor. But over the last couple of years, the habit of coffee consumption has shot up dramatically, particularly in Kathmandu and other urban centers, with youngsters of the MTV generation and foreign-returned professionals as the primary consumers. Earlier considered as the drink of tourists and foreigners, coffee, primarily instant, is finding its place on kitchen counters and restaurant menus. Not only the tourist-centered and five star hotel restaurants, even the common eateries along the sidewalks now consider coffee as a ‘must’ for their menus.

A cursory look in and around the ‘ten plus two’ schools and colleges is enough to prove that the generational shift in coffee drinking has been very swift. Dozens of ‘cafés’ and ‘bakeries’ have sprouted in these neighborhoods. Only a few years ago, exclusive coffee shops were next to non-existent. Now there are many such spots in Kathmandu.

Yogendra Shakya, a noted tourism entrepreneur who owns the Ace chain of Hotels and Resorts, including Hotel Ambassador and Club Himalaya, agrees. “Yes, there has been a growth in coffee consumption among urban Nepali people. I still prefer tea but the new generation considers coffee a better alternative. My daughter prefers coffee,” he said. Shakya remembers the days when coffee was exclusively consumed by tourists and expatriates in the country.

Himalayan Java
The emergence of specialty coffee shops underlines the growing trend. Himalayan Java, established three years ago in Thamel, is perhaps the best-known coffee café in the city.

On any given day, dozens of people throng at the Himalayan Java for a cup of hot brewed coffee. The warm and informal environs of the place makes it a ‘must visit’on any coffee connoisseur’s itinerary.

Gagan Pradhan, the young and ever-smiling owner of the place, says that the market of coffee is growing at a remarkable pace in the country. “We have tourists, a good number of expats and the local populace enjoying the aimbence and the coffee of Himalayan Java” Pradhan said.

When Pradhan returned after getting a training in coffee making from the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA), three years ago, there were hardly any exclusive coffee shops. But now he himself has expanded Himalayan Java to Rabibhawan and Kathmandu Guest House, with more plans in the offing. Not surprisingly, the Lonely Planet, a renowned travel book, has included his coffee bar as one of the places to visit in Kathmandu.

“We sell Nepali coffee harvested by local farmers exclusively. These high quality green beans are of the Arabica species, permitting us to create a specialty coffee with a distinct Nepali flavor,” said Pradhan who buys coffee directly from the farmers.

Himalayan Java offers three specific blends: Mountain Supreme ( the lightest of the three with a supple, mellow flavor), House Blend (a darker roast with a richer taste) and Dark Beans (darkest roast, mainly used for espresso-based blends like Americano, Cappucino, Café Latte, Café Moca etc).

Apart from the Himalayan Java, other popular coffee spots in Kathmandu include Annapurna Coffee Shop in Durbar Marg, La Dolce Vita, and Himal Latte Coffee in Thamel among others. Five star hotels also have coffee bars.

History of Coffee
The exact date of the first coffee cultivation is not known, but many believe that it was grown initially in Arabia near the Red Sea around the year 675. Others say that coffee was discovered in Ethiopia around the year 900. Still others say that around the year 575, Arab traders took it to the southern tip of the Arabian peninsula, now known as Yemen, where the cultivation of coffee began.

It is said that a pilgrim from India named Baba Budan smuggled out the first germinable seeds from the tightly controlled areas of the middle-east, where the Muslim rulers considered coffee to be their exclusive drink.

In Nepal, coffee has been grown for hundreds of years. But modern coffee cultivation started in the country only in the early 1980s when coffee groves were planted in selected areas.

The coffee in Nepal is grown at two different elevations. The ‘Robusta’ variety grows best at low elevations, found in the Terai. The second major area is in the foothills of the Himalayan mountains, between 3000 and 6000 feet above sea-level. The Arabica variety grows best at this altitude. Arabica coffee works best for the gourmet or specialty coffees.

Coffee cultivation in Nepal is concentrated in specific areas like Gulmi, Palpa, Parbat, Syangja, Kaski, Kavre and Lalitpur districts.

The Business of Coffee
According to Krishna Prasad Pathak, coordinator at the Nepal Coffee Entrepreneurs’ Association and managing director of Highland Coffee Promotion Limited, the growth of coffee production in Nepal has been remarkable.

“In the last year, Nepal produced 139 tons of dry cherry [coffee beans]. The two preceding years had witnessed the production of 88 and 72 tons respectively. Out of the total, 30 tons will be used for the internal consumption and the rest for export. In fact, the total internal demand is of 52 tons but the rest of the 22 tons is met by different brands of coffee imported from India (12 tons) and elsewhere (10 tons),” he said.

Experts have noted that the quality of Nepali coffee is similar to that of Mexican. With active promotion  on the part of the government, Nepali coffee can command a big market abroad, they add.

“Ironically, while foreigners like the quality of Nepali coffee, the Nepali people themselves prefer instant brands,” said Pathak. His company alone is exporting 15 tons of coffee to the United States soon. Apart from the U.S., Nepali coffee is also exported to Japan, the United Kingdom and other European countries.

There are 5700 farmers involved in coffee production around the country. “Syangja, followed by Lalitpur district, leads in volume of production.  Thula Durlung VDC of southern Lalitpur alone produced 18 tons of coffee, which we bought,” said Pathak.

Typically, coffee is harvested during December and January in Nepal. “Processing is all carried out in the traditional manner,’ said Gagan Pradhan. “There is a huge demand for organic coffee, in which coffee is produced using only organic manures and not chemical fertilizers.”

Coordinated efforts can reap rich dividends especially given the vast market that coffee has in the world. Coffee grows in more than 50 countries and is the second largest export in the world after oil (in dollar value). Over 25 million people are employed in the coffee business world-wide. Brazil, the world’s largest producer, grows approximately 35% of the world’s coffee. Pradhan and Pathak both agree that coffee has a bright prospect in this Himalayan kingdom.