Sweet Maria's Home Coffee Roasting

The Coffee Haj: A first look at Yemeni Coffee Culture

Some introductory thoughts before all the pictures... In November, my friend Duane Sorenson and I traveled to Yemen to visit an exporter we already knew through his high quality coffee shipments, Mohamed Sowaid. Our goal was simply to learn, to see the coffee areas, to understand the intricacies of the first commercial coffee source on the planet. Yemen is the origin of the coffee trade.

Not many in the coffee business come to Yemen, an odd fact considering that this is the birthplace of the coffee business. Another oddity is coming to terms with how distant and unique this place is for me, how excited I am to be here, and the fact that it's a short hop from many European capitals, not that distant or exotic necessarily. Still not many folks remained on our Lufthansa flight after a layover in Riyadh (where you are warned to conceal all porn magazines and stow all open bottles of alcohol ... like we'd be guzzling vodka and reading Penthouse. The Saudi police do come onboard to inspect) on our way to the Yemeni capital of Sana'a I noticed Germans, a Brit, some Dutch, and mostly French. Of course, there were Yemeni too, but the flight was quite empty

Because I have been so excited about this trip, I worried that I might blow it. I want to learn everything, understand everything. And of all places that you cannot and will not be able to rush to soak up a coffee culture impatiently, voraciously, Yemen is it. Even among these buzzing streets, constantly packed with honking swerving cars, you know there is an order to things that doesn't take into account one person's desire to "do it all now". Amidst the chaos you get the sense there are a thousand unwritten rules that guide every interaction, even a honk of a car horn, and I really don't understand any of them, nor will I in this brief one week introduction to Yemen. The fact is, I am just an out-of-towner.

Mayan Town, Ismaili, Yemen

 

En Route to Yemen ...

Dawari Coffee Cherry, Ismaili, Yemen

Herder

Solitude

That said, we have Mohamed Sowaid and his son Ali Sowaid on our side, as eager to understand our perspectives on coffee as we are to skim the surface of their decades old coffee export business. We all have the same goal; better prices for better quality. And despite the recalcitrance of the coffee trade here, the fact it has operated just fine for centuries and commands some of the highest average prices of any specialty coffee, our kind hosts are ready to make changes that will bump up the distinctiveness of the already unique Yemeni coffee. Namely, they will be buying gravity sorting equipment for post harvest processing, and they want to offer micro-lots from Yemeni origins that are usually blended to form the generic "Sana'ani" coffee. If that sounds like mild reform, visit coffee collectors and farmers in Bani Mattar, Haras or Haima, who greet you in their traditional tribal outfits, complete with the wickedly curved jambir knife sheathed in their belt, a nonetheless gentle and considerate people, who insist you must eat with them, sit and chew qat and chat away the afternoon hours, come to their house, take off your shoes and recline, like there's nothing else to do but visit with you. Tell them that the way they are growing coffee on ancient terraces cut into steep valleys, organically and with little water, just as their parents and grandparents and their parents (etc) have done for centuries is actually all wrong and they need to change their ways to improve cup quality for a little business in the US that has been around a whopping 10 years. It just doesn't work like that, nor should it.

The coffee system here is a human machine; it seems as if the purpose is to involve and employ as many people as possible as much as it is to efficiently produce coffee in a manner that results in some profits. Lean capitalism is not the modus operandi, nor is this a system of charity. It's difficult to figure out exactly what it is, but calling it a hybrid means of production would be insulting ... aren't hybrids new systems? Does this not predate the efficient calculations of capitalism? Consider that the Sowaid family is as concerned with the price of their new density sorter, of making a capital investment that will improve their product (perhaps raise the price of it), and make their system more productive and efficient, as they are with the 100 women they employ in Hodeida to sort coffee by hand. In fact, they plan to add the machine and keep the 100 women. They can't even imagine dismissing them, nor would their peers or the community allow it. It would harm the Sowaid reputation, which seems to have incalculable value here in and of itself, not to mention that it would be very bad for business.

Now imagine that the entire coffee system in Yemen operates with the same ethic. To get yourself a pile of Yemeni coffee is much like building an anthill; it's a microscopic operation. Every Yemeni coffee "farmer" produces a miniscule amount of coffee per year. If you aren't aware, a coffee tree on a modern technified farm in Brazil (for example) produces about 1 Lb. of coffee per season. When you buy a pound coffee coffee, you bought the entire year's output from 1 tree! In Yemen, that would be ambitious productivity for a single coffee shrub; their plants produce much less, and the average for a Yemeni coffee farmer is 300 trees on less than .2 hectares of land. That's why I put "farmer" in quotes, its more of a backyard garden really. The coffee grower does not market their coffee, there's no "Finca ____" or "____ Estate". They pick their coffee cherries, dry them whole and intact ( the Yemeni tradition is dry-processed or natural coffee). And then they sell to a local "collector", who blends Ahmed's 29 kilos with Emad's 11 kilos and so on, resulting in a few bags of dried cherry pods, maybe a couple hundred kilos.

They transport this to Sana'a, and sell it to the secondary collector/miller. They dehusk the dried coffee cherry using a simple friction machine, and then laboriously hand sort the coffee seed from the skin. The skin is used to make a tea called Keshir. (Yemen is the only place who has found a use for the husks; in other countries it is turned to compost using vermiculture, or simply dumped, creating a contamination issue). The separation is done in the cave-like basement storage rooms of these Sana'a collectors, entirely by hand using large aluminum screens with hand-perforated holes. The collector will then sell to an exporter, who will transport the coffee to Hodeida where the coffee is screened and hand sorted, visually, for defects. Hodeida is the port for final export, not the old city of Al Mokha down the road, for which Yemen Mocha coffee was named (and the Mocha Java blend). So in a growing region like Bani Mattar (Mattari coffee) there are thousands of "farmers", and as many as 100 local collectors, selling to a hundred collectors in Sana'a, selling to 6-10 exporters. You don't just come along and streamline a system like that. Even sensible, empowering ideas from other coffee origins, like forming farmer cooperatives, or even a cooperative coffee mill with decent equipment, makes little sense when it would result in the sudden unemployment of thousands of collectors, hand-sorters and screeners. (it makes certain foodie notions of farm direct, fresh, and cutting out middlemen seem downright evil).

Coffee Tree Stadium?

 

Ripe Coffee Cherry

Somethings Cookin' in Gart

Heave-Ho!

 

Ismaili Portraits

 

Old Sana'a - Wow

 

Coffee Schlepper

After dinner we retired for many hours of discussion about coffee. Ismaili has only 20% of its original population. Rural life just doesn't pay - many have moved to Sana'a. They make little off coffee and the costs are high. A bag of wheat that is 4500 in Sana'a costs 7000-8000 in Ismaili. A bottle of propane that is 450 in Sana'a costs 1050 in Ismaili. The most critical issue is water storage, and the condition of the road. There are natural springs, but they provide very little water, and it must be kept in cisterns, rock-walled tanks, and it must be pumped to the houses. There are no concrete tanks, nothing synthetic. It's all rock hewn from the hillsides, plastered with mud. Many of the tanks look like small houses and have roofs to prevent evaporation. Others are open, or the water flows freely along a terrace and is diverted onto the crops.

You can see the water shortage everywhere in Ismaili. Even the cactus look dehydrated. The coffee that is in the sun is yellow, pale, and droop-leaved for the most part. Coffee in the recesses of the cliff, in crevices that receive some partial shade in the day look much better. Lack of plant nutrition, of organic composting methods is certainly an issue with the poor health of some coffee shrubs (and their low production of coffee cherry) but water is the main issue . In the "chat room" the discussion gets quite heated ... It seems Yemeni men like to argue a lot! But there are no hard feelings, and things simmer down after a while. I get a bit of translated content every so often, and try to add a supportive comment, but basically I am out of my element here. The main issue is that a weak and corrupt government cannot provide the kind of support that rural people need. There was a crew out working on the road, government contracted, but they were allotted only 2 weeks for the project, and they were given insufficient funds to do the work, since part of the money went to line somebody's pocket.

There is so much the Yemeni government could do. There is so much that foreign funded non-government organizations could do. With this huge lack of support for the rural coffee farmer, Mr. Sowaid was part of the founding of the Yemeni Coffee Improvement Association. They were promised 2 years of funding from USAID to get things under way, but received nothing, and Mr. Sowaid claims he spent $10,000 from his own pocket just to keep the administrative aspect of the YCIA going. But basically they have not made one single study, have not come up with any proposals, and certainly haven't actually done anything physically to improve Yemeni coffee. They have talked, and what needs to be done is clear. The farmer needs education, they need technical assistance. If the YCIA simply had one agronomist who could visit one or two small farmers in each region, analyze the shortcomings of their methods, make recommendations and provide some minimal funds to carry them out, that alone would be huge. Other farmers would see an improvement in the plant health, in coffee production, and follow suit. It could be as simple as providing a correct shade tree plant that does not compete with the coffee for nutrition, could provide some shade (which could offset water usage) and be harvested for wood or organic material. It could be a ground cover plant for around the coffee shrub that does much the same thing. Other water conservation techniques could be implemented, simple ways to save water from evaporation, to line water ways with impenetrable material, to improve the tanks. In the bigger picture, a very proactive approach would be for the Yemeni government to apply for an international copyright on the name Mokha or Mocha as applied to coffee. Any coffee called Mokha would be required to be Yemeni in origin, just as such appellations in wine, cheese and other foods must originate in the region that the name implies. Mokha the original port city for coffee from Yemen, and Mokha Java (Mocha Java), is supposed to refer to any Yemeni coffee, but rarely does since it is cheaper to blend with an Ethiopia Natural like Ghimbi of Djimma ... if the blend is trying at all to have true Mocha Java character. It would be a huge boon to the Yemen coffee trade, but not perhaps toward increasing quality. Toward that end, the coffee farmer must be paid extra to turn in dried cherry that was picked ripe, not green cherry. And beyond hand-sorting, the millers must use gravity separating equipment and screening equipment to remove underripes, broken beans, white beans and such. Problems with shipping from very hot and humid ports might be improved. Since long transit times are unavoidable (and average of 45 days to the United States from Hodeida), alternative packaging methods might result in the coffee arriving at its destination with better cup quality potential.

Mr Sowaid's knowledge of the coffee trade, the collection system and logistics is impressive. His grandfather was in coffee exports, and his sons will be too. He is very realistic about possible improvements and innovations, but also is well aware of the problems, and wants to address them. He times his coffee shipments from Sana'a, where the coffee is consolidated from the various regions, to Hodeida, the steamy port city where the coffee is hand-sorted, bagged and shipped, with great precision. He knows that if coffee stays too long in Hodeida it will be ruined, and he will actually ship a lot back to Sana'a, with its high elevation and mild climate, if there is a delay getting a coffee into the container and on the boat. He even uses his reputation with the shipping lines to try to get his containers loaded under the deck, or on the bottom of the stack, not on top where it will get steamed in the sun.

The main crop coffee harvest is from October to December, with another small second harvest (fly crop, as they call it in Kenya) occurring March to April. Our trip is toward the end of the harvest, but there is still plenty of ripe coffee cherry on the tree. Well ... "plenty" is relative. There is really very little coffee on these trees. They just don't produce much, part of the scarcity of this origin. And you don't see anyone in Yemen carrying a big bag of coffee. Just 20 kilos, maybe less is all I saw. After picking, the entire coffee cherry is dried on the roofs of the houses for 2 weeks before it is ready to be bagged up and sold to the "collector." The "collector" is either a local buyer, or one in Sana'a. If it's a local, then they probably sell to another collector in Sana'a, or perhaps to the exporter (like Sowaid) directly. So you have the possibility of 4 "layers" to the Yemeni coffee trade (farmer to local collector to collector to exporter) before the coffee is shipped out of the country, or as little as 2 (farmer to exporter). It all depends on the lot size really. The farmers each grow so little, 300 trees or less, it would never be worth it to travel all the way to Sana'a to sell directly to the exporter, nor would the exporter want to buy these tiny amounts. There are no "big" farmers in Yemen, period. But perhaps a "big" lot from a local collector would be sold straight to the exporter. Oh, it's so confusing.

Collectors hull the coffee seed out of the dried skin of the cherry. Besides the friction hulling machine, everything is manual, done with a winnowing screen with great skill, employing the maximum number of people. This is done in cavern-like basements at the collectors warehouses. Regions are usually separated, but even the notion of separating farms is laughable. Each farmer produces on average 114 kilos of coffee (and I think this is dried cherry, which would result in less than 60 kilos of actual green coffee). The idea of separating cultivars is also impossible, given that the main three that I saw, Tufahi, Shibriqi and Dawairi, are often interplanted.

You have heard of Sana'ani Coffee (Sanani) but there is no such thing really. Coffee is brought to Sana'a from the growing regions nearby, to be consolidated, traded, bought by the exporters. But no coffee is grown in Sana'a. It might be a good time to mention that there is also no Mocha (Mokha, Mokha) coffee. Al Mahka is the port that coffee used to be shipped from, and in ancient times they identified it by the port. To traders, that was all that mattered. Mokha is now used to refer to the particular seedstock of Yemen, which has not been hybridized or manipulated since it came across the Red Sea from Yemen centuries ago.

We spent a few days in Sana'a, the capital city. It's an amazing place, and it is understandable that some visitors to Yemen never leave this city, and feel completely satisfied with their Yemen experience. Sana'a is probably no more or less difficult to navigate than any other Arabian or African capital. But the weaving and turbulent chaos of the streets here might leave your head spinning for a few days. Thankfully we didn't have to drive, we were driven by our hosts, the coffee exporters Sowaid. Senior Sowaid was calm and plodding by Yemeni standards (which would translate to completely insane on a US roadway). Ali, his son, was a menace to all, sheer terror when he found any open road. Then there was George M. George, transplant from India, driving the micro-micro-van plastered with ads for Karcher Power Washers (Sowaid' s other business). And each night we retreated to the exclusive Sheraton hotel, which was awfully nice but the rooms rank between Motel 6 and Best Western. They had a swell ping pongtable though.

This travelogue is large, 8 pages of images! Either click on an image to see the big version or scan the thumbnails. You can also view this on our beta test Image Gallery. For more information on Yemen coffee, I have links to 2 great articles on the last page of the travelogue.

 

 

Green and Almost Ripe

 

Coffee Cowboy

 

Sahl Sahl Al-Hassine Fires No. 11

 

Shibriqi Mokha


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En Route to Yemen ...
En Route to Yemen ...
A layover in Riyadh Saudi Arabia, and a hint that the Saudi police don't mess around. They also told us you had to put away any magazines you might have with lurid pictures of women. Hmmm... how many people travel with porn magazines, I wonder.
Arriving late.
Arriving late.
It was a quick 28 hour flight (I jest) but I wasn't sleepy when we arrived at 10 pm local time. So I took in some Yemeni TV. This show was a soap opera set about 500 years ago. Scintillating
Al Muhakri
Al Muhakri / Al Muhagri
Our first day in Sana'a is spent visiting a few of the over 100 small coffee "consolidators" in the city. There is NO "Sanani" coffee, but most coffee is brought to Sana'a to be consolidated into larger, exportable lots. It comes from regions all round Sana'a such as Bani Mattar, Haimi, Ismaili, Saihi, Harasi and Sharasi.
The husk, Keshir, Quesher
The husk, Keshir, Quesher
Yemen is unique because the dry processed skins, the coffee husk, is nearly as valuable as the seed. It is used for Keshir (Quesher), tea sweetened with sugar. It's excellent, and hopefully we sill be able to offer this soon as a product. So the warehouse is as much a Keshir warehouse as a coffee warehouse.
Scale at Al Muhakri
Scale at Al Muhakri
A simple but effective scale at Al Muhakri. They are one of the largest collectors of coffee and have relationships with local farmers and local collectors in the coffee-producing regions.
Mr. M. Sowaid
Mr. M. Sowaid
And here is the elder Sowaid, who has been in the coffee business as an exporter 25 years, and comes from a line of coffee merchants. We traveled with the Sowaid's, who have a reputation for top quality Yemeni coffees.
Samples at Al Brurai
Samples at Al Brurai
We did much the same thing as before, looked at samples of the coffees they were working on to see the quality of the separation.
More Yemen TV
More Yemen TV
And this was a sorta panel-talk show where veiled woman ask questions to 3 experts, and young men (their husbands?) in western suits respond to answers. I assume it's an Islamic Dr. Phil type show.
Opening some bags
Opening some bags
To see the quality of the cherry coming in, we opened up some bags at the warehouse
Dried coffee cherry
Dried coffee cherry
So coffee cherry will be dried after harvest from the tree for 2 weeks or so, most often on the flat roof of the unique Yemeni rural houses.
Cherry quality
Cherry quality
Here you can see the quality of the cherry, including a few obvious un-ripe green cherries. Overall, this is a good looking batch, and will be subject to further hand sorting to remove defect seeds.
Al Muhakri Warehouse
Al Muhakri Warehouse
The lots are brought into the Sana'a collector as whole dried coffee cherry, pods. The lots are marked from the regions they originate, and kept separate. But in Yemen there are no farms large enough to keep distinct from others. All coffee must be blended to some degree. But what we want is regional coffee, not generic Sanani mix.
The resulting coffee
The resulting coffee
A representative sample of the coffee resulting from this process.
Mr Sowaid
Mr Sowaid
The longer I spent with Mr. Sowaid, the more I appreciated his great experience in export, and practical mind. I also started to think he looked just a bit like Groucho Marx.
Pulling a sample with a trier.
Pulling a sample with a trier.
We pulled a bunch of samples from the already-milled bags of coffee. Once Sowaid chooses to buy these coffees, which he does as most do, on the appearance of the green coffee, he will send it to Hodeida, the port, for further cleaning.
Mr. Duane Sorenson
Mr. Duane Sorenson
And my sole travel buddy on this trip, Mr Duane from Stumptown Coffee Roasters in Portland and Seattle. In coffee, most people who get out to the trees know Duane well. He might also become famous for constantly having his iPhone out, Googling someone's Blackberry, or Texting their Blueteeth, or something like that. Amazingly, that phone worked just about everywhere in Yemen! My lousy phone has dead spots all over our warehouse... maybe its time i get the iPhone too.
Door to the "Mill"
Door to the "Mill"
A surprise in Yemen is that all the coffee is milled from the husk in the basements of these warehouses in the city. The dark, cool conditions are good for coffee storage (as is the climate of high-altitude Sana'a itself). I liked all the graffiti on the door...
OSHA, I don't think so....
OSHA, I don't think so....
And down the uneven cement stairs we went to the cavern below....
The "Mill"
The "Mill"
...To what probably amounts to the simplest coffee mill I have ever seen. A mill is just one machine, an electric huller, and a few guys with big aluminum screens winnowing out the coffee seeds from the Keshir husks, and the remaining parchment layer.
Winnowing coffee
Winnowing coffee
And I though my workstation was bad ... here you sit among the proverbial "hill o' beans" and use the motion of the aluminum pans to separate the seed from the skin.
Screening coffee...
Screening coffee...
I was a little disappointed to see how young this one guy was. There is definitely strong public education in Yemen, but he didn't look old enough by my (admittedly Western) standards. Everyone else I saw the entire trip was older.
Coming off the machine...
Coming off the machine...
... is a jumble of coffee seed, husk, and parchment. It's quite a task to sort this out, and everything from this stage until it is sewn up in export jute bags is done by hand. There are no further machines used to remove defective beans, which I find amazing.
Making a deal, morning shadows.
Making a deal, morning shadows.
Coffee is bought and sold the old fashioned way, by looking at it.
Ali Sowaid
Ali Sowaid
To introduce the cast of characters, let's start with Mr. Sowaid's oldest son, Ali. He lived in the UK for college and actually speaks English with a British accent.
Ali joins in...
Ali joins in...
As I mentioned, coffee is evaluated in green form. They are experts at looking at green to determine how much under-ripe, and other defect seeds are present. This is important, because once Sowaid buys it, he is going to have to remove the defects and that reduces the amount of exportable coffee he has to sell. But there is little to no cup quality analysis, cupping, in Yemen! That surprised me greatly.
Negotiating the Samples Outside
Negotiating the Samples Outside
Sowaid, Muhakri and his guys sat down outside to separate some samples from the warehouse and negotiate.
Women!
Women!
Before I was kindly told that you don't photograph veiled Muslim women, I did so. Nobody cut off my shutter finger or anything. For an orthodox country, people are amazingly friendly, polite, and interested in visitors. Also, you simply don't see many women, veiled or not (wait, I don't think i saw any women without a headscarf of some kind... except at the hotel.)
Random Sana'a Street Scene
Random Sana'a Street Scene
S we prepared to head to the next warehouse. I noticed lots of small music shops in Sana'a. I also noticed they were mostly a guy, a computer with an internet connection, and a lot of home-made record covers. So basically, if you understand P2P you can have a shop in Sana'a!
Indeed
Indeed
Toyota Stout, a very appropriate name. Toyota owns a good chunk of Yemen.
Take my picture...
Take my picture...
I found a lot of young guys wanted their picture taken. It was fun to show them the image (hey, I bought a new SLR just for this trip!). I only wish I could have some sort of ultra-portable printer to give them a copy.
Take my picture, no. 3
Take my picture, no. 3
Maybe it was the new big clunky SLR around my neck...
Sowaid and his Jambir
Sowaid and his jambia
The jambia is the knife adult males wear, at least when they are in traditional dress. You don't wear a jambia and a pair of slacks.
Take my Picture, No. 2
Take my Picture, No. 2
His friends dared him this time...
Just think ...
Just think ...
Just think ... your Yemeni coffee was sitting here! Actually I think this is the corner where they stored the fruity skin, hence the giant stain.
Al Brurai Warehouse
Al Brurai Warehouse
The nest stop was the Al Brurai warehouse, much the same as Muhakri but a bit smaller.
Do your chores...
Do your chores...
Outside the 3rd consolidator we visited, a little guy hauls a bag of trash twice his size.
Owner's son
Owner's son
Turns out he was the owner's son. Child Labor! No, turns out he will go to school the following year.
Father and Son
Father and Son
The Sowaids inspect the coffee at Al Husinee warehouse
Coffee Kids
Coffee Kids
I really liked the children in Yemen, and they liked to have their picture taken even more than the bachelor dudes. They are beautiful kids too,
Me, Alone.
Me, Alone.
He insisted on getting his picture taken alone. piles of dry-process coffee cherry in the background.
More Child Labor
More Child Labor
It must have been "bring your son to work day" because this coffee warehouse, Al Husinee, was full of them!
Fun Fur Dashboard
Fun Fur Dashboard
Fun Fur Dashboard ... what else can be said.
Sowaid Appliance Central
Sowaid Appliance Central
Here is one of their commercial appliance shops in the city. Actually, their expertise in shipping and import/export helps greatly with their ability to deliver quality coffee. You can ruin great lots if they get stuck in Hodeida (humid port city) and Sowaid is well aware of that.
Sana'a Street Scene
Sana'a Street Scene
We hit the streets to find a good lunch, and on the way I took some pictures of typical businesses. All these little shops are remarkably narrow in their offerings. One shop will be brake pads, the next clutch plates, the next radiators only. But you can get it all done in one area.
Sweet Ride
Sweet Ride
All praise be to Allah, but at the same time, the Sowaid's know that Maytag helped buy their new Toyota Land Cruiser. They are known for their distributorship of appliances in Sana'a as well as coffee.
Chew Qat, Roast Coffee Samples
Chew Qat, Roast Coffee Samples
It is typical to sit around, rest and chew the leaves of this shrub called Qat (Quat, Chat, pronounced gat in Yemen) after lunch (which is by far the big meal of the day). Qat is a stimulant, much milder than coffee, but the country is fairly obsessed with it and it competes with coffee for land and resources. It's milder than coffee ... then again most people don't drink coffee continuously for 3 hours in the afternoon!
Sowaid Office
Sowaid Office
We returned to their main office - here you can see his exported coffee samples from last crop, along with some new ones (Main crop harvest is Oct-Dec, potentially arriving in the US between January-April or so).
Coffee Tree Map of Yemen
Coffee Tree Map of Yemen
This map lots the density of coffee tree plantings in Yemen, which in relation to any other country is incredibly sparse. The entire production of the country is the same as a single cooperative in Ethiopia.


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