Coffee: The Lost Treasure of Yemen

Yemenis played a significant role in introducing coffee -- the second most traded commodity in the world after oil -- to countries throughout the world. The government's disinterest, however, in preserving the coffee tree and promoting its cultivation has deprived the country of significant revenue.

Yemeni businessmen living in Turkey are trying to restore the world’s trust in the quality and taste of authentic Yemeni coffee. As part of the Istanbul Coffee Festival, which began on September 20, businessman Basem al-Aghbari offered samples and different ways to prepare the authentic Yemeni coffee as an opportunity to try it from the source.

Al-Aghbari and his business partner opened a number of coffee shops, under the name “Mocha Arabica,” in Istanbul two years ago. Mocha is the Yemeni port that first exported coffee to the world, and Arabica is the name now used to describe Yemeni coffee.

Yemenis were the first to harvest coffee and consume the beverage on a wide scale. Their legendary Arabica beans are well-known throughout the world, and haven been for many centuries. Yemenis exported their beans to the rest of the world through the port of Mocha.

The most reliable evidence of early knowledge of the coffee tree and coffee consumption appears in the mid-15th century in the Sufi monasteries in Yemen, south of the Arabian Peninsula. In the 16th century, Yemen began to export coffee to Persia, Egypt, Syria and Turkey, and gradually expanded to as many as 70 countries.

Mocha coffee beans are considered a luxury. Mocha originally comes from Mocha, a famous Yemeni port on the Red Sea coast and an early hub for the coffee trade. Coffee from Mocha is known for the unique taste and high quality that distinguishes it from coffee types grown in other countries.

Coffee beans are the seeds found in the fruits of red-crusted coffee. The fruit is dried and then the seeds are removed after drying and roasted to make coffee. The degree of roasting ranges from brown to black, and it is this roasting process that distinguishes one country’s coffee from another.

Although Turkey does not cultivate its own coffee, Turkish coffee is more popular around the globe than the Yemeni variety. According to historical accounts, the Ottomans brought coffee to Turkey from Yemen in the 16th century. Since then the Turks have become famous for the unique way they prepare it.

Al-Aghbari recognizes the significance of Yemeni coffee in Turkey, the first country to import Yemeni coffee. “Yemeni coffee in Turkey has an old and special flavor. Turkish people even have folk songs that celebrate Yemeni coffee.” He added that he plans to do “something different to market Yemeni coffee and restore its reputation [in] the world after years of neglect.”

Yemen is known for its rich heritage, mild climate, picturesque scenery and distinctive coffee. However, just over four years ago, the start of a devastating civil war adversely affected the cultivation of coffee in the country. The lack of oil and the prohibitive pricing of oil derivatives has disrupted the coffee production process. Yemeni farmers’ inability to carry out essential processes, such as irrigating the coffee plants, has made the production and export of Yemeni coffee “difficult and sometimes almost impossible,” according to Yemeni businessman Hussein Ahmed.

Since 2015, Yemen’s exports have experienced a sharp decrease as a result of the war, and the unprecedented military coalition intervention led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The land, air, and sea blockade imposed on Yemen by the coalition has limited trade to and from the country, causing coffee exports to have now fallen as low as 8,000 bags a year, or 528 tons (a bag weighs 132 pounds). Coffee exports had gradually increased to 38,000 bags (or 2,580 tons) a year in 2017, according to the International Coffee Organization.

Even before the outbreak of the war in 2015, the impoverished country had not properly utilized its vast stores of the second-most traded commodity in the world after crude oil. Between 2000 and 2014, Yemen exported 55,000 bags (3,630 tons) of coffee beans annually. This is a small amount in comparison to Brazil, for example, whose annual exports during that same 14-year period reached 28 million bags (1,848,000 tons).

Before the war started, Yemen’s coffee production was estimated to be at about “20,000 tons per year, and most of it is consumed locally. Yemeni coffee is grown in an area of ​​about 35 thousand hectares by 100 to 110 thousand farming families,” according to Samir al-Atmi, director of the Ministry of Agriculture’s coffee department.

Despite the sharp drop in exports now, businessman Ahmed believes that the quantity of coffee that Yemen exports is larger. “Yemeni coffee is shipped and exported by land, sea and air, and there are no accurate statistics,” Ahmed told Inside Arabia.

There are more than ten well-known types of coffee beans in Yemen: al-Mutari, al-Harazi, Yafi’i, Al-anasi, Khulani, al-Bara’i, and al-Hammadi. However, al-Tufahi, al-Dawa’iri, and the Odani coffee are among the finest coffee beans that Yemen offers; these particular beans can thrive in any area where coffee is cultivated in the country.

Yemeni existence is so closely tied to the coffee tree that it is even celebrated in song. The great Yemeni singer Ali Alansi immortalized Yemeni coffee in his famous song “Coffee and Love.” “O Yemeni Coffee,” Alansi sings, “You are like treasure above trees.” The song’s comparison of coffee beans to treasure only serves to confirm the genuine love of coffee and the great economic, cultural, and historic value that it has brought to Yemen.

Coffee The Lost Treasure of Yemen
Photo credits: Mocha Arabica

The 1980s marked the revival of interest in the cultivation and production of coffee by the Yemeni state. Coffee was considered one of Yemen’s main sources of income, with exports reaching roughly 50,000 tons per year, before falling to record lows now during the civil war, according to the Ministry of Agriculture in Yemen.

Coffee could become a major source of income for Yemen again. Ahmed is optimistic about the future. “If Yemeni coffee recovers its reputation,” he says, “it could have a great economic impact [on the country], because it would provide an income for a huge number of Yemenis and also create new  opportunities.”