One More Cup: In Search of Good Coffee

Features Issue 62 Jul, 2010

Ten years ago, coffee culture was practically unheard of in the valley. It was a beverage consumed mostly by foreigners and occasionally by Nepalis. But times have changed and coffee bars on any given day enjoy more local patronage than ever before.

Friday 10th November this year recordedA the highest con
sumption of cappuccino at Himalayan Java. “May be it was due to the day being exceptionally cold. From dawn to dusk a lot of people ordered only cappuccinos,” says Bhim Maharjan, manager of Java in Thamel, the premier café, touted for its role in propagating the coffee culture in Kathmandu. However, Maharjan’s statement proves that Kathmanduites are still miles away from being coffee savvy. In Italy, the country from which originates most names of the varieties of coffee on the menu, the drinking of cappuccino after noon is a strict no-no. After lunch, it is all espresso and not much else. The reason is fairly simple – cappuccino is a serving of espresso with equal parts of steaming milk and froth. All that heavy milk is not really comfortable on a full stomach.

To reinforce the point further, about Kathmanduites not being up to the mark regarding the drinking of this most popular of beverages, Maharjan also reveals, “There have been instances when people have ordered espresso and later complained about not being warned that it would be so bitter!” Oh yes, it looks like this metropolis definitely is in need of some more time to understand and appreciate what coffee is all about. Perhaps the opening of Illy Coffee Bar above Java will help. Opened just five months ago, this posh establishment serves only Italian coffee. The name itself, Illy, is a well-known brand of Italian coffee and naturally the prices too will be a notch above the rest. For instance, the price is on average, NRs 265/-, for a cuppa here as compared to NRs150/- for the highest priced coffee on the floor below, i.e. Java’s Browniechino.

Himalayan Java is unequivocal in declaring that it uses only 100% organic Nepal Arabica beans that are freshly roasted and brewed by their baristas. In an obvious attempt to live up to its reputation as the leading coffee hangout in town, Java’s menu has perhaps more kinds of coffee servings than almost anywhere else. Thus, the gourmet coffees (filtered coffees) include long black, house blend, mountain super and flat white. Espressos, which are very strong coffee brewed slowly and rapidly, extracted from finely ground coffee at a very high temperature and pressure, come in three varieties and are priced between NRs 50/- and NRs 65/-each. Espresso based drinks with hot water called Americano are also of three types and Cappuccinos include dry cappuccino, flat cappuccino and flavored cappuccino. Latte combinations that have a greater proportion of milk than cappuccinos include caffé latte, honey latte, double tall skinny and so on. Mochas (espresso with chocolate syrup) are offered in four varieties, café mocha, almond mocha, mocha medium and double grand mocha priced between NRs 80/- and NRs 120/- each. In addition, the Himalayan Java also serves a variety of Java mochas, (espresso, chocolate blended iced drinks topped with ice cream marsh mellow and chocolate biscuit stick) as well as various types of iced or blended latte.

At Chikusa, a café in Jyatha, Thamel, the owner, Bishnu Thapa, proudly claims, “Ours was the first Nepali coffee bar in the city.” Opened in 1998 by Bishnu’s sister in law, Yumiko Kurogawayaki, and her husband Shanker, Chikusa was inspired by the numerous small family run coffee bars all over Nagoya in Japan, which is second home to the couple. In addition, Yumiko, while trekking around Pokhara noticed people growing coffee beans in the region. Chikusa (named after Yumiko’s birthplace) specializes in freshly roasted and ground coffee using almost only locally produced coffee beans. “We get our green beans from Gulmi,” informs Bishnu. “It costs around NRs 290/- per kilogram.” He further informs that about 25 districts in the country have coffee cultivation but that Gulmi and Tansen are way above the rest in terms of volume. As for the making of freshly brewed coffee, the green beans are roasted in clay pots for approximately 45 minutes. This, says Bishnu, gives better results than machine roasted coffee because one can control the amount of time taken for roasting, which can lead to the making of better-flavored coffee.   After this, the roasted beans are ground by hand and here too, according to Bishnu, one has better control over size, which again can result in better flavor. Next, the beans are filtered using filter paper and then percolated a few drops at a time. A small cup at Chikusa costs only NRs 30/- while a small pot sells for NRs80/-, and a big pot at NRs150/-. Most certainly, Chikusa is a favorite with regular coffee drinkers and Bishnu reveals, “A businessman, whom we address as Manish Dai, is one such regular client and if I am not mistaken, he was the first Nepali customer in our café.” Bishnu is optimistic about the growth of coffee culture in the capital and rhapsodizes, “In Nagoya, you will see coffee bars at every nook and corner. People usually prefer to meet visitors in the cafés rather than in their homes.”  He also informs, “We have also opened a café named ‘Chikusa 1998 Kathmandu’ in Nagoya some months ago.”

The exotically designed Roadhouse Café near Kathmandu Guest House is another enterprise that lays much emphasis on the serving of fine coffee. Its sister concern a few minutes away, La Dolce Vita, in fact, has an Espresso Bar on the first floor. Both of them use mostly Himalayan Arabica Coffee produced by Nepal Organic Coffee Products of Palpa. According to information on the packaging, this coffee is grown on the Himalayan high hills at an altitude between 640m and 1371m; is cultivated using the organic farming system at temperatures between 21.5 and 25 degrees Celsius, and harvested in February – March. Claiming to serve only specialty coffee, an espresso at the Roadhouse costs NRs 50/- for a small cup and NRs 90/- for a larger one. Cappuccino, Caffé Latte and Latte Macchiato cost NRs 85/- each. Also available are coffees laced with Irish whisky, a Danish coffee and Bailey’s Coffee.

 It might also be of interest to know that this beverage, which seems to be able to revive the most groggy person from his slumberous state, was valued precisely for this reason as far back as 1000 AD when Arab traders brought back coffee plants from Ethiopia and started cultivating them. Initially, the drink, arrived at from boiling the beans, was called ‘qahwa’ – literally, that which prevents sleep. Gradually, coffee began to be introduced in various parts of the world, ultimately becoming one of the most popular beverages known to man. Although coffee, or, Coffea arabica, is said to have its origins in central Ethiopia; it was in 1723 that a French naval officer, Gabriel Mathieu do Ciieu, transported a seedling stolen from France, to Martinique. Within 50 years there were 19 million coffee trees in Martinique and eventually, 90% of the world’s coffee is said to have been propagated from this plant.

In 1901, the first ‘instant’ coffee was invented by Japanese-American chemist, Satori Kato of Chicago. By 1907, Brazil accounted for 97% of the world’s harvest and in 1938, to help them manage their surplus, Nestle invented the freeze dried coffee. By 1940, the United States, where coffee drinking had been made a patriotic duty by The Boston Tea Party way back in 1773, accounted for 70% of world coffee crop imports. Today, coffee is produced in more than 60 countries and in some countries accounts for over 70% of their total export earnings. In Nepal, coffee production started in 1976 with the import of Arabica coffee from South India. Nepal’s unique terrain and climate enable the production of high quality coffee. In 1946, one of the greatest machines ever made was perfected in Italy by a genius called Achilles Gaggia. His espresso machine revolutionized world culture most emphatically. In short order, cappuccino followed, named for the resemblance of its color to the robes of the monks of the Capuchin order.

If you know where the Ganesh Man Singh residence is in Thamel, then you will probably not miss Himalatte Café, which is located at the gateway to the house. Sushil Sthapit who is also a well known musician, established the café in June 2000 and specializes in coffee. The café moved here from its original location further east in Thamel. “We serve latte, mochaccino, espresso and cappuccino,” says Sthapit. Besides coffee, Himalatte is also known for live entertainment, usually on Fridays. But coffee is not all one can have here as continental cuisine can also be savored and the café is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner. In the late afternoon, sit out in the balcony with a hot cup of coffee and enjoy the lovely ambience.

One of the colorful cafés in town is Higher Ground in Jawalakhel. Not far from the Jawalakhel crossing, this outlet seems to attract people who like to sit quietly with their laptops, sipping a cup of coffee and getting on with their work. Higher Ground Café was started by Rajen Shahi, the manager of the previously established Jive & Joe’s Coffee Shop. It then passed into the hands of Bimala Shrestha Pokharel and her husband Arbin, who wanted to set up a “socially responsible café”: an enterprise that would find ways to train underprivileged men and women to earn their own livelihood. “With the profits that we make, we are going to provide micro-enterprise loans to single mothers and other disadvantaged groups, including an educational support fund for their children,” explains Bimala. Higher Ground serves Mont Bland, Joe Black and House Black as black coffee. Among the latte, there’s Caffé Latte, Honeylatte, Latteccino, etc. You can also have Cappuccino,  Espresso Conpanna, Blended Mocha and Double Tall Skinny. As for cold coffee, there is Thai Cold Coffee, Regular Ice Coffee and Ice Cream Coffee.

The coffee plant as such is a woody perennial evergreen belonging to the Rubiaceae family. Of the two main cultivated species, Coffea arabica (also called Arabica coffee) accounts for 75% - 80% of the world’s production while Coffea canephora, also called Robusta coffee, accounts for the rest. The coffee plant can grow to a height of 10 metres but under cultivation, are pruned to three meters for easy picking. Sweet smelling flowers grow in clusters in the leaves’ axils three to four years after plantation. Fruit is produced only in the new tissue and each hectare of coffee plantation produces 39 kg of oxygen per day making the plant a major source of oxygen in the environment.

One of the reasons for drinking this universally popular beverage is because it is known for lifting flagging spirits almost instantaneously. It makes one recall Johann Sevastian Bach’s Kaffee Kantate, in which it is written, “Mm! How sweet the coffee tastes! More delicious than a thousand kisses, milder far than muscatel wine! Coffee, coffee, I must have it.”

Models at Illy: Pratima Acharya, Samita Subba, Amit Pokharel. Courtesy: The Ramp, Ph: 4419974.