Sa’ada and Haraz are the two coffee growing regions in Yemen most famous for their unique flavors and distinct coffee. For years the focus has been on Haraz, a breathtakingly beautiful mountain area easily accessible from the capital, inhabited by farmers and communities who have learned to tell the story of their coffee and market it to an international audience.
Sa’ada is not like that. Impacted by 16 years of continuous armed conflict, far from the capital city and difficult to access, the farmers from Sa’ada are isolated, growing their unique coffee in silence in a region the fewest dare venture to.
We decided to travel to Sa’ada, in a quest to find the best coffee, no matter how remote or isolated. We wanted to tell the story of the farmers in Sa’ada, who continue to nurture their coffee trees and grow their red fruit to the sound of jetfighters and shelling, isolated and forgotten by the world.
Taking off from the capital Sana’a at dawn in our Toyota Hilux, Yemen’s most popular vehicle for its ability to climb steep mountains and rocky roads that have never been asphalted, we made the journey north to Sa’ada.
Closing in on Sa’ada, the traces of war became more visible. Houses along the road destroyed by airstrikes, roads themselves often destroyed too. Yet something else was in the air too, a buzzling vibe of people, roadside markets with fruits, vegetables and sheep, and new buildings pupping up at a rate that seemed similar to the one at which houses had been destroyed.
No strangers to the resilience of Yemenis, this was still quite something else than the capital. No other place in Yemen had seen such destruction, yet its people determined to live and thrive despite the hardships and daily dangers.
Arriving in the afternoon to a village where we had decided to stay for the night, in the north-west of the region, we were warmly greeted with the type of hospitality only seen in Yemen.
After a feast of a lunch, we were seated in the mafraj – a room with soft cushions aligned along all the walls, and while all the men of the village started their daily ritual of chewing qat, a mildly narcotic leave chewed by the majority of Yemen’s population, the discussion began. Which area of Sa’ada has the best coffee? What is the best cultivation practice? How has the war impacted the trade with nearby Saudi Arabia? Who has a brother who has a wife who’s cousin grows coffee?
As the hours passed the discussion went from heated into some form of consensus. Bani Bahr region has the best coffee in Sa’ada, the natural cultivation method is the best, exporting to Denmark is better than trying to sell to Saudi Arabia where they don’t appreciate the quality of the coffee and a son of one of the men, Abdullah, knew a worker at a farm that seemed just about right.
Despite summer knocking on the doors, the cool mountain air of Sa’ada shakes you to the bones, and after a freezing night wrapped in blankets, we again got up at dawn and set off with Abdullah, towards Bani Bahr.
From the capital to the village the roads had been okay, not always asphalted (or black as we say in Yemen), however still functional roads, the ride had not been too bumpy. From the village to the remote area of Bani Bahr this soon turned out to be another story, and our Hilux came to use as we slowly climbed one rocky mountain passage after the next.
High up in altitude, the areas we passed were far from the green mountains of Haraz, instead rocky and bare landscapes passed by, with the traditional Yemeni gingerbread houses rising up against the sky from steep mountain sides as if they were carved out of the rocks, overlooking terraces of fruits, coffee and qat, as small oasis miraculously growing in the dry mountain climate.
After half a day drive – not far in distance but slow in the lack of roads, we picked up Abdullah’s friend who was waiting for us at a nearby village, to guide us the rest of the way to the farm. At an altitude of 1.889 meters and so remote that no one would ever happen to just pass by, Jalat Al-Enab finally took shape in front of us. We had found it, now other questions loomed – was the farmer willing to sell to us? How was the harvest? And the cultivation methods? Was the quality what we expected?
The farmer turned out to be two brothers, Ali and Faisal, and they greeted us with surprise of rare visitors, and with great curiosity. Not accustomed to outside visitors, it took some explanation before they understood that we were not an NGO coming to carry out a project, but ordinary people on search for Sa’adas best coffee, to be shipped to Denmark where coffee lovers would taste and appreciate their unique coffee. Living in a small brick house on the side of the mountain, the beans already harvested where lying on the rooftop to dry in the sun – the drying method most common in Yemen, where water is scarce. They took us to the farm, a green oasis of tall coffee trees growing down the narrow valley. They explained that finding workers for the harvest was a challenge as the war continued to swallow all young men, so each year they had to train a new group of workers in how to carefully select and pick the red mature coffee fruits. Climbing up a ladder, the trees seemed endlessly high and very different from the small coffee trees in Haraz.
As coffee growing in Yemen has never undergone homogenization original strains of the Arabica plant has evolved in remote pockets of the mountain highlands, where local varieties are among the oldest genotypes still grown in the world. The variety in Jalat Al-Enab was for sure different than anything else we had seen, and in discussion with Ali and Faisal we agreed that this was a local variation of the Oudaini strain of Arabica.
Finding Ali and Faisal’s farm had been far from easy, and we were relieved and delighted both to learn that their cultivations methods were all natural, with the only fertilizer applied being animal waste, and that they were willing to sell to us. In Sa’ada, we learned, the coffee berries are sold per load, one load being 200 tamaniin, and as we were told, one tamaniin equals around 2 kilos. As the yield of green beans following milling would be around 1/3 of the cherry weight, we agreed to buy 4 loads, or around what we believed would be 1.600 kg dried cherries. Of course depending on quality upon cupping of a sample. Happy to have succeeded on our mission we started the journey back to the capital as the jetfighters started roaming the air above Bani Bahr and to the distant sound of shelling, picking up at the nearby frontline. We waved goodbye to Ali and Faisal, bringing with us a sample and quite some excitement over what the cupping would say.
Hulling, roasting and cupping the sample already the next day, by Yemen’s one and only certified specialty coffee taster, Hussein, we were delighted to find that it received a very high cupping score, along with praise from Hussein. Himself having been the pioneer of specialty coffee hunting and export in Yemen, he had never managed to access Sa’ada and was both impressed and intrigued by the unique flavors of the coffee from Jalat Al-Enab.
Yet the journey was far from over. When receiving the first loads and sending them to the specialty coffee mill for hulling and grading, we realized that the weight was not the expected 400 kg per load. First upset, thinking the farm had added less to the loads, we started calling around and got answers back from villages in Sa’ada, Haraz, Al-Jawf as well as other parts of Yemen. Apparently the measuring units are not standardized across the country. And the tamaniin was a space measurement rather than a weight measurement, so whereas one tamaniin would equal 2 kilos of grains or sugar, the weight would naturally be much less for coffee cherries. In other words, we were also on a journey to learn.
Immediately ordering more loads to gain the 500 kg green beans, we were later delighted to find out that the quality yield from the berries were high, and more than 30% were quality green beans. The rest, from the broken beans, smaller beans and peaberries, to the coffee fruit husk and even the dust, was sold locally as nothing goes to waste in Yemeni coffee production. The small and broken beans are milled and sold locally, whereas the husk is sold at a higher price, as Yemenis use it in the ginger flavored national drink called qishr.
With the coffee hulled, hand sorted and packaged, we were all set for the last part of the journey. With airports and seaports shut due to the war, the coffee now had to travel over land east for more than a thousand kilometers, crossing frontlines and checkpoints, to arrive at the neighboring country of Oman, from where it would be shipped onwards to Denmark. This part of the journey is not only challenging, but also nerve wrecking as there are no timeline nor tracking from the coffee leaves the capital Sana’a to it arrives in Oman. With both shipping costs and stakes being high, the support of Warfair, who both financed and accepted the risk of the shipment, was crucial.
At time of writing all we know is that the coffee is somewhere near to the Omani border and if all goes well, the coffee will soon cross the border and embark on the last part of the journey, where Ali and Faisal’s hard work and dreams will be honored when the flavors of their coffee comes alive in Denmark, offering Coffee Collective customers a taste of Jalat Al-Enab and Yemen.