FOO CHEE CHANG
When Nescafe coffee was first introduced to Nepal, it took the ubiquitous symbol of instant coffee a number of years to catch on, and some more before Nescaf? coffee machines held any attraction for cafe owners.
So ingrained was the culture of tea drinking in the fabric of Nepali society that the idea of a daily cuppa rarely meant coffee, let alone the filter variety. In recent times coffee has been embraced by Nepalis, especially the younger generation that has travelled and experienced the global fascination for the black, bitter brew served up in a myriad of beverages by the likes of Starbucks and Gloria Jeans.
Enter the world of growing and brewing specialty coffee, where innovation is limited only by one's imagination.
Sensing the opportunity in the market, Himalayan Java established Nepal's first specialty coffee house in 2000. It may have started off catering to tourists in Thamel, but now has a sizeable local clientele. At around the same time Nepali companies and cooperatives started to produce and process Arabica beans for the specialty trade on a larger, more coordinated scale.
According to the National Tea & Coffee Development Board, the total size of Nepal's coffee cultivating area has seen little over a threefold increase in 10 years, with an area of 1531 hectares recorded in 2009. The export of Nepali green beans has more than doubled from 35,700kg to 88,020kg in the last five years. As of today, the majority of cultivation exists on small landholdings owned by individual farmers in the midhills region, which has the climatic conditions best suited to coffee?- stable rainfall, humidity and moderate temperatures.
While smallholder farming means that more farmers are able to benefit from this increasingly lucrative sector, pressing issues such as quality control and adherence to international fair trade and organic standards have to be addressed if Nepali coffee is to reach its full potential and leverage its position in the international export market.
"A lot of local coffees claim to be organic, but by what standards?" asks Dipendra Thapa, local distributor of Illy, a high-end Italian coffee.
Price-wise, the government has intervened by setting a base rate of Rs 27 per kg for fresh cherries, more than the international fair trade rate. That said, there is currently no governing body looking into and regulating the quality of coffee grown here.
As a result, companies like Plantec Nepal Estate have taken the initiative in getting their coffee certified organic by the U.S.? Department of Agriculture, a lengthy and stringent process.P.K. Lama of Royal Everest Coffee Mill also sees the importance of obtaining proper certification for his coffee exports and is in the midst of preparing his company for a review. Such moves are positive signs for the future of the industry.
For locals who care for a taste of these Nepali brews, cafes in town like Beans Coffee offer beverages that look as good as they taste. If you fancy brewing your own, you can get Top of the World Coffee delivered fresh to your doorstep. But for those whose tastes remain conventionally cosmopolitan, then high-quality Illy or Lavazza coffee is widely available at high-end hotels and restaurants. As someone once said, a morning without coffee is like sleep. Wake up and smell the coffee!
Coffee crusade?- FROM ISSUE #490 (19 FEB 2010 - 25 FEB 2010)