Why Coffee’s Past Is Yemen’s Future
From the Coffee Issue
What immediately comes to mind when hearing the word Yemen? Ask that of the general public in the years since 2015 and the most common answers are not inviting. “War,” “famine” and even “cholera” all likely top the list.
Widespread starvation, lack of access to medical care, and the impediment of foreign aid have left the country struggling to survive the world’s worst man-made humanitarian crisis. That is not a hyperbole; over seventy-five percent of Yemen’s population, roughly twenty-four million people, are labeled as “at risk.” Of them, 14.3 million people are in acute need. Due to violence, three million people have been forced to flee their homes.
Yemen is trapped in a war within itself. It’s in a civil war, yes—in simplified terms, between the exiled Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi-run government in the south and opposing rebel Houthi fighters in the north—but the country is also fighting a different battle, this one unseen. It’s a tension between the immediate experience of what is and the inherent possibility of what could be, and the outcome could prove a watershed for an entire industry and places like it.
“What’s heartbreaking for anyone who has lived in Yemen, [for anyone who has] spent time and worked there, is that this magical, wonderful country has this image in the rest of the world as being a very nasty and inhospitable place,” says Peter Salisbury, Consulting Senior Analyst at International Crisis Group. “The best possible scenario for Yemen is the rest of the world shifting how they think about the country.”
How does a country like Yemen change its public perception—a war-filtered narrative that some say has disproportionately overshadowed its true identity—without distracting from its present, very urgent reality?
Surprisingly, the answer hinges on a coffee bean. The first cup of coffee was poured in Yemen. Until the mid-seventeenth century, “coffee” could have been what first sprang to mind when mentioning the country. (More specifically, the word mokha, but we’ll get to that later.) Although the plant was originally discovered in Ethiopia, Sufi monks in the Yemeni city of Mokha are credited with first cultivating and drinking the beans in the mid-fifteenth century. When Dutch traders started trading with Yemen in 1616, coffee was introduced to Europe via Mokha’s port. Shortly thereafter, coffee—or qahwah in Arabic—flowed to the rest of the world.
“Figuring out my family’s connection to coffee, everything aligned,” says Mokhtar Alkhanshali, founder and CEO of the Oakland and Yemen-based coffee company Port of Mokha. “I had finally found something—more of a calling than a career.”
Alkhanshali, whose unlikely journey from doorman to entrepreneur is documented in author Dave Eggers’ New York Times-bestseller, The Monk of Mokha, was as oblivious as anyone to coffee’s true origins, despite being raised in a Yemeni household in San Francisco. It wasn’t until he encountered a statue of a Yemeni man drinking coffee in the courtyard of the Hills Brothers Coffee Company that his homeland clicked into focus. Diving deeper into coffee, as well as his own personal history, Alkhanshali discovered that where his family lived in Yemen—a province called Ibb—had been cultivating coffee for over five hundred years.
“Growing up as a Yemeni immigrant, it was hard for me to explain to people who I am,” he says, describing the challenge of being both American and Yemeni without any positive media representation. “There is one Friends episode where Chandler has to run away from [his girlfriend] Janice,” he continues. “He tells Joey that he is pretending to move to Yemen. Joey looks over and says, ‘Ohh good one. And Yemen… that actually sounds like a real country!’”
Discovering the statue in 2013 was a turning point for Alkhanshali. He started going to Blue Bottle coffee cuppings, conversing with baristas, and was eventually introduced to Willem Boot, the founder of Boot Coffee and renowned roaster, cupper and coffee farmer. Through Boot, Alkhanshali was immersed within the coffee world, learning all he could while developing the goal to resurrect Yemen’s coffee-driven past.
Alkhanshali traveled to Yemen twice in 2014. The first time staying with a cousin in the capital city, Sana’a, where he serendipitously encountered booths of coffee farmers at an agricultural fair. He spent that summer quietly touring any region he could gain access to.
“I went to thirty-two regions across Yemen—anywhere that I heard had coffee,” Alkhanshali remembers. Some regions were completely devoid; the crop had either disappeared, or coffee farms had transitioned to growing khat, a plant with chewable leaves that release a compound similar to amphetamines. The drug had escalated in popularity, allowing it to be sold for a higher profit than coffee despite its drain on Yemen’s water resources.
In regions where coffee was still grown, Alkhanshali was welcomed in a manner befitting the Yemeni culture. “If I had to choose one word to describe Yemeni people, it’s generosity,” he says. “People would line up [for] a lottery system to see who gets to host you because everybody wants to host you.”
Alkhanshali returned to Yemen at the end of 2014 to work with these remote farmers to better develop harvesting techniques and drying practices to ensure their coffee could reach specialty-grade quality. Having recently passed his Q exam (and becoming the first Arab Q grader, a role similar to a coffee sommelier, in its history) he knew how important this was.
“If I can’t help farmers improve the quality of their coffee, then I can’t sell their coffee at these higher price points,” Alkhanshali explains. “At the end of the day, people who buy these coffees are not buying it for the story.”
Quality coffee more accurately reflects the pressure placed on the coffee laborer—a fact often disassociated from the coffee consumer. Quality coffee has to transcend simply tasting good. On average, there are ten steps from a coffee seed to its final brewed cup, each one requiring a human to perform hours of physical labor. From planting trees to hand-picking cherries—selectively, as each coffee cherry ripens at a different pace—to sorting, drying, processing and milling, the current global commodity price (C-price) of coffee honors that work for less than one U.S. dollar per pound. Only specialty-grade coffee (generally agreed to have a Q score above eighty) can command a wage able to dignify the person who earned it.
“A coffee tree gives you about one pound a year, which is enough for about twenty-five cups,” Alkhanshali continues (in C-price terms, there’s your $1). “It’s unbelievable the amount of labor and expertise it takes. Any brew or roast is a journey that crosses borders, physical hardships, and centuries of cultivation to make its way to you.”
Sourcing coffee from Yemen may finally make that point. The day before Alkhanshali was to leave Sana’a with his first samples of beans, Saudi airstrikes bombed the airport. It was March 24, 2015—the beginning of the civil war. By the time Alkhanshali made it back to San Francisco, he had been kidnapped, smuggled and detained all the while maintaining possession of seven bags of luggage filled with twenty-one coffee samples. It’s this miraculous feat that later became a large portion of Eggers’ book.
Two of those samples earned Q scores of over ninety, proving that with increased picking education and quality protocols, Alkhanshali could harness some of the rarest, and best, coffee in the world. By 2016, he had established Port of Mokha to scale those samples with solo lot farmers into specialty coffee production in three regions of Yemen. After harvesting, processing and milling, he now ships once a year to forty-two different roasters in the U.S. and Asia, as well as sells directly online. As of writing, one five-ounce bag of coffee costs $28.
Despite geopolitical setbacks and the challenges of a crop reliant on Mother Nature, Alkhanshali’s goal to equip Yemen’s farmers endures. “I feel a huge sense of responsibility to make the coffee. In Yemen, there is no economic infrastructure now. [For these] farmers, this is it,” he says. “It’s challenging when you give people hope, especially people who are going through very difficult times. They trust you to allow hope to enter their hearts. I need to make sure I fulfill my promise.”
Of equal importance is his need to stress that Port of Mokha is not a charity. While the social impact on Alkhanshali’s farmers is direct and often immediate, offering microloans to finance village projects and requiring collective boards to be comprised of at least fifty-percent women, the greater business vision extends to sharing the truth of Yemen’s cultural and historical significance with the rest of the world.
He is not alone. Abdulrahman Saeed, CEO and co-founder of United Arab Emirates-based Sabcomeed, is convinced the quality of Yemeni agriculture is key to the country’s future.
“My political agenda is simply coffee,” Saeed says, whose roots prompted him to start working with Yemeni farmers almost three years ago. “This is my identity. Coming from Yemen, I have to do something. It’s the most effective way to bring back socioeconomic stability. Since Yemen has eighty to ninety percent of the population employed by agriculture by default, the best way to tackle the problem is coffee.”
Sabcomeed absorbs the risk of all the farmers they work with, from the smallest farmer who produces only 2.2 pounds of coffee per year to the biggest, producing four hundred pounds per year. Everyone is pooled into a collective where each farmer is paid per cherry. Doing so creates incentive to continue picking only the best, ripe cherries, as well as provide opportunity to train farmers on how to increase the quality of their production. As with Port of Mokha, at Sabcomeed, maintaining specialty coffee standards is crucial.
“It is our job to improve their coffee,” Saeed says, noting his effort to work with farmers irrespective of their skill level. “Whether it’s talking to an agricultural expert, working with us to improve soil conditions, organic composting, or anything like that. We do it all. It’s about creating a change—something that can be seen and can be shared.”
Tristan Comb, an American based in Boston who is co-founder and CMO of Sabcomeed, agrees. “What we’re trying to do is provide value to people who work in these remote areas and the ability to access trade and international markets; we don’t want everyone to give up on their roots,” he says. “[Farming] is something [Yemenis] have been doing for thousands of years, and doing it amazingly well.”
In addition to supplying Yemeni specialty-grade coffee to roasters in Europe—Sabcomeed’s biggest market currently—and soon in the U.S., Saeed also has another goal: mokha. He wants to reclaim the Arabic name.
“We started the project to actively pursue reclaiming the word ‘mokha’ as part of Yemen,” he explains, undaunted by the scope of such ambition or the corporations he is up against. “This will take five to ten years—maybe fifteen—but it will all be worth it. The main concept is denomination of origin [similar to using the term ‘champagne’ which must be made in the region of Champagne]—what makes a certain product belong to a certain culture, identity or region.”
According to Saeed, “mokha” spelled with the correct Arabic “kh” instead of a “c” or “ch” should reflect the Yemeni origin point, increasing global awareness of the country’s cultural importance. After spending months researching and validating public perception around the word mokha, along with a detailed legal process documenting other denomination of origin cases, he’s hoping that by utilizing the UAE’s leadership and diplomatic connections, proper use of mokha will create demand for Yemeni beans in drinks that bear the name.
“Everyone agrees—even Starbucks—‘mocha’ comes from the port of Mokha,” Saeed continues. “The debate comes when we have ten different spellings of the word. If you look at an instant coffee—Nestlé—you will see mocha or mocha-flavored and then on the back you’ll see Brazilian coffee. How is that fair? Similarly, if ‘white mocha’ wasn’t used and profited from for years, [Starbucks] would have to call it ‘white chocolate coffee drink.’ But which sounds better?”
“You’re introducing on a conceptual level the idea that Yemen can produce amazing things,” says Salisbury. After working in Yemen for nearly a decade as well as living there cumulatively for two-and-a-half years, Salisbury emphasizes it won’t be just one thing—such as specialty coffee—that solves the complexities of Yemen’s situation. But that doesn’t diminish how essential it is either.
“What’s incredible is there are these local-level initiatives of the kind that Mokhar has been running, that not only provide livelihoods but are also commercially viable,” he continues.
Both Port of Mokha and Sabcomeed are resurrecting a Yemen of yesteryear that most don’t realize exists. Once known as the “Happy Land”—Arabia Felix in Latin—the world’s rarest coffee could be considered a starting point, an opening act for a country also capable of producing phenomenal honey, olives, raisins, almonds and myrrh. These are luxury goods reflecting a sacred, precious nectar. These are also items not discovered haphazardly, but sought—a form of gold once they are found.
So the question remains, will coffee be the fulcrum that shifts the country?
In the words of Ali Ibn Umar al-Shadhili, the original monk of Mokha who brewed that very first cup, “Oh coffee, oh, people of love! You helped me dispel sleep. You helped me with the God’s help to worship Him while people slept. Do not blame me for drinking it; it is the drink of the honored ones.”