words by Marianne Dhenin
For centuries, until the colonial powers established coffee plantations in Africa and Southeast Asia, almost the entire global coffee supply came from Yemen. But Yemeni coffee farming has been on the decline since and today is threatened by conflict, climate change, and increased competition.
“My family’s background is in coffee,” Hakim Sulaimani tells me. It’s a Thursday afternoon, and he’s sitting in his flat in Brooklyn and chatting with me via Zoom. He has just returned from a trip to the United Arab Emirates, where he was consulting on a new café opening there. We talk about his grandparents in Yemen, his father’s bodega in Sunset Park, and Yafa Cafe, the coffee shop he and his cousin, Ali Suliman, opened down the street from the bodega in 2019. The throughline of our conversation is coffee and its birthplace — Yemen.
Sulaimani is part of a generation of young coffee-loving entrepreneurs with roots in Yemen, keen on reviving the nation’s centuries-old coffee industry and acquainting consumers with its cultural and historical significance. Drawing on familial connections and a love for their heritage, Sulaimani and others like him partner with small-scale producers in the Yemeni highlands who use knowledge handed down through many generations to tend some of the world’s oldest coffee farms, then dry, mill, roast, and export the fruits of their labor around the world.
While scientists have traced the genealogy of coffee plants to western Ethiopia, all sources point to neighboring Yemen as the place where coffee was first enjoyed as a beverage — namely, among Sufi monks in the fifteenth century, who found that a bitter brew made from the boiled husks of coffee cherries kept them alert during long nights of ritual chanting. This less flavorful, less caffeinated, and less expensive brew, called qishr, is still popular in Yemen, despite the global ubiquitousness of brews from roasted coffee beans, the seeds cradled within coffee cherries. We have the Ottoman Mediterranean world to thank for shaping our current tradition of brewed coffee, but that’s another story.
Most Yemenis have families or relatives that are fifth-, sixth-, even in some cases tenth-generation coffee farmers.
Yemen was also first to cultivate and trade the crop, its “birthplace as a global commodity,” according to Nancy Um, author of The Merchant Houses of Mocha: Trade and Architecture in an Indian Ocean Port. Yemeni farmers developed intricate terraces to foster coffee plants in Yemen’s rugged mountain ranges, and love for the bitter intoxicant flowed from there, first across the Arabian Peninsula and the Red Sea to places like Cairo and Jeddah. Then, when Yemen came under the Ottoman Empire in the early sixteenth century, coffee traveled with new trading partners further afar.
“Most Yemenis have families or relatives that are fifth-, sixth-, even in some cases tenth-generation coffee farmers,” Sulaimani tells me. Faris Sheibani, founder of Qima Coffee, a London- and Yemen-based coffee exporter, adds: “You cannot find this heritage and experience in any other coffee-growing country in the world.”
The geographic center of the early-modern Yemeni coffee trade was Bayt al-Faqih in the lowland Tihama region that stretches along the Red Sea. From there, mountainous coffee-growing regions like Haraz and Yafa, the namesake of Sulaimani’s Brooklyn café, and the region his parents emigrated from in 1995, could be reached via well-trod mountain passes. But it was Yemen’s southernmost port of Mokha that captured imaginations. If that name sounds familiar, it’s because we borrowed the word “mocha” from there. It traveled with coffee itself aboard merchant ships, becoming a catch-all label for Yemeni beans in European circles.
For centuries, until the colonial powers established coffee plantations in Africa and Southeast Asia to circumvent Yemen’s monopoly, almost the entire global coffee supply came from Yemen. But Yemeni coffee farming has been on the decline since and today is threatened by conflict, climate change, and the increasing profitability of qat, a chewable stimulant similar to amphetamines now grown by many ex-coffee farmers.
For centuries, until the colonial powers established coffee plantations in Africa and Southeast Asia, almost the entire global coffee supply came from Yemen.
Yemen has been embroiled in a multi-sided civil war since 2014. The ongoing conflict and a Saudi-led, US-backed blockade, which has prevented vital supplies from entering the nation and led to an increase in food prices, have left more than 20 million people in need of humanitarian assistance, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
The conflict has also shrunken the export market, explains Sheibani. As coffee becomes less lucrative as an export crop, “many farmers are replacing coffee trees with other crops which rely on a domestic market,” he says. One of these new crops is qat. The addictive leaf is chewed by an estimated 90 percent of the population and can be harvested three times per year, compared to a single harvest of coffee. As such, “tens of thousands of Yemeni farmers have been replacing coffee with qat over the last few decades,” says Sheibani. About 2 percent of arable land in Yemen has been given over to the shrub, which is also a thirsty crop, requiring deep-well irrigation that water-scarce Yemen cannot afford.
Changes in the climate also threaten agriculture in already-arid Yemen. Seasonal temperatures in the region are rising, desertification creeps across an additional 3 percent to 5 percent of the nation’s agricultural land every year, and rainfall is becoming more erratic, putting all crops, not just coffee, at risk.
The movement to reintroduce Yemeni coffee to the world has taken root not only despite these challenges but in response to them. Abdulrahman Saeed, co-founder of United Arab Emirates- and Yemen-based Sabcomeed, tells me that he was inspired to start his business to support struggling Yemenis. “I realized that the best way to benefit Yemen is going back to its roots,” he says.
I realized that the best way to benefit Yemen is going back to its roots.
The commitment among entrepreneurs like Sulaimani, Sheibani, and Saeed to support Yemeni coffee farming has manifested in partnerships with small-scale producers in Yemen and education for consumers abroad who are not acquainted with the rich history of the crop in a nation many now associate with the crises they see in headlines. There’s hope that coffee might have the power to uplift people within Yemen’s borders and change the public’s perception outside them.
At Sabcomeed, Saeed shares information about local farmers with every sale. “What we do is not just sell Yemeni coffee,” he tells me. “I don’t just do single-origin Yemeni coffee. I do single village. I do single farmer. I put the farmer’s name and the farmer’s face on the package,” allowing coffee-lovers to learn about farmers like Abdul Kareem Saleh Moeedh. I’m told his farm in the village of al-Hilah produces coffee with notes of green apple, caramel, and milk chocolate.
Revitalizing Yemen’s coffee industry is as much about reclaiming what Saeed calls the nation’s “exploited heritage” for farmers like Moeedh and Yemenis in the diaspora as it is about the product itself. “I knew that I wanted to kind of take ownership back of Yemini coffee or coffee in general,” says Sulaimani. “I think you’re seeing this fourth wave of coffee shops opening up with a bunch of like-minded people—brown and Black people—who want to take back ownership of coffee to the Middle East and to Africa,” he continues. “We’re tired of white people selling our coffee, slapping a fairtrade sticker on it, and making insane profit margins. So, for me, it was about taking ownership of it, and also being able to uplift people back home.”
At Yafa Cafe, Sulaimani and his team serve traditional qishr, the drink those Sufi monks discovered centuries ago, spiced with cardamom and ginger and sweetened with sugar, as well as $7 pour-overs of rich Yemeni coffee. Accessible pricing on par with what you’d find for a pour-over at similar cafés in New York is a calculated part of their strategy. “We want people to know that the history of coffee is from this place,” says Sulaimani, “and we want you to try it.”