In plains, valleys and mountainsides all over Yemen, farmers rise with the sun to the melodic dawn chorus of birds whose songs fill the fields of the shrub most sacred to Yemenis. As the 20th-century Yemeni poet Mutahhar bin Ali al-Iryani wrote:
Oh Yemeni coffee beans, you are pearls.
Whoever cultivates you will suffer
neither poverty nor humiliation.
Sharaf Sallam, 65, has lived among coffee fields since he was a child. Every morning, he gathers his sickle, shovel, and tree clippers to begin a daily routine of tending to his coffee plants in Wadi al- Balab, a few hundred kilometres south of Sana’a in the Taiz governorate.
Well known for al-Hammadi coffee beans, one of the finest types in Yemen, this valley is home to about 400 coffee-farming families.
“It is necessary to launch supportive programs for farmers who are devoted to preserving an invaluable national treasure,” Sallam said.
Daily tasks include cleaning the surroundings of each tree, irrigating them, and depositing organic fertiliser from animal waste. This typically takes up about seven hours of Sallam’s day.
Once the trees in Wadi al-Balab begin to flower and coffee cherries emerge, the farmers work at a frantic pace to collect a sufficient amount of the crop, which is usually picked over a period of six months. With their plastic pails and straw bowls, they begin the harvest, a phase dictated not only by a specific time frame but by the cherries’ turning a bright, reddish colour.
Since coffee is his sole source of income, Sallam, like the other farmers, keeps more than 90 kilograms of his harvest from the prior year. In hard times, he can sell enough to get by.
The quality of Yemeni coffee is internationally acclaimed. Coffee known as Mocha is attributed to a prominent Yemeni port of the same name whose inhabitants began exporting coffee around the world long ago. Yemen’s role as a coffee-exporting country dates back centuries, with the first shipment to Dutch colonies from the port of Mocha recorded in 1628.
The first coffee factories were established in the Mocha region in the early 1700s by Dutch colonists, followed by a French company. Given the high quality of Yemeni coffee, demand and competition between French, British and Dutch companies increased, with the production of Arabica coffee peaking in 1720. The Yemeni ports of Mocha, al-Hodeida, and al-Luhayah saw a surge in the coffee trade during this period.
“Yemeni coffee plants thrive in a moderate climate of mountainous altitudes, the most important factor that distinguishes it from other coffee types,” said Hussein Ahmed, CEO of Mocha Hunters, a coffee company with a shop in Sana’a. Ahmed, who holds an International Coffee Tasting Certificate, is proud of the unique, original aroma of Yemeni coffee, often described as nutty and spicy, with floral and citrus notes.
Rebirth and Reclamation
Yemeni coffee farmers and promoters have been engaged in an existential struggle to gain ground lost to the cultivation of qat, a popular stimulant. Since qat delivers bigger and quicker profits, the coffee plant has suffered. According to the Yemeni environmental website whose name translates to “Green Dream”, the total area of Yemeni coffee cultivation shrank by over 400 hectares in two years to roughly 33,500 hectares at the end of 2017. This led to a 490-ton decrease in annual coffee crop production to about 18,760 tons in the same period.
But initiatives are underway to change this trend. Yemen’s newly proclaimed National Coffee Day every year on March 3 offers tasting events and festivals in a drive to reclaim the coffee shrub as a sacred national tree. This year, youth groups planted nearly 200,000 coffee shrubs around the country that day. On October 1, International Coffee Day gives Yemenis an additional opportunity to savour the glory of Mocha coffee.
Farmers are being trained in modern agricultural methods and standards for coffee cultivation until harvest time. Mocha Hunters, one of these outfits, buys coffee crops at competitive prices and exports them to countries such as Saudi Arabia, the US, and several European states.
The Mocha Valley website has launched a map of Yemeni coffee flavours in Arabic and English to indicate locations of cupping sessions for more than 700 coffee samples from various districts. The map also helps coffee lovers learn more about where coffee is grown in Yemen and the estimated quantities of coffee crops for each governorate. The same initiative developed a chart detailing flowering seasons, main harvest periods, and minor secondary harvest phases in all coffee-growing regions.
Yemeni coffee beans have considerable potential to become a global product and a source of national revenue. Through the launch of major projects for promotion, sponsorship, branding, and export, Yemeni coffee could occupy a higher position in the world market.
Brewed with Devotion
Yemenis have an intimate relationship with coffee, which they brew slowly in a jazwa, a metal jug. Each preparation is said to fit the mood of whoever is about to drink it; then, it’s supposed to induce joy.
Yemenis typically drink coffee at least three times a day. In the morning, they take a strong brew before setting out to work. In the evening, they sip a sweeter, lighter brew, while others guzzle it with gusto at night. The husks of coffee beans are also used to make a special coffee drink called Qeshr, or husk.
From the fields to cafés, the sharing of coffee always brings people together in a cherished ritual. But in Yemen, the significance of this steaming treat goes further. Coffee is a catalyst for locals to visualise a brighter future for their country. Yahya al-Hamadi, a young Yemeni poet, ponders the potential of transformation on both a physical and symbolic level:
What if, from inside of us, we emerge
To lead the river to desiccated land
Melting candles into suns
Turning swords into axes
As we too melt into the shade of a coffee tree, longing for abundance, far from hopeless thirst?
If the walls of Yemeni cafés could talk, they would tell generations of stories. While many of these institutions have withstood war and destruction, they’ve also been host to joyous occasions. The older, traditional cafés are male-dominated spaces that are largely off-limits to women. But the more modern cafés in cities such as Sana’a, Marib and Aden have women-only sections or opening hours that cater to entire families. A women-run, women-only café recently opened in Marib to the delight of its female visitors. This delineation of public space by gender is not easy to negotiate across Yemen. But it suggests that a creative approach to divisive issues can transform challenges into opportunities, opening the door to a future of inclusion.
“Al-Ebi opened in 1948. Until 1956, we had to close often. Since then, however, we only closed once, back in 2018, due to clashes between armed groups and the army in the neighbourhood. Most of our customers are loyal and still visit us. Even those who have left and now hold important positions in Sana’a still to al-Ebi when they are in Taiz. Most of our clients prefer first coffee then tea, and finally al-Maghzul*.”
* To prepare al-Maghzul, boil water and mix it with a grated ginger root, a pinch of ground cardamom and Keshr coffee (a light coffee made from the crust of coffee beans). Before serving al-Maghzul, it must simmer for a couple of minutes.
“The Koshar Café, located in the Crater District of the Aden Governorate, was established in 1955. It closed once in its history, back in the seventies, during the worker demonstrations. The Koshar Café was listed by writers, intellectuals and athletes. One of the most famous artists who visited us was the late Ahmed bin Ahmed Qassim, who used to come here after giving concerts. Now most of the old cafés have closed in Aden because of the high prices. I keep trying to keep the café open to preserve the remaining landmarks in Aden and to keep the work of our forefathers alive.”
Nasr al-Sayyed Hashim Abdullah, owner of Koshar Café.
“Samsarat Warda opened about 270 years ago, and it has since then never closed. Our visitors come from all over the Old City of Sanaa. The café brings together people from outside Sana’a also, as they come from all over the country. About 70% of our visitors prefer coffee, the rest enjoy red tea, tea with milk or other beverages. This preference for coffee has not changed for many years.”
Throughout the day, people come for a cup of coffee, a conversation or a game to the Aswan Café in Mukalla. It has been a place of gathering since 1966. In the evening, you see men of all ages gathered around, talking about issues of the day and sipping their tea – A tradition that withstood the test of time.
Faiz al-Dhubaibi, Raymah
Cafés in the rural, mountainous governorate of Raymah, about 90 km from the Yemeni capital Sana’a, once took the form of private homes located in public markets and district centres. The family owners of these dwellings used the lower floors for their residence and opened the upper floors to customers. Over hundreds of years, such houses hosted Raymah’s notables, sheikhs, dignitaries, and leaders.
In this particular café tradition, visitors would gather to eat from a single table and drink from one vessel, sometimes staying up to several days or weeks at a time as overnight guests. In the past, these homes drew many of Raymah’s residents and others to a unique setting for strangers to engage in conversation.
Many of these family-owned structures are still standing, but the café and lodging tradition has gradually subsided with the emergence of restaurants and hotels in the centre of the governorate.