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Nepal’s Specialty Guru

THE PEAK OF SPECIALTY IN NEPAL
TENZING AND LEKALI ESTATE

Nepal wasn’t what I expected when  we visited in Spring 2017.  I pictured lush undulating landscapes and dramatic elevation changes.  Certainly, there are elevations in the east – but on the west side of the Himalayas, the Kathmandu valley is dry 9 months of the year.  Lots of dust, traffic, dense populations, river beds that are practically empty during the dry season. The rumors about super friendly people are true – which was nice.  And Kathmandu does a great job hosting visitors.  Temples, shops, and a mix of Nepali, Indian, Tibetan and Western foods.   Fun expat bars that reminded me of ski lodges.  Absolutely tons of textures, colors and incense (other smells too).  The scene is chaotic, but the feeling is content.  It’s a fanciful place with little surprises everywhere – small shrines, bells, middle-age era towns, ping-pong, and dumpling (mo-mo) shops.

Nepal is still recovering from the 2015 earthquakes.  The undeveloped land in front of one of Kathmandu’s fanciest hotels still serves as a ramshackle camp for displaced families.  The earthquake stopped the country in its tracts for quite a while.  The coffee industry was especially vulnerable.  Coffee in Nepal is still young – only about 20 years old. The country produces perhaps 30 containers of coffee annually, and its estimated that more than half is for domestic consumption.  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.

While coffee production is small, specialty coffee production – in its more sophisticated forms – is almost non-existent.

Tenzing changed that.  From a famous Sherpa family (his grandfather is Tenzing Norgay), Tenzing was Western educated, and steeped in specialty coffee in the States. He returned to Nepal afterward with a desire to bring what he learned to the cultivation side of the business.   As we’ve tasted his coffees over the past 8 years we can say, with confidence, that his results speak for themselves.

In the Nuwakot District, with a 300 ft waterfall as a backdrop, 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.   Only 40 bags were harvested, which must make this one of the rarest coffees in the United States.

In general, Tenzing is crushing it, and it was a special opportunity to see his farm.  He’s got a few displaced families living there now 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.  Likely due to the constant fertilization (cow manure) and pest control (cow urine).

The goal for the visit was simple.  We love this coffee and we want more.  Because we buy every last bean from Lekali Estate, for Tenzing, there are really only two options: (1) buy from very small coops that have ~30 members and produce 10 bags of parchment a season, or (2) expand Lekali Estate.  We were option for (3) – all of the above.

There’s a lot of work to be done in Nepal with coops.  Cherry selection is good, but there is little understanding of the importance of fermentation and drying processes – so despite red cherry we were getting a lot of ugly, boozy parchment.   Remember, coffee in Nepal is new, and it shows.   Nepal also has a minimum national price for parchment, which is higher than I’ve ever seen in my years sourcing.  Good for farmers, but high prices that don’t differentiate between “good” and “better” qualities leave little incentive to work harder.  Tenzing is focusing on coops in Nuwakot (the same village as Lekali Estate) and Lamjung (outside scenic Pokhara), with producers who want to access specialty markets, the kind of audience that Lekali Estate demands.  He provides training, and in some cases fermentation tools (clean buckets with covers to keep out insects).  Working with coops and smallholders can be a long road – working with influence instead of control is difficult.  Tenzing isn’t being compensated for this investment of his time and energy.  I’m personally, fiercely proud of his commitment to these groups, and the force he brings to the effort as a patient optimist.

During the visit, Tenzing had a secret to share.  He’s looking at 20 hectares of land, sitting at 1500 MASL in the east of the country –  about 7hrs from Kathmandu.  Lekali is expanding, which is excellent.  Tenzing is a technician.  To give you an idea of his sophisticated his production knowledge, last season he carried out fermentation experiments with a Kenyan style soak.  This year he’s looking at yeast trials so he can inoculate his ferments and he’s also going to experiment with natural process on raised beds.  He has planted his new land by seedling variety and, as he expands Lekali, you can expect all this attention to detail and general curiosity to bloom, fully.

This year the harvest was exceptional.  We brought in all 40 (40KG) bags.  I’m not one for exaggeration or boasting but this is demonstrably true; if you haven’t tried Lekali Estate, you haven’t tasted Nepalese coffee.  I encourage you to get to know this incredibly unique coffee (notes of cherry, lime, orange cream, marshmallow), and then get in touch with Tenzing (@lekali_coffee) and get to know a fantastic coffee person who is changing the game in Nepal.