Nepal’s coffee saga
In my early years, a solitary cherry tree graced the backyard of our Pokhara family home. Each year, we witnessed the splendid transformation from delicate blossoms to verdant fruit. As children, we frolicked with these mysterious cherries, discovering that they concealed twin seeds within. As they ripened into crimson orbs and tumbled to the earth, curiosity piqued, but none dared to taste the enigmatic fruit.
In 1990, a guest came home. As my mother prepared a meal for him, he explored our surroundings, and his gaze fell upon that tree. “Bhauju,” he exclaimed, “you have a coffee tree!” His excitement was palpable, and he promised to return during the harvest season to instruct us in the coffee-making process.
This marked my introduction to the word ‘coffee,’ a beverage that likely found its way to Nepal from Gulmi, where Hira Giri had, in 1938, imported coffee seeds from the Sindu Province of Burma, my maternal family’s place of origin. He nurtured these seeds in the Aapchaur area of Gulmi. While the seeds made their way to Nepal, the knowledge and technology needed to cultivate coffee remained elusive for many hillside homes, cultivating an air of curiosity.
What intrigued me was the timeline of coffee’s arrival in Nepal. While it had been introduced in India in the late 17th century, it took nearly 270 years for coffee to find its roots in Nepal. Baba Budan, an Indian pilgrim returning from Mecca in 1670, clandestinely transported seven coffee beans from Yemen to India, planting them in Karnataka’s Chandragiri hills. At the same time, some coffee experts posit that Gurkha soldiers and Nepali laborers employed in South Indian coffee plantations may have brought coffee seeds back to Nepal, envisioning the prospect of cultivating coffee locally upon their return.
Amidst Nepal’s new coffee generation, we tend to forget the coffee shop that first introduced coffee culture to Kathmandu: Bangalore Coffee House. After struggling to survive in New Road, its proprietors tried their luck opposite Tindhara Pathsala, renaming it the Mangalore Coffee House before vanishing from the coffee scene. This is a chapter of my Kathmandu upbringing that warrants exploration by coffee historians. Nepalis traditionally favored tea over coffee, and it took time for this preference to shift, resulting in limited local demand. Himalayan Java Coffee, a noted coffee outlet, blazed a trail by opening the first specialty coffee shop in Nepal around 1999-2000 when coffee culture was still in its infancy. The gradual growth of tourism after 1990 also played a pivotal role in shaping coffee habits.
Official records reveal that in the late 1970s, the Nepali government began distributing coffee seeds imported from India to farmers in potential districts through the Agriculture Development Bank, marking coffee’s first recognition as a potential cash crop. Interestingly, coffee plantations were also employed as a means to combat soil erosion. The Tinau Watershed Project in 1982 promoted coffee plantation on terrace risers, and not far from this watershed, in Manigram, Rupandehi, coffee processing commenced in 1983 with the establishment of Nepal Coffee Company (NeCCo), which processed dry cherries collected from local farmers.
In 1993, a formal institutional structure, the National Tea and Coffee Development Board (NTCDB), was established, poised to lead initiatives for the coffee sector’s development. Farmers from the mid-hill region began to recognize coffee as a highly lucrative crop due to rising exports and domestic consumption. The first coffee policy in Nepal emerged in 2004 as a result of these developments, followed by the commencement of organic certification a year later. In 2010, the Department of Industry registered the ‘Nepal Coffee’ logo, symbolizing the nation’s coffee identity.
In recent years, Nepal has borne witness to a coffee revolution, driven by the younger generation. Their love for coffee transcends its role as a mere morning pick-me-up; it has evolved into a cultural phenomenon. Coffee shops provide inviting spaces for socializing, studying, or working, blending aesthetics with the alluring aroma of freshly brewed coffee to create an atmosphere that resonates with the youth.
These coffeehouses offer an extensive menu, catering to diverse tastes and preferences, from classic brews to intricate espresso concoctions. Whether it’s a caramel macchiato, cold brew, or pumpkin spice latte, coffee shops satisfy the young generation’s desire for choice and customization.
In urban Nepal, coffee serves as a means of social connectivity. Young adults congregate at coffeehouses to catch up with friends, network, and meet new acquaintances. The act of sharing a coffee has evolved into a social ritual, fostering connections and strengthening relationships. For many young adults, coffee is also a source of productivity, providing an energy boost and heightened focus during late-night study sessions or work deadlines.
In my perspective, the bottleneck hindering the coffee enterprise’s growth lies in the lack of adequate research, knowledge, and technology. Overcoming these obstacles could lead to a success story, one that lauds the contributions of figures like Hira Giri, NeCCo, NTCDB, Himalayan Java, and the Nepal Coffee Producers Association.
However, I believe the true heroes of Nepal’s coffee story are the farmers who invested their time, money, and effort to make coffee a success. Their struggle is reflected in every coffee bean, making each cup a unique narrative. The significant disparity between Nepal’s coffee exports (almost 70,000 kgs) and imports (around 270,000 kgs) is a thought that never fails to weigh heavily on my mind. But Nepali coffee has indeed gained popularity in countries like the UK, America, Australia, and Japan, often leveraging branding associated with the Himalayas, Buddha, Everest, ‘Top of the World,’ Sherpa, and Gurkha heritage. Despite its current presence on a smaller scale, there is significant potential for growth in the Nepali coffee industry.
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