Cherries are hand-sorted and then pulped within hours of harvesting. Parchment is kept in fermentation tanks for 12 – 24 hours then moved to raised beds and patio.
In 2014 we met Nema Tenzing of Nepal’s Lekali Estate and were immediately impressed – at first more by him than by his coffee. Tenzing was doing all the right things, fighting to create specialty coffee out of an interesting, challenging coffee context. But – back a years ago – the quality just wasn’t there. We made a habit of visiting with SCA annually, and in 2016, all that changed. Tenzing had produced remarkable coffee from a place that is not even listed as a coffee exporting country by the ICO.
The History of Lekali estate is a tall tale. Tenzing’s grandfather was a sherpa on the legendary Sir Edmund Hillary summit in 1958. The success of the expedition led to national recognition and eventually to a family business in trekking. Tenzing’s father, the son of the Mr. Pasang Phutter Sherpa, learned the trade and from it and built a tourism and trekking business ( that would eventually win the REI contract for tourism in Nepal). When things were good, they were good. Then, a 10 year civil war (the Moaist Revolution) in the mid 90’s to mid 2000’s claimed almost 17,000 lives and dried up the tourism that sustained Tenzing’s family. It was clear at that point, that the family business needed to diversify to protect itself from another falter in tourism. After trying many things (tea + honey), the family eventually tried coffee, and Tenzing (the youngest of two siblings) was the perfect person to manage the business. Nima Tenzing Sherpa had attended University in the Midwest, was familiar with coffee culture and the United States market. In 2008, he began Lekali Estate.
After a few years of consecutive quality improvement Tenzing’s work was interrupted by a series of earthquakes which struck in 2015. Every house (~40 residences) in Lekali was destroyed (read more: here). For a time, all the residents were housed in Tenzing’s coffee storage facility (see cover photo) – until that too was damaged in an aftershock. In 2018, Nepal was still recovering from the 2015 earthquakes. During the visit to Lekali, Tenzing pointed out a few displaced families living there and helping on the farm post-earthquake. Not a bad place to homestead. It’s about 1.5 hrs outside Kathmandu, and on a steep hillside, directly across from a 300 ft waterfall that just washes the entire valley with a beautiful white noise. There are a few varieties on the farm; Caturras, Typicas, some Bourbon – all are really productive. This is likely due to the constant fertilization (cow manure) and pest control (cow urine). Tenzing has his own small dry mill in Kathmandu, so he can oversee the process from cultivation to air-shipment.
Tenzing’s coffees are processed immaculately. The cup sparkles with fruits, florals and lingering sweetness. At Crop to Cup we’ve been interested in Nepali coffee for almost a decade. This is the only coffee we’ve seen coming out of Nepal worthy of the US specialty marketplace. The harvest at Lekali is typically 20 bags (40kg), which must make this one of the rarest coffees in the United States.
Coffee in Nepal is still young – only about 20 years old. The country produces perhaps 30 containers of coffee annually, and it’s estimated that more than half is for domestic consumption – driving high (government-guaranteed) parchment minimums. In a country renowned for its tea, you’ll see coffee cafe after coffee cafe in Kathmandu. A good sign for sure, this is a place that has a thirst for coffee.
Commercial cultivation of coffee in Nepal only began in the 80’s as a secondary cash crop behind tea. Moving west from Kathmandu, coffee speckles the countryside, being cultivated in full sun on heavily terraced mountainsides that can span over 1,000 ft in elevation. Coffee harvests are difficult and distributed as a result. In general, Nepalese farmers aggregate around small pulpers. 30 or so farmers will contribute to a washing station that consists of a hand pulper, a couple raised beds and some buckets and bags for fermentation. Annual production of one of these groups might be 10-15 bags. Coops aggregate coffees further, paying government mandated prices (two-tiered based on general quality, and almost all farmers receive the premium for top quality, regardless of the actual quality due to high demand).
In 2015, massive earthquakes hit Nepal. In a 2018 visit, the undeveloped land in front of one of Kathmandu’s fanciest hotels was still serving as a ramshackle camp for displaced families. The earthquake stopped the country in its tracks for quite a while. The young coffee industry was especially vulnerable.
While coffee production is small, specialty coffee production – in its more sophisticated forms – is almost non-existent. Tenzig, a western-educated Nepali with significant landholdings, is an anomaly. His circumstances are exceptional but less so than the man himself – a highly intelligent, curious, humble person, working feverishly to elevate Nepali coffee. The vast majority of Nepali coffee is from new producers without adequate training in cultivation or processing, loosely knitted together into coops. Despite the proximity to the Himalayas, most of the Nepali coffee we saw was grown at modest elevations and in more arid conditions than one might expect. Domestic consumption and high payment minimums (~2.5/LB) drive up the price of coffee in Nepal, despite the fact that conditions in general aren’t ideal for specialty. For these reasons, when you do see Nepalese coffee in the US, it’s often (1) expensive and (2) insufficient from a quality perspective.
As the cafe culture continues to flourish in Nepal, driven by domestic consumption and a steady stream of tourism, it’s inevitable that quality of prepared coffee improves. It’s also inevitable that cafes and green buyers begin to push for higher qualities coming from Nepalese producers. It would appear that production in general will continue to increase because of the incentive of strong parchment prices. It may be a long time before Nepal is on the radar for large-scale specialty coffee production, but we’re already seeing very unique coffees, processed immaculately and we have reason to believe that we’ll be seeing a good deal more of it in years to come.