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Your guide to Nepal Coffee
When we hear the word Nepal, it usually conjures up images of Mount Everest and the Himalayas, sherpas, the birthplace of Buddha, monks in saffron robes, ancient temples, the mystical Kathmandu or the renowned Gurkha soldiers. Maybe even the Abominable Snowman. We don't automatically think of coffee plantations - this makes Nepalese coffee rather a hidden treasure.
Origins of Nepali Coffee
While the Nepal coffee industry is still relatively new in the country, growers know how to grow great coffee beans. Their plants tend to produce the best fruit at altitudes between 2,500 and 5,000 feet (750 to 1,500 metres) and coffee beans are in demand. Finding high ground in the Himalayas is not a problem: the mountain range has more than 100 mountains soaring to 7,500 metres (24,000 feet), including the highest in the world, Everest, at 8,850 metres above sea level (29,035 feet). However, while it is carried out at heights above much of the world's ‘coffee belt’, growing in Nepal is confined to the lower slopes and foothills, mainly in the Ganesh Himal range. At higher altitudes, the plants would be killed by frost. In the right places, the terrain and climate provide perfect conditions for coffee beans to thrive - hot summers, cooling winds and moist, fertile soil.
Nepal has only recently joined the world of coffee producers. It wasn't grown in the country at all before 1938, when a farmer named Hara Giri brought some seeds over from Myanmar and planted them in his fields in the Gulmi district. The plants grew well in the nutrient-rich soil, producing good fruit, and pretty soon, coffee cultivation spread further across Nepal, and several plantations were established. The Nepali liked it, and for years the coffee beans were used for local consumption only.
The real growth in commercial cultivation came about thanks to the widely travelled Gurkha soldiers and the Nepalese labourers who went to work in India. They found the drink made from the Arabica coffee beans was more to their taste than what they had been used to, so they brought the beans back home and planted them. Gradually, the cultivation of Arabica plants began to take off. Not until the late 1970s though, was the first coffee company firmly established and coffee became a commercial crop with export potential. From a single field, coffee production in Nepal has now spread across the nation through dozens of districts. Whether it is a single coffee estate producing specialty coffee, or a group of coffee farmers producing for the masses, the country now offers a good variety.
Changing tastes in Nepal
Nepal is a landlocked nation in South Asia, with China to the north and India to the South, West and East. About the size of Greece and home to 29 million people, it was a kingdom until 2008 when the monarchy was abolished and has been a democratic republic since then.
It took until the start of the 21st century, and a big change in social attitudes, before the cultivation of speciality coffee began to be ranked as a money-making opportunity; there was a steady growth in local Nepal coffee consumption and export sales. The trade is still small, making Nepalese coffee - often sold as Himalayan - something of a niche market. It is reckoned by enthusiasts to be some of the best coffee in the world. As a mark of its improving quality, in 2018, Nepal held its first-ever national cupping competition, pitting coffee producers against one another in a contest of their coffee's flavour, character, body and aroma. Winners are certified by the Specialty Coffee Association of America.
At the start of this century, the big drink in Nepal was tea. Any Nepal coffee was of the instant variety, from sachets or jars of powder. ‘Proper’ coffee had to be imported and consequently was exorbitantly expensive for domestic consumers. A coffee farm was still an unusual sighting. Sweeping changes in land ownership and management combined with greater awareness of coffee's potential as a cash crop have seen a surge in the area cultivated and the number of coffee drinkers. A few years ago, coffee shops in Nepal were almost non-existent; now, there are hundreds in Kathmandu, Chitwan, Pokhara and all over the country, having pushed aside the ubiquitous tea vendors to be seen on every street corner.
The new cafe culture caters for a booming trade of Nepal coffee, serving local people and the 1 million or so tourists who visit annually (before the coronavirus pandemic blighted the travel industry). They come in their droves to tackle the mountains of Everest or Annapurna, go trekking in the Himalayas, visit the birthplace of Buddha in the gardens of Lumbini, or take in the unique sights and culture of Kathmandu.
Nepal Coffee Farming
According to a recent survey by the Central Bureau of Statistics, coffee-growing occurs in 40 of the 77 districts into which Nepal is split, producing 1,500 metric tons (25,000 60kg bags) a year on about 1,000 hectares (2,470 acres). The tonnage has trebled in the space of a few years. The best-known coffee-growing districts are: Sindhul, Kaski, Rasuwa, Tana, Baglung, Nuwakot, Palpa, Gulmi, Arghakhachi, Pyuthan and Syangja. The latter five having been designated by the Nepal Coffee Producers Association as clusters where production is to be boosted to meet the burgeoning domestic demand.
Almost all of the crop is Himalayan Arabica, of the Bourbon and Typica varietals, organically grown. Most coffee plants are quite new, given the recent development of farming the crop; tens of thousands of saplings are planted every year. Growing them in the shade of banana and bamboo trees prevents the plants from getting scorched by the sun, while the moist, fertile soils and regular spells of cool weather slow down the ripening of the berries, so they plump up nicely, boosting the juiciness and flavours.
At harvest time, roughly from December to March, the berries will be hand-picked by farmers who carry them in bamboo baskets from a coffee estate or plantation to a communal collection point for hand-pulping - which separates the beans from the cherries - and washing. The coffee beans are left to dry in the shade for several days before being checked for quality and put in sacks for transport. There are a few roasting stations in the capital Kathmandu, but most of the crop is sold in whole bean form, hulled (skinned) to be roasted by buyers in Australia, New Zealand, Southeast Asia and Europe.
On top of the booming demand for this Himalayan speciality in Europe, Japan, Korea and the USA, the National Tea and Coffee Development Board reckons the domestic demand alone for Nepal coffee is over 7,000 tons - far outstripping supply. Growing that amount would certainly help the economy and lift many farmers out of poverty, but it requires better technology, infrastructure and education of the thousands of growers who at present operate 30,000 smallholdings. For now, coffee products from Nepal remain a treasured commodity aimed at drinkers who appreciate its single-origin, organic speciality.
How much does coffee in Nepal cost?
The cafe society that has been prevalent for centuries in cities from Paris, London and Vienna to Manhattan and Melbourne has been sweeping through the urban areas of Nepal - the capital Kathmandu which has a population of about 1.4 million, and the metropolitan zone of Pokhara, where about 500,000 people live. Pokhara, a major tourist destination, has more than 300 hotels and 50-odd coffee shops have opened there in the last few years to cater for the tasting boom and customer demand. In Kathmandu, there are 15 five-star hotels plus hundreds more of a lower standard, and countless coffee shops and lounges; some providing more rare speciality coffee. They all depend largely on the tourist trade, and travellers to Nepal seem to be happy to spend. The equation is simple: limited supply + strong demand = high prices. Naturally, the coffee you get in the country, like everywhere else, is not universally good. It pays to explore. You can be assured of a quality coffee in, for instance, Himalayan Java, a popular chain, the Dhokaima Cafe, or the Kaiser Cafe in the Garden of Dreams. But you can expect to pay for the privilege: a cup of Nepal coffee here can set you back about 450 rupees (£4.50).
What does Nepali coffee taste like?
People in the know frequently compare Nepal's coffee to Jamaican Blue Mountain Coffee. High praise indeed, to be likened to what is widely accepted as the best coffee in the world. Some aficionados even believe that the Himalayan brew is the one that excels. Both are rated for their rich aroma and smoothness, refined and creamy, with flavours of chocolate, vanilla and caramel, nutty, mildly acidic and medium-bodied. Coffee beans grown in the higher altitudes of Nepal are often described as producing a delicious drink with wine notes.
Our Nepalese coffee is grown in the foothills of the Himalayas and reveals superb chocolate and vanilla flavours with a hint of nuttiness. It is bursting with aromas that entice you as soon as you open the bag. It is perfect in the Turkish Coffee style, or as a cafetiere coffee.
Not sure which size bag you need? See How Many Cups each size provides.