Yemen’s national emblem depicts a relief of the Marib Dam, Yemen’s greatest manmade feature—and a coffee plant, Yemen’s most storied natural resource. This is no coincidence. Coffee drinking, as we know it today, originated in Yemen in the 15th century when Sufis discovered red coffee berries in the country’s mountain highlands.
Amid the country’s ongoing civil war, coffee provides Yemen with a lucrative opportunity. The surge in consumer demand for premium coffee bodes well for Yemen, which not only claims to have the world’s oldest coffee drinking culture, but also some of the best beans on the global market. More than half of the coffee consumed in the U.S. is premium, up from 40 percent six years ago. Blue Bottle Coffee, a specialty coffee roaster, sold a cup of coffee sourced from Yemen for an unprecedented $16 per cup before running out of beans. James Freeman, the company’s CEO, called it “celestial, like angels singing.”
Yemen’s endangered export
Mocha was once Yemen’s principal port city, from where coffee was first shipped around the world. Yemeni coffee beans took on the name of the port and the city’s coffee trade eventually fueled Europe’s flourishing coffee culture in the 18th century.
However, over the 20th century Yemen’s once-coveted coffee began to decline both in quantity and quality. Sporadic and limited rainfall led to soil erosion, exacerbated by the increasing production of khat, a water-intensive, chewable stimulant that has become a staple of Yemeni life. Shabbir Ezzi works to encourage farmers to move from khat to coffee production. “Over recent decades, 80 percent of arable land was taken over by khat,” he said. Further, the vast majority of coffee that was still being produced was sold through the neighboring Gulf states, where the population traditionally drinks coffee flavored heavily with cardamom. This preference for spice-laden coffee has increased demand for low-cost, non-specialty coffees, exacerbating the decline of high-quality coffee production in Yemen.
Hussein Ahmed, the CEO of Mocha Hunters, a Yemeni coffee exporter, was shocked when he first drank non-Yemeni coffee. “Yemeni coffee is very aromatic. As a boy in Sanaa, I could smell the coffee my mom would prepare up to 50 meters outside of our home.” While living in London, he later learned that not all coffees were as aromatic as the coffee of his youth. Ahmed explained that the distinctive smell of Yemeni coffee is a result of the high elevation and dry weather in which it is grown. The beans are prized because they grow 8,000 feet above sea level. In Ahmed’s words, “The higher you grow, the higher the quality.”
Yemen’s dry weather also contributes to its coffee’s sweet taste: “Caffeine is a protection mechanism, but in the extremely dry conditions Yemeni beans grow in, less bitter caffeine is required which allows for floral notes to develop.”
Yemeni farmers continue to grow coffee on terraces and then handpick the cherries before drying them on rooftops. Unable to compete with the sheer quantity of other coffee-producing countries like Brazil and Vietnam, Ahmed said proudly, “The farmers I work with focus on quality.” Last year, Coffee Review, a coffee buying guide, gave coffee company Port of Mokha’s East Hayma Single Farmer Lot its highest grade ever—of near perfect quality. Readers may recognize this name from Dave Egger’s new book, The Monk of Mokha.
A golden opportunity
Yemen’s coffee sector stands at a crossroads. According to a recent National Coffee Association report, today more than half the cups of coffee Americans consume are gourmet (59 percent in 2017 versus 46 percent in 2012). Yemen’s coffee is well-positioned to benefit from expanding consumer interest in high-quality coffee. Its historical origins and distinct and celebrated flavor provide a niche advantage to other coffee-producing giants. The Yemeni diaspora is excited not only about the economic opportunities but also the chance to highlight some of Yemen’s cultural heritage.
According to an employee at Qahwah House, a new Yemeni coffee shop in Dearborn, Michigan, coffee is synonymous with family for every Yemeni. Drinking coffee provides a platform for Yemenis to spend time and discuss the issues of the day. Ibrahim Alhasbani, the owner of the popular spot, grew up on a coffee farm outside of Sanaa, but eventually left Yemen during the 2011 uprisings.
A few months ago, he decided to import coffee beans from his family farm and open up the Yemeni-style coffee shop in Dearborn. It has been a huge success. Alhasbani said, “People come from all over the U.S. and Canada to try our coffee.” Amid Yemen’s predominantly negative press, he is proud of the positive image Qahwah House presents of Yemen: “They come for the coffee, but they leave with an entirely different perspective on what they thought they knew about the people and culture.”
The country’s crippling war
Yemen’s renaissance in the coffee industry stands against the backdrop of civil war. Anda Greeney, founder of Al Mokha, an online seller of Yemeni coffee said, “During the first six months of the war, coffee was not getting out of Yemen.” Frequent power outages have increased the costs of processing coffee. Access has become increasingly difficult and dangerous since coffee shipments must now traverse the mosaic of competing forces that control different checkpoints. According to Hussein Ahmed of Mocha Hunters, the shipment costs have increased sixfold.
However, the story of Yemen’s coffee during wartime reflects the resilience of the Yemeni people. Shabbir Ezzi recognizes that the war has brought additional challenges, but because Yemeni coffee is such a high quality, “These added costs have been absorbed into the entire value chain, buffering the crop from the turbulence the country is experiencing. Yemen’s coffee prices have not changed drastically over the last ten years.”
Ahmed noticed that many people living in cities could no longer rely on a government salary and have travelled back to their family farms. Forced to find new sources of revenue, they have begun producing coffee. In the Bani Dhamar area Hussein operates, he found that, “For the first time ever, I noticed a popular nursery sell out of young coffee plants.”
Apart from operating a mill, Shabbir Ezzi facilitates a network of suppliers, service providers and buyers. He sees huge potential for coffee production and has worked diligently to “build synergies between existing resources, producer groups, processors, exporters, marketing organizations, investors, and more.” The goal of the Ezzi network is to maximize value for Yemeni farmers and help encourage farmers to move away from khat production.
Shabbir Ezzi and his network are working to dispel two misperceptions among farmers. That khat is more profitable than other crops and that Yemen’s coffee did not have a captive global market. Both of these perceptions worked to drive the majority of farmers to grow khat, which has exacerbated Yemen’s water scarcity issue. Slowly, however, Shabbir is seeing an impact: “In the Haraz region where I work, farmers are starting to voluntarily switch from khat to coffee.”
He is not surprised. “For centuries, we knew coffee was the backbone of Yemen’s economy.” Today, increasing worldwide demand for premium coffee, coupled with the improving supply chain, has the potential to make Yemeni coffee “a billion dollar opportunity” and restore Yemen’s historic role in the cultivation of America’s favorite hot drink.
Photos courtesy of Hussein Ahmed of Mocha Hunters and Shabbir Al-Ezzi of Ezzi Industries.