Part of the ongoing "return to origin* series.
In part one, we briefly discussed the broad overarching historical and modern contexts of the Yemeni coffee condition. Now, I would like to delve deeper into how these contexts specifically shaped Yemen’s past, present, and potential future relationships with coffee.
As mentioned previously, Yemen was the first country to cultivate and brew coffee as we know it today. By the turn of the 18th Century, virtually the entire global supply of coffee came out of Yemen’s port of Mocha (yes, same as the drink). Even today, it is not uncommon to see multi-generational operations going back 400-500 years. However, as demand for coffee increased, so did the potential for exploitation.
As the Yemeni coffee influence peaked in the early 1700s, the Dutch East India company sought to capitalize as well. Dutch traders and operatives stole coffee plants and seeds from Yemen and began setting up cultivation operations in their territories in modern day Indonesia. By 1800, global production from Yemen was down to 6%; today it’s a mere 0.1%. Thus Yemen was among the first victims of coffee imperialism.
This dispossession of Yemen’s birthright still has ramifications to this day. For instance, the industry never recovered from European colonial expansion—especially after the Suez Canal bypassed the port of Mocha. As such, investment coffee Yemen’s growing infrastructure is nearly non-existent. Combined with difficult growing conditions, and the recent civil war, Yemeni producers are vulnerable to modern forms of exploitation.
Because of how difficult it is to get Yemeni coffee to market, it’s cost is very high (up to five times more than specialty coffee grown elsewhere). As such, shady elements in the exporting business use this opportunity for profiteering. Some coffees from Ethiopia are similar to those in Yemen (small beans, high altitude, very dense) and due to a more robust infrastructure, are cheaper to cultivate. This leads to some exporters blending cheaper Ethiopian beans with Yemeni coffee to fetch a higher price at market. Not only is the consumer cheated, but the producer suffers twofold. They do not share in the value chain, and the lack of trust such practices generate diminishes Yemeni coffee as a whole. This is where the vital importance of traceability comes into play.
Faris Sheibani of Qima Coffee recently did an interview with James Hoffmann discussing the discovery of a new mother group of coffea arabica: Yemenia.* Qima, working with a team led by botanist Dr. Christophe Montagnon, conducted a total genetic survey of Yemeni coffee, spanning over 25,000 km2. This survey led to the discovery of Yemenia which is distinct from all other varietals of arabica.** What’s exciting about this discovery is the potential for, what Faris calls, “an ocean of varieties” of coffee. On its surface this is exciting for the potential of new tasting experiences. On a macro scale, the introduction of a unique form of arabica has the potential to transform the coffee industry on a global scale.***
All this potential has come from a focus on traceability.
Going back to the shady practices of certain exporters. There was no incentive in knowing where a specific lot of coffee was from. All that mattered was the idea of Yemeni coffee, not the labour of a specific Yemeni farmer. Less traceability means more personal profitability. To be clear, this practice of blending and repackaging isn’t the rule in Yemen; in fact, Rabbit Hole Roasters works with Sabcomeed exporters who work directly with producers in Yemen reap more of what they sow. However, such profiteering does occur. And why Qima and Dr. Montagnon’s work is so vital.
Yemen’s colonial legacy—in terms of coffee—is one of dispossession and neglect. Qima is working on ways of improving accountability to the producer by means of traceability. Programs have been set up to provide genetically finger printed seedlings to farmers; thus ensuring traceability, but also structure to ensure farmers growing what's best for their situation and what could make them the best profits. In addition, Mr. Sheibani is inviting the Yemeni government and people in the coffee industry to invest in the infrastructure of Yemen to help return the country to viable coffee production.
Yemenia has scored very highly in initial cuppings.**** The future is bright for both the consumer, producer and everyone in-between. Yet, this potential can only be realized if the exploitative practices of the past are not repeated. Supporting roasters that are open with their supply chain or do actual ground level work to tangibly improve the lives of people at origin, contributes greatly to decolonizing our industry and returning prosperity to the origin.
If you would like to know more about the civil war that is wreaking havoc in Yemen, you can click here to find out more. And if you would like to donate to humanitarian efforts on the ground, UNICEF is doing essential work on the ground.
* YouTube: James Hoffmann, "Yemenia: Bigger than Gesha?" https://youtu.be/-oiHm0wlhfM
** Varieties can be consider distinct variations within a single species, while varietals refer to a specific instance of a variety. Meaning a particular farm could be growing the variety of bourbon, the specific conditions of that farm would make it a bourbon varietal.
*** Because all the coffee's grown around the world originate from a small group of individual plants, coffee is considered a monocrop. As such, coffee plants are susceptible to disease. The lack of variation can—and has—led to significant losses in yield or eradication of entire harvests. Yemenia can offer a potential for adding variety to the gene pool, and perhaps limiting disease vulnerability.
**** In a blind test (featuring Yemenia, SLs, and Bourbons from Yemen) 15 of the top 20 were Yemenia. And all of the coffees scoring over 90, were Yemenia.
Photo credit to @sabcomeed
Charles joined Rabbit Hole in the Fall of 2020 as a creative consultant. He has been both a professional photographer, videographer, and writer. After completing his MA on the History of Racism, he strives to be socially engaged in all aspects of his personal and professional life. When writing, he follows the mantra of Dr. Cornel West: “bear witness and speak truth to power.”