Port of Mokha Yemen Al-Jabal Special Selection
- January 2018
- Written by : Geoff Watts
Vice President of Green Coffee / Green Coffee Buyer
Yemen’s coffee culture is the stuff of myth. It appears, shrouded in mystery, in romantic accounts of the ancient world as the legendary source of coffee. Yemen may be the most fascinating of all the many coffee-producing countries on Earth, given its ancient culture and its pivotal role in the story of humankind’s relationship with coffee. It holds a sacred place among coffee historians who immerse themselves in the emotional and cultural past of our beloved tree. But for most of us, Yemeni coffee is relegated to the realm of the imagination.
If Yemen’s coffee sector is epic, it is also ironic: Yemen is the true birthplace of the global coffee trade, but its coffees remain mostly unknown in a world gone mad for coffee.
The trade ships that docked at Mocha inserted coffee grown and roasted in Yemen into the slipstream of maritime commerce at a time in the Middle Ages when it was unknown beyond a narrow range of latitudes. It became the center of origin for coffee’s diaspora, sending roasted coffee to the world and seed for the first time to many of the more than 70 countries it now inhabits. Yemen is home to some of the most intriguing heirloom coffee types still in production, yet is almost entirely disconnected from the specialty coffee movement and inaccessible to most consumers. Truly well-crafted Yemeni coffee is a genuine white whale for even the most dedicated and persistent industry professionals, who routinely go to extreme lengths to track down elusive and unlikely coffees.
How has such a mythical coffee origin remained on the margins of specialty coffee during its dramatic, swashbuckling emergence into mainstream consumer culture over the past few decades? Political and civil instability, security issues, cultural barriers, language and basic travel logistics play a role: they have stood in the way of the kind of real-time connectivity with growers that has driven advances in specialty coffee elsewhere. The production model itself is also a challenge: farms extremely small in scale, located in especially remote and hard-to-reach mountain communities present significant obstacles to development and outsized risk for anyone looking to engage. Furthermore, most farmers in Yemen are working in relative isolation and have not been exposed to technologies or strategies for managing quality. Most still cultivate and process coffee in a manner that has endured with little change for centuries, and are largely unaware of all the transformations that have taken place in the quality coffee marketplace. What little coffee makes it off the farms with most of its quality intact gets mixed with dozens of other, less attractive coffees before ever leaving the country. If a lot of fine coffee ever manages to run the gauntlet and make it into the hands of a quality-focused roaster, it usually comes bearing no verifiable connection to those who grew it and so degraded in quality as a result of age and exposure to damaging environmental conditions that whatever made it exciting in the first place is a distant memory: quality lost in an unfortunate vapor trail, with just a trace of quality remaining to tease us with the thought of what it might have been and to keep us chasing the ghost.
For nearly two decades I’ve looked forward to the day that we could roast and serve a Yemeni coffee that met our standards for quality and traceability. The potential is tantalizing. Yemen boasts heirloom coffee types that exist nowhere else on Earth. They are grown in near desert-like conditions at extreme elevations under improbable conditions, but have somehow manage to survive for centuries against long odds. These ancient trees have adapted and learned to live in an especially inhospitable habitat, and the seed they yield is the product of environmental stressors unlike those anywhere else in the coffeelands.
Today, Yemen is a stage set for old stories and new: the resumption of the romantic tale of the genesis of the coffee trade born of the collision of cultures, and a new narrative of creation centered on exhilarating and utterly unique flavors. The new Yemeni coffee story bridges a fascinating history with a hopeful future. It is a story of discovery and risk, persistence and extraordinary effort, the story of one man who went looking to reconnect with his own heritage and unlock some of the latent potential he knew existed in the country of his birth. Mokhtar Alkhanshali fell in love with an idea: he believed that he could play a role in helping to bring Yemeni coffee back to prominence and, in doing so, create new opportunity for thousands of farmers in his homeland for whom growing coffee was an intensely meaningful part of life, but not a meaningful source of income.
Mokhtar traveled to Yemen and spent years building relationships and laying the groundwork that would allow him to awaken an industry that had drifted into a state of dormancy and reveal the unique quality of Yemeni coffee to a new global market following decades of isolation. Not unlike Yemen’s coffee trees, which managed to bear mouthwatering fruit despite exceptionally challenging conditions, Mokhtar himself overcame profound odds to bring delicious coffees from a forgotten origin to a generation of coffee lovers who never had the chance to know them.
Thanks to Mokhtar’s efforts and those of his dedicated team, great Yemeni coffee is no longer the stuff myth. Today it is a spectacular, unforgettable experience within our reach that provides a visceral link back to the ancient origins of the coffee industry.
This particular lot is a chimera. The idea that a lot from Yemen like this one - a tiny lot of peaberry seed, harvested at peak ripeness from the country’s second flowering, sorted with meticulous care and traced to its source - could be had at all, let alone delivered while still fresh, would have been laughable even a year or two ago. And yet, here it is. Bravo!