Pemba Sherpa: Boulder’s Altitude Adventurer Talks Chai with the Zine

“Sherpa Chai isn’t just the chai Pemba’s mother made him. It’s the chai her mother made for her. The chai her mother’s mother made before that. This recipe has been integral to the Sherpa people as they built their homes high in the Solukhumbu region of Nepal.” – Sherpa Chai Team

By Colorado Coffee Zine

The average coffee shop menu invariably includes drip coffee, espresso drinks, pastries and some variety of tea beverages within the caffeine and decaf categories. Chai, a word that means tea in many languages, is a kind of maverick menu item that ranges in preparation from shop to shop. Sherpa Chai, patiently brewed in small batches at the Boulder based restaurant that launched it into a brand, has distinguished itself in the same market that embraced and propelled forward Colorado chai predecessors Bhakti Chai and Third Street Chai.

The owner Pemba Sherpa is a renowned mountaineer who has fearlessly trekked through the last two decades with a true penchant for adventure, entrepreneurship, and philanthropy. After meeting up with Pemba at his Boulder based Nepalese restaurant,Sherpa’s Adventurers Restaurant & Bar, the Zine learned more about how this journey began.

Pemba recalls the warm drink his mother made him every morning to set him up for the long walk to school. The route from his village in the Everest region of Nepal to the nearest school was roughly 3 hours and chai, mixed gently with milk of a female yak, called a nak, was the warm beverage that marked the beginning of that walk. Pemba explained that shorter routes to school in those days were constantly destroyed by the region’s aggressive monsoon season.

Some time after Pemba worked in the tourism and mountaineering industries in the Himalayas and in Boulder, he laid the groundwork for his restaurant, known today by locals as simply “Sherpa’s.” The chai which had marked his childhood mornings and had accompanied him on treks across mountain ranges and continents was a natural part of the dining experience at Sherpa’s.

“At the time there was a need for this type of restaurant here so that’s when I started [Sherpa’s]…it was a kind of climber bar where people would come and hang out. Climbers liked it, travelers liked it…and that’s really where we started serving this product, in the restaurant” Pemba said about the early days. Customers took so well to it and made such a fuss over its distinct flavor and unique qualities, that their feedback and encouragement ultimately became the motivator to launch Sherpa Chai the brand.

The reason it took so long to convince Pemba to get behind the bottling and mass marketing of Sherpa Chai is simple, he was fully devoted to his passion for climbing. Pemba is active in regional, national and international organizations like the Sierra Club and  the Colorado Mountain Club as well as founder of his own travel adventure company, Sherpa Ascent International. Another focus of Pemba’s is leading aid and relief efforts to Nepal, both to improve the community of his heritage and to bring support when needed. Pemba took the initiative to assemble a team and funds to create a durable solution to that 3 hour walk to school he told the Zine about. Today, the route is shortened to half an hour by a permanent, safe bridge. He also organized one of the strongest delegations of aid and relief to the region in 2015 after a devastating earthquake in Nepal. With the help of donors and volunteers, Pemba coordinated direct delivery of funds, materials, temporary housing, and provisions to the devastated community.

After juggling these projects and commitments for a while, it was finally time to think about those chai suggestions from customers on a larger scale. “We brew gallons and gallons of it here every day and we serve it to our customers. And of course it’s the same recipe from my mother,” Pemba says of the unique  chai beverage that remains as a normal menu item at Sherpa’s.

Pemba plans to remain active in climbing, the restaurant, Sherpa Chai and supporting the development of his community back in Nepal. One of the steps he’s taking to bring more prosperity through employment includes establishing a farm in Nepal where Sherpa Chai’s tea leaves can be harvested by local people. He also admires the business model of training and employing people from vulnerable communities here in Colorado and hopes to adopt it for Sherpa Chai in the future.
Sherpa Chai is available in coffee shops across Colorado, various Whole Foods markets, and on the website. Choose from Traditional, Spicy, Decaf, and Unsweetened for your next trek or swing by the restaurant for a fresh brewed cup.

Sherpa Chai
Sherpa Ascent International
Sherpa’s Adventurers Restaurant & Bar