As Nepali as tea

11 min read
20 Jun 2017
11 min read
1967 words
From the Archive (Oct, 2016): Brewed coffee has become the preferred beverage of choice for meetups of all kinds

There are around 800 coffee cafés in Kathmandu and Patan alone, and that number is increasing every year. In­deed, today so readily has coffee been adopted by Nepalis that international coffee brands too have made inroads in the local market. Illy, an Italian cof­fee brand, entered the country in 2008. Four years later, Lavazza, another Ital­ian coffee brand, followed suit. Both brands have their own outlets in the capital and also supply their coffee to cafés across the country. The mush­rooming of coffee houses in every nook and cranny of metropolitan cities shows that coffee culture has become a deeply rooted aspect of urban living.

The brand responsible for starting the coffee revolution in the country was Himalayan Java. When Gagan Pradhan, one of the owners of Hi­malayan Java, opened his first out­let, in Kathmandu, 17 years ago, he hadn’t imagined that the café would go on to play an instrumental role in kickstarting the growth of the city’s coffee culture. Back then, for Nepalis coffee meant instant coffee, and cafés and restaurants too served only in­stant coffee, which came in only two options—milk and black. Cappucci­nos, americanos, lattes and espressos were unheard of. “I don’t remember a single outlet that served brewed coffee, and I wanted to fill that gap. I wasn’t sure of how customers would respond to brewed coffee, but I was a passionate coffee-head determined to turn my passion into business. And so I went ahead and started Himalayan Java anyway,” says Pradhan.

The early days were rough. “For the first two years, our daily sales hovered around Rs 1,000 a day,” he says. A cup of cappuccino at his café then cost Rs 50, while an espresso went for Rs 35. “Many people thought it was ridiculous that a cup of coffee cost five times more than a cup of tea. There were even in­stances where we were accused of rip­ping off customers. Some customers who didn’t know what an espresso was would think they were getting a raw deal when they saw their espresso or­der being served in a tiny cup.”

But things started to change for the better around 2002, by when custom­ers were turning into regulars who needed their brew fix. To improve the coffee experience at Himalayan Java, Pradhan and his partner, Anand Gurung, set up a 50 inch Sharp TV at the café. “This was around the time of the 2002 FIFA World Cup, and a customer at our café asked if we could switch to the TV channel show­ing football matches,” says Pradhan. “We did. And we started showing football matches every day thereafter. Word got around, and Java sort of became the place to watch football matches with friends. After the World Cup, these people kept returning be­cause Himalayan Java had become their preferred place to meet friends over coffee.” That café ethos—of people bonding over coffee—has come to define the coffee experience.

Most cafés today have figured out what it takes to create the coffee experience. Obviously, serving an im­pressive range of quality coffee is the first requirement. But there are other details they need to attend to as well. “Ambience plays a huge role in the whole café experience,” says Jeepy Thapa of Illy Coffee Nepal. “Custom­ers expect the cafés to have nicely done decor, a pleasant ambience, comfort­able seating and great service.” It’s al­most as if the cafés have become oases to gather in amidst the cities’ chaos.

Shreya Pudasaini, a 34-year-old en­trepreneur, visits cafés, twice or thrice a week. Her favourites include Café & Shop Mitini, in Lazimpat, and Café Soma, Baluwatar. “Because most cafés today are air-conditioned, have a pleas­ant décor, provide fast internet service and offer quality coffee along with light meals, I prefer them as places to meet friends and colleagues, or even to meet with clients,” she says. A coffee meetup implies a getting together that does not come weighted with too many expecta­tions: unlike a business lunch or a din­ner date or serious drink dates.

It’s thus not difficult to see why the coffee experience has found its place in Nepal’s urban areas. The pace with which the number of cafés in urban areas has grown and the manner in which coffee has been embraced as a beverage of choice has astonished even Pradhan, the man who in a lot of ways is the person responsible for starting it all. Why has the demand for good quality coffee seen such a steady growth? “It mostly has to do with the stark difference between brewed coffee—which coffee houses offer—and instant coffee—which Ne­palis grew up drinking. You just can­not compare the taste of brewed coffee to that of the instant variety, which was the only variety that Nepalis knew earlier,” says Pradhan.

The coffee beans most widely used in instant coffee are robusta beans: They have more caffeine content, are easier to grow (because they are pret­ty disease-resistant) and thus cheaper. But they also have a noticeably sour taste. Brewed coffees are usually made from arabica beans. For the beans used in brewed coffee, roasting the beans is the final production stage, and the beans are mostly used as soon as they are roasted. That’s why brewed coffee has a fresher taste. To produce instant coffee, the beans after being roasted, are brewed, and then dried by either a spraying or freezing method, which produces the soluble coffee powder of instant coffee. It’s because of this pro­cess that instant coffee doesn’t taste as fresh as its brewed counterpart.

So popular has brewed coffee be­come today that it is a cornerstone menu item for every restaurant. And that’s despite the cost that restaurants have to incur to produce brewed coffee. A coffee machine can cost anywhere between a few thousand rupees to sev­eral hundred thousand. But the invest­ment is usually worth it. When Tenzin Gyatso Lama, opened his mid-tier con­tinental restaurant in Fulbari, Boud­ha, he bought a coffee machine that set him back by Rs 375,000. He also got some barista training. “I wouldn’t have spent that much money had I not seen the demand for coffee,” he says. During summers, he sells around 40 cups of coffee a day, while during winters, that number triples. Today, even popular restaurants like Indreni Foodland and Bajeko Sekuwa—which are known more for their main course items—have added a dedicated coffee section.

The demand for brewed coffee has also enticed many farmers across Nepal to start growing coffee beans. Up until two decades ago, only very few farmers regarded coffee as a cash crop that could yield good returns in the local market. Most of the coffee beans grown in Nepal would mainly get ex­ported to countries in Europe, the US, Japan and other countries. Further­more, around 2005, the total amount of coffee that the country produced was just 80 tonnes, out of which 70 per cent was exported. In 2015, Nepal produced 700 tonnes of coffee beans, of which 80 per cent was consumed locally, while the remaining was exported. Coffee today is grown in more than 40 districts in Nepal, including in Gul­mi, Lalitpur, Syangja, Kaski, Tanahun, Nuwakot, Lamjung, Sindhupalchok, Gorkha, Kavre and Palpa.

When Jagan Gurung of Pokhara first got into the coffee-production business, in 2009, he exported 1,000 kg of coffee to Japan, a volume that accounted for all the coffee his company, Himalayan Highland Coffee Pvt Ltd, produced that year. Last year, his company produced 3,000 kg of coffee, of which half was exported to Japan, while the other half was sold in the local market. Seeing the growing local demand, Gurung decided to get into the café game as well. In 2013, he started his café, Star Coffee, in New Road, Pokhara, and last year, he opened another outlet in Damauli, Tanahun. Apart from using his own coffee bean in his cafés, he also supplies his beans to several cafés in Pokhara and Kath­mandu. “The local demand for coffee has grown even more significantly in the last few years,” he says. Seeing the bullish market, he purchased 20 ropa­nis of land to plant coffee in a village in Kaski few years ago and is hoping that in a year or two his coffee plants will be ready for harvest. By 2018, Gurung wants to increase his coffee produc­tion to 5,000 kg. Out of the 5,000 kg, he says that 60 per cent of it will probably be consumed by the domestic market while the remaining will be exported. “If the local demand grows at the cur­rent rate, the amount of coffee that the country produces won’t be enough to meet it. We will probably have to im­port coffee,” says Gurung.

In less than two decades, the cof­fee culture here has come a long way. From coffee’s being only consumed in its instant form, the brewed ver­sion has created a thriving café cul­ture, and these cafés in turn have propelled the growth of coffee farms. Today, packaged local coffee—ground and beans—hogs quite a bit of super­market shelf space. And also avail­able today in these very supermarkets are coffee grinders and French press­es, which allow you to make brewed coffee instantly at home. “Just like drinking tea is such a part of our lives, drinking coffee today is as natural an activity too. Even though the majority of people drink brewed coffee only in cafés today, I am sure that soon, in the same way we make tea, many people will be making home-brewed coffee,” says Pradhan.