Most of us have likely never heard of coffee from Nepal much less ever considered it might be delicious and worth seeking out. Even the most adventurous and accomplished green coffee buyers and roasters react with an almost automated suspicion and skepticism when I tell them I have been seeking out specialty coffee in the remote Himalaya of South Asia. Rarely ones to run from a challenge, in fact at Saint Frank we often run straight for them if there is a new discovery of terroir and flavor to be found and a new story of redemption and hope to be shared.
We are thrilled to present the finest coffees from Nepal that tell a compelling story of both optimistic hope in action amidst a stark reality of challenges that are as daunting and seemingly insurmountable as the towering mountains above these pioneering farms. Still, we have found the hallmark acidities and clean sweetness we love about fine specialty coffee but with wildly unique floral, herbal, and tea-like flavors wrapped in a mouth filling texture fitting such a wild, expansive and unique terroir.
The Journey to Nepal
Our journey in Nepal began much like some of our other unlikely origins and relationships: a simple meeting or connection with a compelling opportunity to be a part of something extraordinary against great odds for success and a readiness and willingness to believe that there is a path forward and that there are communities prepared, if yet undiscovered, to work together toward something special in coffee and in community.
In the summer of 2017 I met an extraordinary man named Dhan Raj Ghimire while he was visiting San Francisco from Nepal. I learned about his family’s story working directly with victims of human trafficking and extreme poverty in Kathmandu where he planned to open a coffee shop both to fund their programs but also a part of their job-training program for the young women survivors.
Saint Frank had already been working in Northern Thailand toward developing higher quality exportable specialty coffees as a connecting and empowering method to challenge exploitive trafficking in the Golden Triangle. This passion and opportunity took little more than a brief inquiry into the short history of Nepali coffee production and one promising sample to bring me to Kathmandu after visiting Thailand.
I knew I could help with the coffee shop but it was the holistic approach to business and impact that drew me into Nepal where I believe coffee can be the connecting and life-giving movement from the mountains into the city of Kathmandu and even into our own homes as we bring these special coffees to Saint Frank, our partners, and our communities.
First Impressions of Nepali Coffee
Nepal is a country proud to have never been successfully colonized by Europeans but struggles as a landlocked country between India and the world’s highest mountains. On one side is a natural land barrier of massive proportions and on the other a national barrier with political challenges and exploitations of equally sizeable proportions. This is one of the least developed and most disconnected places in the world and my experiences over several trips to this point have certainly verified that stark reality.
In the fall of 2017 Dhan Raj first took me into his home in Kathmandu and then into a foothill network of villages including one called Gati where he had organized the building of temporary housing after the catastrophic 2015 earthquake. In the wake of that tragedy among this group of remote and vulnerable villages alone nearly 40 children were taken by traffickers down to India where their ethnicity is in high demand among the sex trade. If growing and marketing specialty coffee can empower these communities with dignity and connectedness thwarting such predators then no challenge is too great to prevent such horrifying tragedies.
While Gati did indeed have some coffee plants among ganja plants, they resembled nothing yet of coffee farming. The community had little knowledge and support for growing coffee without the benefit of generations of international coffee market experience and so the lack of organization and even basic agronomy we discovered was not surprising. The coffee plants were from excellent varietal descent but were in poor condition and the poor processing methods were compounding the problem. It would only be sensible to be discouraged and assume that what is now is what will always be – the same mentality that keeps the poor and the oppressed trapped and bound in their own minds and circumstances. But we know that high quality specialty coffees are out there, nearly all of which have yet to be discovered and nurtured and we know that education and connection can be the difference toward coffee born empowerment and transformation.
Lekali Estate and the Hope of Nepali Coffee
Over the next year we quickly grew our network of connections to the handful of more advanced coffee producers and professionals from different generations yielding both encouraging and discouraging perspectives at times. But it was the unlikely connection through Jennifer Lan, a native Californian selflessly dedicating herself to the potential of Nepali coffee, that introduced us to our now most important relationship for quality Nepali coffee already shining but even more in the hope of what is yet to come.
In the spring of 2019 we met up with Nima Tenzing Sherpa where I was thrilled to discover an impressive roasting operation and cupping lab next to a small but clean and organized milling operation. Nima’s grandfather was a Sherpa on the expedition that first summited Mount Everest in 1953 and Nima’s father Mingma Dorji Sherpa founded a successful trekking business, as well as the coffee farm Lekali Esate from which he envisioned an inspirational job and industry stimulating operation. It was this vision in the coffee of Lekali Estate that inspired his son and friend of Saint Frank, Nima Tenzing Sherpa, to dedicate himself to the finest specialty coffees not just for the Lekali Estate but for all of Nepal.
On the mountain drive into the Nuwakot region to visit Lekali Estate it didn’t take long to determine that Tenzing was a kindred spirit resonating with a shared passion for connection and meaning in coffee that empowers and elevates otherwise unrecognized and supported peoples and terroirs. To my surprise Nima knew of Saint Frank being quite active from afar following the global specialty coffee community in which some his heroes like Tim Wendelboe in Norway and Long Miles Coffee Project in Burundi are friends and peers of ours. What a joy to welcome him into this community through genuine friendship and partnership!
At the 10 Hectare Lekali Estate the terrain rises steeply from 1300m to 1600m on a narrow but long portion of a coffee developed slope shared with two other farms that followed Lekali’s lead. Typica and Caturra trees on clay and sand based soils produce dense and complex coffees cultivated under the studious and watchful care of Nima and Bhatta Jee, Lekali’s farm manager. A dedicated and experienced team of women handle the meticulous washed processing for vibrant and impeccably clean coffees while naturals are dried carefully and evenly for enhanced body and fruit sweetness over the structured and elegant frame of the Lekali terroir flavors.
Tenzing is constantly improving and evolving in his practices pursuing greater quality and sustainability in an infant coffee region where most producers are completely disconnected from the incredible example found in Lekali. Sadly many of these producers do not yet possess the incentive to adapt even if given the opportunity and knowledge that Tenzing preaches as a kind of prophet or evangelist for the gospel of specialty coffee in its inherent beauty as well as its transformative world changing power. Tenzing is already working tirelessly among multiple communities in the “Coffee Practice Project” in places like Taplejung and Lamjung where he is training and introducing new coffee producers to specialty coffee production methods. We were fortunate to source and offer one of these coffees in the 2019 season from the Gurung people in Lamjung through Tenzing alongside his own coffees at Lekali and we are inspired to grow in these relationships to support the development of these communities and coffees.
Bridging First Impressions with the Hope for Nepali Coffee
This work is perfectly in step with the heart and vision of Dhan Raj Ghimire in the expansive and empowering work to care for the poor and to prevent and end the trafficking of these communities through his NGO “Karuna Care” and his new coffee shop “Karuna Coffee” (karuna means “compassion” in Nepali). In fact we are working toward a project in which we will lead the planting of new coffee in the Gati group of villages we visited in the beginning to develop a new coffee growing and processing operation of the highest level in the Marming Village where Dhan Raj had just recently begin the building a new school.
While Saint Frank has partnered with many emerging producers in pioneering regions throughout the world, this long term expansive and inclusive project we hope will be the next turn in the evolution of our constantly articulating vision to inspire joy, connection, and meaning in coffee through relationships not only from seed to cup but from dream to fruition.
Saint Frank Founder