KATHMANDU -- As the aroma of freshly brewed coffee fills the air, Nima Tenjing Sherpa bends and perches his nose above a cup at a table inside a tiny roaster in a posh Kathmandu neighborhood. He inhales the fragrance, an act reminiscent of wine-tasting, then sips at the coffee. "It's sweet with traces of fruit," he says.
Sherpa, a 36-year-old director and co-founder of Lekali Coffee Estate, is still basking in the glory of his coffee's global recognition. Early this year, his beans, grown in Nuwakot, a district northwest of Kathmandu, scored 90 points on a scale of 50 to 100 in Coffee Review, a California-based trade magazine. In its first-ever blind assessment of a Nepali coffee, the magazine described Lekali as "savory sweet in structure with gentle acidity; crisp, satiny mouthfeel."
The reviewer concluded that the coffee is "well worth seeking out for its confident savory-sweet cup."
Sherpa's coffee is only the second from Nepal to receive international recognition. In 2016, coffee produced by Greenland Organic Farm scored an 89 from the Specialty Coffee Association of America, a California-based trade group that uses a slightly different scale.
Sherpa and Raj Kumar Banjara are among a new generation of Nepali coffee producers determined to elevate the quality of their country's beans to international standards.
Both are certified Q-graders, trained specialty coffee judges, and believe in Nepali coffee's potential. Q-graders hold licenses from institutions recognized by the Specialty Coffee Association of America. In 2014, Banjara became Nepal's first Q-grader after training in Xining, in central China. Sherpa attended a weeklong, intensive course in Malaysia last year.
They have embarked on their mission amid what many in the West are calling coffee's "third wave," in which aficionados value the beans' journey from exotic origin to local hipster cafe.
The "first wave" was driven by coffee companies bent on creating a mass market for the beverage. They succeeded in putting vacuum-packed cans of coffee grounds and jars of instant coffee in kitchens around the world.
The "second wave" promoted coffee-making as an art; unique varietals and flavors were savored. Starbucks, which began as a specialty coffee purveyor before going global, symbolizes the beginning of this movement.
"The third wave is ... dominated by independent cafes and roasters," Sherpa said. "I think Nepal is poised to take advantage of [this] high-end market by exporting specialty coffee."
In mid-July, Sherpa and Banjara were at the forefront of Nepal's first-ever national coffee cupping, a ritual of sorts in which Q-graders identify the quality, characteristics and flavor notes of coffee beans.
Home to eight of the world's 10 highest peaks, including Mount Everest, Nepal offers an ideal climate to grow high-quality beans, experts say. Most of Nepal's Arabica variety of Bourbon and Typica coffee is grown on rolling, misty mountain slopes at altitudes ranging from 800 meters to 1,600 meters.
First introduced to the country by a monk in the middle of the 20th century, the crop now supports 32,000 smallholding farmers in 40 of the country's 77 districts.
Sherpa and Banjara were exporting specialty coffee before the Coffee Review rating, but the recognition has given them a much-needed boost in the international market.
The country outputs around 450 tons of coffee per year. Of this, 70% is exported, according to the National Tea and Coffee Board, a government agency. During the past 20 years, the sector has seen tremendous growth. The country produced 463 tons of Arabica in 2015, compared with 13 tons in 1995.
Nepali farmers bring 50 tons of specialty beans to market every year, prices for which start at $12 per kilogram, according to Banjara. The price for nonspecialty beans is $8 per kilogram. The Lekali Coffee Estate's prices ranges from $12 to $20 for specialty beans.
The beans that Coffee Review rated were being sold for $9.94 for a bag of about 113 grams.
A study of Nepal's coffee sector carried out by the International Trade Centre, based in Switzerland, recommends a further push into the specialty market, which is worth $48 billion in the U.S. "Nepal will never be a competitive player in the international coffee commodity markets of large volumes," the 110-page report says. "There's a worldwide interest in specialty Nepali coffees from specialty traders and small specialty roasters in North America, Europe, Australia, the Middle East and East Asia. It will be possible as well to export roasted specialty coffee directly to consumers worldwide through Internet sales."
Producers, however, say they need to improve their craft in everything from picking and grading to roasting and packaging to meet the exacting standards of high-end coffee markets.
"In order to promote our coffee as specialty, we need to pay attention to and develop a deep understanding of the coffee we're growing," said Banjara, also a co-founder of the National Coffee Academy, which helps raise awareness about the product. "We know very little about the genetic varieties of coffee plants. Quality of the coffee has to be consistent. We must ensure that it's selectively picked and graded and rightly roasted to meet the global standards."
The country sorely needs a laboratory for testing the quality of coffee, said Sherpa, who together with Banjara, trains farmers and roasters on how to produce finer beans. "In order to promote our coffee in international markets," Sherpa said, "we need to know and ensure its quality. We need to develop new flavors, experiment with different ways of processing."
The European Union has invested in helping Nepalese improve the quality of their coffee, stressing technical expertise and best practices in harvesting and processing. The EU in May 2017 unveiled a grant of 1 million euros in the industry.
The sector faces hurdles. A knowledge gap exists among farmers, and the government does not consider coffee growing a priority, according to Pranit Gurung, a program officer at the Nepal Coffee Producers Association, a 1,900-member trade group. "From orchard management to sanitation, the farmers lack the know-how in running the coffee farm," Gurung said.
There are additional challenges, Gurung said. Small-scale growers need help shifting to commercial farming. And there is a ceiling when it comes to buying farmland -- 3.5 hectares.
Meanwhile, specialty coffee has opportunities in Nepal as well. "When we started in 2008, we wanted to export our coffee," said Kumud Singh, 36, and co-founder of Alpine Coffee Estate. "But over the years, the local market has also grown."
The mushrooming number of coffee shops -- an estimated 500 in the capital -- points to a burgeoning market, according to Singh, who also sells coffee machines. "Our coffee culture has shifted from instant to fresh cups," he said. "People drink tea at home, but while dining out, they usually go for coffee."
Singh's company, which produces Kathmandu Coffee, is launching a 10 million-rupee retail outlet in the capital to showcase coffee craftsmanship.
While today's coffee connoisseurs prize quality and unique flavor profiles, they also want to know the story behind the beans, Sherpa said. His own story involves a visit to a hardscrabble village with poor public infrastructure. The villagers of Nuwakot requested him to rebuild their dilapidated school.
"We ended up building eight schools," Sherpa said. "But we also wanted to support the [village] over the long-term, and that's when we started coffee farming."
Rather than join his family's mountaineering and tourism business, Sherpa turned to coffee after finishing his undergraduate degree from Manchester College in the U.S. state of Indiana in 2008. He developed a passion for the beverage after starting to farm the bean in Nepal. "I grew up in the city," he said, referring to Kathmandu. "I didn't encounter the hardship of life in rural areas. Once I started visiting my farm, I realized it was important to be attached to the land.
"If you're just in it for the money, this is not your cup of coffee. It takes dedication and passion to produce high-quality coffee."