Friday I had the opportunity to spend the evening at the Arab Cultural & Community Center here in San Francisco to listen to a presentation and attend a cupping by Mokhtar Alkhanshali, a Yemeni-American who's worked tirelessly to help improve the lives of Yemeni farmers and their crops, for some years now. I've long since been a diehard fan of intense pungent Yemeni coffee and I get excited when I see this coffee that I love defy the standard preconceptions of what Yemen coffee is or can be.
The setting was an intimate gathering of about 50 guests, with a slide presentation of some of Mokhtar's beautiful photos ( some shared here with permission) of the breathtaking landscape and surroundings of the areas he worked and visited. My friend Marlee Benefield of Boot Coffee Consulting was on hand to help Mokhtar prepare one of these incredible coffees, more on that later.
For those of you who don't know, Mokhtar Alkhanshali was the first Arab born Q grader, started his own company, Mocha Mill
to help educate and equip Yemeni farmers to better cultivate and process their crops, then import and sell Yemeni coffee that is unlike any Yemeni coffee you've ever had. His fingerprints are on every step of the seed to cup chain in bringing these coffees to fruition. He literally escaped death, fleeing from Yemen when the Saudi led bombing attacked Sana'a, the capital just few months ago, fleeing thru a small long unused port in Mokka via a small fisherman's boat with an outboard motor, set for Djibouti. It was rather harrowing to watch Instagram photos and Facebook posts of someone you respect and admire showing the sky lit up with bombs and anti-aircraft fire, all within a half mile of where they're taking shelter. Mokhtar returned almost to a hero's welcome, especially at this years SCAA where his presentation was the most popular one ever attended.
Mokhtar painted a clear picture of what Yemen coffee is in the historical context and how it's been perceived by most in the coffee world, versus what it can be, with greater attention on quality and processing. Historically, Yemeni coffee has always had approximately 80% or more of its harvests bought up by their neighbors, the Saudis. The Saudis didn't differentiate by quality so there was little incentive to improve quality, since the price was pretty much set, regardless. Saudis simply didn't pay more, just for better quality. But the pungent intense Yemen coffee that many of us love, can also have some rough edges. Be it leathery/"animal hide" funkiness, smokiness, or potent spiciness, there are many reasons that are not so apparent on the surface, that explain some of these traits (many of which have turned some in the specialty coffee world off to Yemen coffee). It's not uncommon for mills that process (hulling) the green coffee to also process locally grown spices (chai anyone?). Mokhtar shared a slightly humorous photo of an elderly man sitting on the ground with a very large metal pan with a high rim, tossing and cleaning the green coffee, letting pergamino (shell/husk pieces) blow away when tossed in the air, all meanwhile smoking a cigarette with it dangling from his lips, right over the pan
. Scenes like this were not uncommon in the day to day processing of coffee. The noted coffee quality and roasting expert Trish Rothgeb has talked on Yemeni coffee before and described how some farmers have traditionally stored their green coffees in caves, sometimes for very
long periods of time, if their crops didn't sell at the prices they needed.
What Mokhtar has worked to achieve is building up the quality, cultivating and processing these coffees for the farmers and educate them on better fertilizing, ripe cherry picking, proper pruning, better drying, monitoring moisture levels, etc. Many if not most of the Yemeni farmers he met and worked with hadn't even tasted their own crop before. One of his photos below show a group of farmers tasting their own crops brewed in a Chemex for the first time. His and their efforts are quickly paying dividends. The coffee served at the event was a Udaini varietal from the Roowad Cooperative of the Hayma region, of the province of Sana'a. All Yemen coffee is natural (dry) processed due to the scarcity of water resources in Yemen. But with hard work in proper cultivation and processing, these farmers have delivered absolutely stunning, sparkling, clean intense coffee. There's an ongoing struggle against the loss of coffee production in Yemen, mostly due to the more profitable crop khat, that creates challenges and is both a blessing and a curse to farmers. Some farmers have turned their land over to khat growing entirely, some grow a bit, due to it's higher profitability, in order to support and sustain the rest of their coffee farms.
The coffee I had Friday night would easily be the finest coffee I've had since the Ethiopia Natural Yirga Cheffe Aricha of late last year. It bore striking similarities to its intense, abundant and complex fruitiness, yet total lack of natural processed funk. It was floral, incredibly sweet, delicately structured acidity and just everything I look and hope for in a cup of coffee. It hands down beat any Yemen coffee I've ever had, by a far margin. Dave Borton distributed a stellar Yemen, several times over the last few years which closely mirrors the quality and cup characteristics that I found at Fridays event. These glorious coffees portend the future of finely processed coffees of Yemen. These villages that he visited have gone from picking every cherry, regardless of color (ending up looking more like a bag of Skittles) to picking only perfectly ripe red cherries.
I don't want to drone on with endless text so I'll move on to just sharing some more of his lovely photos of Yemen itself, with a few comments sprinkled in. I'll close by saying that Mokhtar's coffee now enjoys a soaring global demand, in Japan, France and the US and other places. James Freeman of Blue Bottle Coffee may have successfully locked down a large purchase of his coffee, so when (God willing) the ports in Yemen open, hopefully in the next 3 months, we'll see these glorious coffees make their way here.
Marlee prepared flawless samples to share with the audience. 9:30 PM and not a moments hesitation in snapping up a cup.
I struggle to imagine a more inspiring view of a place to create coffee.
Notice the insanely steep terraced landscape. A great deal of work goes in to preserving the precious water resources this country receives. They pile large stones around most of their coffee trees, building up a well like structure around the base, so that the soil around the tree at the bottom is shaded and less prone to evaporation. Imagine the labor that goes in to creating this coffee.
Here's Mokhtar brewing these farmers coffee. Mokhtar described this scene as hushed reverence, without a sound except for the slow trickle of coffee pouring from the bottom of the Chemex filter.
Some rather breathtaking landscapes.
And closing with what to me is one of the most beautiful, compelling photographs I've seen in a long time, a candid shot of a Yemeni coffee farmer, with his bag of cherries over one shoulder and a spade to work the ground on the other.
Rediscover what Yemen coffee can be. When you do, raise your cup in a toast to the efforts of these hard working people. Candidly, I'll say this: expect to see Yemen coffee beating the crap out of superstar geishas in the next coming years brewing competitions. It already has, in blind cuppings, by significant margins.