Beyond Bombs and Bloodshed: Restoring Yemen’s Place in Specialty Coffee

Originally published on September 17, 2015.

The following is an excerpt from an article by Emily Puro, which appears in the September/October 2015 issue of Roast Magazine.

Ethiopia was the official “Portrait Country” of the 27th annual Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA) Event in April, but in many ways, Ethiopia’s neighbor and fellow legend of coffee history —Yemen— stole the show.

Much of the buzz was generated by two Americans who risked their lives escaping the escalating violence in Yemen to attend the conference, bringing samples of Yemeni coffee to share with attendees. When the airport in Sana’a, Yemen’s capital, was bombed shortly before they were scheduled to leave, the two men, Mokhtar Alkhanshali, a Yemeni-American who lives in San Francisco, and Andrew Nicholson, a Texan now living in Yemen, drove seven hours to the Port of Mocha, convinced a local fishing boat captain to take them to Djibouti—a harrowing five-hour crossing on the Red Sea—then flew to Kenya, their respective hometowns, and finally the SCAA Event in Seattle.

Yemen holds a special place in coffee history, long regarded as the first country in which coffee was cultivated, and home to Mocha, thought to be the jumping off point from which arabica coffee was spread throughout the world.

The coffee grown in Yemen is unique in many ways.  But while experts agree Yemeni coffee holds extraordinary appeal, low productivity and a lack of consistency have forced the origin out of the specialty coffee spotlight for many years.

Currently, the Coffee Quality Institute (CQI) is leading the coffee segment of a five-year project in Yemen, funded by USAID and Land O’Lakes International Development. The project, dubbed Competitive Agriculture Systems for High-Value Crops (CASH), is focused on developing high-value agriculture to address food insecurity in Yemen, one of the world’s poorest countries. CQI’s main goals include enhancing coffee productivity and quality differentiation in the country.

During its first year on the project, which launched in early 2014, the nonprofit began training growers on best agricultural practices and cupping, and began working to develop the specialty market for Yemeni coffee in the United States and abroad. Unfortunately, the escalation in military actions earlier this year forced CQI to suspend its work in Yemen, as USAID shifted its efforts toward humanitarian aid.

In light of this, CQI has turned its attention to developing specialty markets for Yemeni coffee, but Alkhanshali, 27, and Nicholson, 37, have continued their work in country. Nicholson returned to Sana’a—where he lives with his wife and three children—even before the airport resumed operations. (He spent about a week in Djibouti waiting for the airport to reopen before arranging passage on a livestock boat headed to Mocha.) Alkhanshali travels frequently to market Yemeni coffee, but he plans to return to work with growers and others later this year.

Read the full article here.