This week, we had a chance to speak to Andrew Hetzel, a project consultant at the Coffee Quality Institute and our partner in the project to bring Yemeni coffee to La Colombe. Andrew answered a few of our questions about what makes Yemen’s coffee industry unique, and why coffee drinkers should care about this ancient source of coffee.
What is the current state of the Yemen coffee industry? Brief background.
In the history of humanity’s relationship with coffee, Yemen is arguably its most important origin. Yemen is one of the oldest sites of coffee cultivation, the first place that it was consumed as a beverage and the original crossroads of civilization from where it was traded from Africa to the consuming world. Without Yemen, it is very likely that we would not be drinking coffee today.
The current state of its coffee industry is troubled but hopeful. Despite an heirloom genetic diversity of coffee varieties second only to Ethiopia and ancient system of processing and trade that gives the coffee of Yemen its uniquely desirable flavors, the country’s coffee industry suffers from difficult terrain, severe drought and political instability that make farming extraordinarily difficult. Furthermore, coffee farming in Yemen faces encroachment from the cultivation of qat, an amphetamine-like addictive drug that is legal in Yemen and grows in similar conditions as coffee but can be harvested and sold quickly for cash without coffee’s long maturation and sales cycles.
A small number of farmers have concentrated their efforts on high quality production of coffee but the cost of doing so under these difficult conditions makes Yemen coffee among the most expensive traded anywhere in the world—out of reach for most roasted coffee applications but highly desirable among purists in the specialty coffee trade.
How do beans travel from Yemen to the United States? How is this journey unique compared to beans that travel from South America?
Coffee travels to the United States from Yemen in a way similar to coffee originating from other places—by ocean taking 45-60 days or sometimes air freight for small quantities. The unusual journey for Yemen’s coffee is from farm to the port, which utilizes an ancient system of processing and trade that has been perfected over generations.
Coffee in Yemen is grown almost entirely by farming families on small terraced cliffs, unlike the larger plantation estates that one sees in South America. After harvest, ripe coffee cherries are laid out to dry in the sun like raisins—this is the first step of what is known as “dry natural processing,” which is the original method of making coffee’s fruit into beverages. From there, the coffee is rested in cool, shaded storage facilities, hulled (removing the outer layers of the fruit, which is often used as a form of tea in Yemen) and then returned to storage awaiting purchase and shipment.
Why is it important to support the coffee industry in Yemen? What impact does drinking coffee from Yemen have on the livelihoods of Yemeni farmers?
Without high value export markets abroad, there is little incentive to continue coffee farming in Yemen. As mentioned above, it is challenging, slow and there are other crops of potentially higher value for internal consumption, though with a negative impact on society. Drinking Yemen coffee in America gives Yemen’s coffee farmers a reason to grow coffee and provides them with the income that is necessary to buy food and support a stable life.
What changes could a thriving coffee industry bring about in Yemen? How does drinking Yemeni coffee help the economy there?
A thriving Yemen coffee industry would provide job opportunities, food and economic stability to a significant percentage of Yemen’s population. The stability created from new industry would be a force for moderation and peace and provide hope for future generations of Yemeni citizens.
What should average coffee consumers know about coffee from Yemen?
Yemen’s coffee is a time machine that reaches back through the centuries and opens a window to the most ancient origins of coffee; a time when human civilization was young. You can taste the complexities of history in every sip and should coffee farming in Yemen ever cease, something unique would be lost forever. It is a true original.