Mountain Cafe & Roastery in Paro, Bhutan, gives off the vibes of a toasty log cabin as I sit sipping a hot cappuccino there on a cold December afternoon. An Indian might not think of a café as special, given the ubiquitousness of coffee shops in our country, but in Bhutan, it is rare. The owner of Mountain Café, Karma Chime, tells me that he had not tasted coffee before 2014 when he had the beverage for the first time in a quaint cafe in Utrecht in the Netherlands.
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“I didn’t know what coffee was. When my friend ordered a cappuccino, I did the same,” he confesses. The experience of sharing coffee in a beautiful old house turned into a coffee shop had a lasting impact on him. “The way they had preserved a traditional home in a big city was fascinating,” he says. It inspired him to set up a café back in his homeland, Bhutan.
“The spacious two-storey café overlooking Paro’s busy market area has a youthful vibe with barrels used as tables and posters with quirky quotes. ”
Chime started Mountain Cafe in 2016, serving food and coffee made from imported beans. The spacious two-storey café overlooking Paro’s busy market area has a youthful vibe with barrels used as tables and posters with quirky quotes. In the beginning, however, customer feedback about the coffee was not encouraging. Chime realised that he must have access to good beans and master the roasting process to succeed. Research led him to Chikmagalur, Karnataka’s coffee belt, where he learnt the process of making coffee, from growing the beans to making a cuppa.
Having learnt the nuances of coffee-making, Chime was keen to grow his own beans. But coffee cultivation was unheard of in Bhutan at that time. He says, “There were so many challenges ahead and if I had focussed on them, I would have given up long ago.” The Agriculture Minister of Bhutan told him that the southern part of the Himalayan kingdom was suitable for coffee cultivation.
In Samtse district in south Bhutan, close to the Indo-Bhutan border, Chime was surprised to meet hundreds of small farmers, who had been growing coffee since 2003. With virtually no local demand, these farmers were cultivating coffee merely because it is relatively hassle-free as compared to oranges or other cash crops. Chime bought a two-acre plot of land in Samtse and simultaneously placed an order for an industrial coffee roasting machine.
Even after that, customers were unsure of the kind of coffee Chime was serving. But having come so far, Chime was not going to give up. He sent a sample to Thailand for testing, and the results were encouraging. Eager to stay the course and expand cultivation beyond the two acres he owned, Chime gave out saplings to 600 farmers in Samtse, providing them with support and encouragement to cultivate coffee.
A happy side effect of Chime’s experiment was the creation of meaningful employment in Samtse. Typically, the younger generation there migrated to cities in search of better-paying jobs. Chime hopes that as demand increases and growing coffee becomes lucrative, younger people will find it worthwhile to stay in their villages and get involved in farming. Chime also runs a coffee processing unit in Samtse, employing local people.
Chime now runs four cafés across Paro and Thimphu with 55 employees. A fifth outlet in Phuentsholing is on the cards. From selling 1,000 kg of coffee a year, he now sells 1,000 kg a month. The small farmers he first encountered on his visit to the coffee-growing areas of Bhutan are now part of a larger farmers’ group. He continues to provide them with saplings, training, and support. The next step for Chime is to put Bhutan on the world coffee map.
Chaitali Patel is a Dubai-based freelancer who writes about travel, food, and culture.