A cup of joe: The origins of the saying are unclear, yet we do love the stuff, even though not all coffee taste the same. In Nepal coffee is grown in the mid-hills between 1,000m-1,800m. The higher the altitude, the better the coffee (as long as there is no frost). According to the Nepal Coffee Producers Association, coffee was first introduced in Nepal from Myanmar by one Hira Giri, in 1938.
But it remained an attractive tree in the courtyard or a hobby until the 1970s when King Birendra declared Gulmi a coffee region, marking the beginning of professional coffee production. Yet even today few people really know that Nepal grows wonderful coffee. Or that in Europe Nepali coffee is considered a specialty.
I recently talked to Birgit Lienhart-Gyawali, of Kar.ma Coffee, to find out more about these magic beans. “Although in Nepal farmers receive more money per kilo for the coffee cherries than in other countries, the production is very low. The reason for this is mainly migration.”
“With only the old and very young left in communities, it is hard to inspire them to increase productivity because for them the little income is enough,” explains Lienhart-Gyawali. With coffee trees in other countries yielding, on average, 10kg a season (up to 20kg in some cases), the average tree in Nepal produces a mere 300gm. Hard to believe, right? But let’s start at the beginning with the seedling.
Coffee seedlings take about a year before they are big enough to plant out. Another three to five years before you get a harvest. Meantime, the trees have to be trimmed. As a rule of thumb, a coffee tree should be no higher than a person and no wider than arms reach. Harvesting season is between November and end of March, when only the red berries should be collected. There is an element of trust here as the farmers are paid instantly, by weight. It is only later that bad or under-ripe cherries are found and removed.
When the berries are later placed in a tub of water, the under-ripe, over-ripe, or bad cherries float to the top. After this the fruit flesh is removed from the good berries in the pulping machine. After pulping the beans look somewhat like peanuts; that sort of color. Washed several times, it takes them three weeks to dry. Then they are packed and stored till they reach the correct level of moisture.
Meantime experienced farmers can tell by biting the parchment beans whether they are ready to go to the next stage. “We work with farmers in Ilam, Kaski, Sindhupalchowk, Gorkha and Lamjung. When the beans reach the parchment stage we buy them from the farmers, and take off the skins, revealing the green beans. A lot of beans are lost in the process in Nepal. For example, six kilograms of cherries gives one kilogram of parchment. This makes it an expensive process. Of course, in other countries it is more mechanized”, explains Lienhart-Gyawali.
“What is also interesting is that the coffee growers do not drink the coffee, or if they do, they drink that which is not good quality. We spend time educating them in how to prepare a good cup of coffee. Once they know what the different beans taste like, it’s easier to convince them not to add in green or bad cherries at the harvesting stage.”
Lienhart-Gyawali demonstrated the next stage. A normal pot, like the one used to make popcorn in households, is heated. The green beans are added and stirred with a kaptero (type of whisk made from sticks) for around eight minutes. The length of roasting affects the taste. In this process the skins come off. Now the beans are ready to be ground for use! Smells good!
I asked whether Nepali coffee is actually organic. Yes. Not originally a cash crop, the concept of adding chemicals is not there. And, according to Lienhart-Gyawali, farmers in the high hills tend not to use chemicals. There are mainly two types of coffee in Nepal: Arabica (from Ethiopia) and Typica (originating in Yemen). Arabica, having the better flavor, is more expensive. Nepal exports very little coffee, with Kar.ma Coffee exporting to Taiwan and Europe.
In Germany it is sold as a charity coffee, with profits going to fund school projects in Nepal. Interestingly nothing is wasted in the Nepal coffee industry—the water from the washing stage goes into the village biogas system, the parchment skins go to feed buffalos, and the green bean skins are cleverly made into conscious living paper products by Kar.ma Coffee. Another cup?