On a coffee trip

This blog post is a guest post written by Siris Hartkorn and Nabil Al-Sharafi who live in Yemen and have the company The Yemen Journey. It was the contact made between warfair and the Yemen Journey that got coffee from Yemen to Denmark. The coffee from Yemen is launched at Coffee Collective d. 7. May 2020.

Sa'ada and Haraz are the two coffee areas in Yemen that are most famous for their unique flavors and special coffees. For many years the focus has been on Haraz, an incredibly beautiful mountain area where you can easily reach from the capital of Yemen and with farmers and villages who have learned to tell the story of their coffee and sell it to international customers.

Sa'ada's not like that. The area is badly affected by 16 years of armed conflict, it is far from the capital and very difficult to get to. Farmers in Sa'ada are isolated and grow their unique coffee in silence in an area that few dare to visit.

We decided to travel to Sa'ada, in our hunt for the best coffee – no matter how remote and isolated the area is. We wanted to tell the story of farmers in Sa'ada who continue to care for their coffee trees and pick the red berries to the sound of fighter jets and bomb attacks, isolated and forgotten by the world.

We left the capital Sana'a early in the morning in our Toyota Hilux, Yemen's most popular vehicle because the car can climb steep mountains and rocky roads that have never seen asphalt. We traveled north to Sa'ada.

As we approached, the traces of the war became apparent. Houses along the road had been destroyed by air raids, the road was often destroyed too. But there was also a completely different mood. A burgeoning atmosphere of people, markets with fruits, vegetables and sheep, and new buildings springing up at a rate that seemed comparable to the rate at which they had been destroyed.

For those of us who are familiar with the resilience of the Yemeni people, even this was surprising. Nowhere else in Yemen has experienced a similar destruction, but despite the much adversity and daily danger, the population was keen to live and thrive.

When we arrived in the afternoon to the village where we would sleep at night, in the northwestern part of the region, we were greeted with a warm hospitality that is only experienced in Yemen. After a feast of a lunch we were invited in and sit in the "mafraj" - a room with soft pillows along the wall. And while all the men in the village started their daily ritual of chewing khat, the mild narcotic leaves that the majority of the population chews, the discussion began.

Which areas of Sa'ada had the best coffee? How had the war affected trade with Saudi Arabia, which was very close? Who had a brother who has a wife, or who has a cousin who grows coffee? After a few hours, a kind of consensus spread. The Bani Bahr region has the best coffee in Sa'ada, the best and most natural cultivation. And it was far better to export to Denmark than to try to sell to Saudi Arabia, where they do not appreciate the quality. One of the men had a son, Abdullah, who knew a worker on a farm that was just right.

Even though the summer was coming, the cold mountain air in Sa'ada can penetrate right to the bones, and after a biting cold night wrapped in our blankets, we got up again with the sun and left with Abdullah, towards Bani Bahr. From the capital to the village the road had been ok, not always paved (or black as we say in Yemen), but they worked roughly and were not too uneven. But the trip was the village to the remote Bani Bahr area was a completely different story and our Hilux came on try as we slowly climbed one steep mountain after another. High above sea level, the areas were very different from the green mountains of Haraz. It was rocky and bare landscapes that slipped by, with the traditional Yemeni gingerbread houses rising to the sky from the steep hillsides, as if carved out of the rocks, and looking over the terraces with fruit trees, coffee and khat – the small oases that miraculously grew in the arid mountain climate.

After driving for half a day – not far for kilometers, but slowly, without actual roads-we picked up Abdullah's friend. He was waiting for us in a small village, and was supposed to guide us the rest of the way to the farmer. When we had climbed to a height of 1889 meters – and were so far out so that no one would just pass by – we finally saw the outlines of the Jalat Al-Enab farm in front of us. We had found it, but the question was whether he would sell his coffee to us? How the harvest had been? How did they grow the coffee? And would the quality be as expected?

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The farmer turned out to be one of two brothers, Ali and Faisal, and they greeted us with great curiosity. They were certainly not used to guests from outside, and it took a long time before they understood that we were not an NGO who came to make a project, but were normal people who lived in Yemen and were in search of the best coffee in Sa'adas to be able to send it to Denmark, where coffee lovers could taste and appreciate their unique coffee.

They lived in a small stone house on the edge of the mountain and the harvested coffee beans were already lying to dry on the roof of the house – the most normal meeting to dry the coffee on in Yemen, where there is a lack of water. They took us to the coffee field itself – a green oasis of tall coffee trees growing in the narrow valley. They explained that it was difficult to find workers for the harvest because the war continued to engulf all young men, so each year they had to train new workers on how to carefully pick and pick the red, ripe ones coffee berries. We climbed the ladder in the coffee trees that seemed infinitely tall and very different from the small coffee bushes you see in Haraz.

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Since the coffee grown in the mountains of Yemen has never been refined, the original varieties continue to grow in the remote pockets of the Highlands. The local varieties are among the oldest genotypes in the world. And the coffee trees and the coffee we saw at Jalat Al-Enab were certainly very different from anything we had seen before. In the discussion with Ali and Faisal we came to the conclusion that it was a local variety of the Oudaini variety of Arabica.

Finding Ali and Faisal's farm was far from easy and we were both relieved and encouraged when we experienced that their cultivation methods were completely natural. The only fertilizer they introduced was manure. And they wanted to sell to us. In Sa'ada, we learned that the coffee is sold per load, one load was 200 tamaniin, and we had understood that one tamaniin was two kilos. Since the yield of green beans after shelling would be about 1/3 of the weight of the berries, we agreed to buy four loads or whatever we thought was 1,600 kilos of dried coffee berries. It was of course depending on the quality after a taste test.

We were very happy that our mission was successful and began the return trip to the capital while we could hear the fighter planes flying over Bani Bahr and the distant sound of bomb attacks from the front line. We waved goodbye to Ali and Faisal, and took a sample of the coffee with us – very excited about what the taste test would show.

We were shelled, roasted and tasted on probation the next day, by one of Yemen's only and best certified coffee tasters, Hussein, and were pleasantly surprised when he gave it a very high grade and much praise. He himself was a pioneer in the purchase and export of specialty coffee from Yemen, but he never managed to get out to Sa'ada and he was both impressed and fascinated by the unique aromas of the coffee from Jalat Al-Enab.

But the journey was far from over. When we received the first loads and sent them to a special coffee grinder for peeling and sorting, we discovered that the weight was not the expected 400 kilos per load. At first we were upset and thought they had cheated with the weight, and we started calling and getting answers back from villages in Sa'ada, Haraz, Al-Jawf and other parts of Yemen. It turned out that the target unit is not standardized across Yemen. And a tamaniin is a space measure and not a weight, so while a tamaniin could be the same as 2 kilos of cereal or sugar, it was much smaller for coffee berries. We were also on a journey ourselves and learned along the way.

We immediately ordered additional loads so we could reach the agreed 500 kilos. And at the same time we were thrilled when we found that the quality of the coffee berries was high – more than 30% were quality berries. The rest – the smaller and broken berries, the pearl beans, the coffee shells and even the dust, were sold locally. Nothing is wasted in coffee production in Yemen. The small and broken berries are peeled and sold locally, while the shells are sold at a higher price as they are used for the national drink called qishr made from coffee shells and ginger.

Now that the coffee was shelled, hand-sorted and packed, we were ready for the last part of the journey. As both the airport and the ports are closed due to the war, coffee had to make the journey by truck overland to the east, over 1000 kilometres across front lines and checkpoints before arriving in neighbouring Oman. From here, the coffee could be passed on to Denmark. This last part of the journey was not only challenging but also nerve-wracking as there is no schedule or tracking from the coffee leaving the capital Sana'a until it comes to Oman. As transport costs and risks are high, the support from warfair, which both funded and accepted the risk, was crucial.

While writing this blog, coffee is somewhere close to the border with Oman. If all goes well it will soon cross the border and take the last part of the journey. The hard work of Ali and Faisal's and their dreams will be rewarded when the coffee comes to Denmark and offers Coffee Collective's customers a taste of Jalat Al-Enab and Yemen.

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Since this blog was written, coffee has travelled safely across the border and to Copenhagen and finally to Coffee Collective stock and coffee roastery. The coffee is available from 7 May 2020 coffee shops and Onlinewhere it can take the last part of the journey to your home.