The first time I stepped foot on a Yemeni coffee farm as an adult was an incredibly mixed experience. It was 2014, and I was bright-eyed, full of energy, and ready to build a business. I knew that the Yemeni coffee industry had seen better days. I knew of the incredible history of Yemeni coffee. But what excited me more than anything—based on the words of a few very important coffee professionals—was the potential of Yemeni coffee. James Freeman, CEO of Blue Bottle at the time, had told me that the best single origin he’d ever tasted in his life was a Yemen. My mentor, Willem Boot, had dedicated incredible amounts of time to studying Yemeni coffee and co-authored a report detailing how Yemen could be repositioned in international coffee markets. When I stepped onto that farm, I had high hopes.
It’s impossible to convey, whether in description, photography, or even video, just how magnificent Yemen’s coffee-growing regions are. Misty mountains that burst into the clouds, ancient ornate architecture that takes your breath away, beautiful smiling people who welcome you with poetry, music, and food, and lush, vast terraces filled with ruby red coffee cherries. Those first moments that I spent in 2014 walking into those villages are ones I will never forget. What followed was more complicated.
Every part of the supply chain was broken. Coffee trees were wild and unpruned. Coffee cherries were picked whether they were ripe or not. Coffee was dried on unventilated roof tops, where it sat with all manner of bacteria. Coffees were milled and then bagged full of defects without hand sorting or size sorting, and finally, they were stored in non-climate-controlled warehouses. It goes without saying that by the time these coffees reached the roaster, they were, as Willem Boot had once put it, “dead on arrival.”
So, my team and I spent the next two years working through every detail. Farmers had to be galvanized and convinced to change their methods. If they bought in, they had to be trained and unlearn many of the practices they’d grown accustomed to. From there, raised drying beds had to be built, moisture analyzers bought and delivered to farms, and much more.
After two years, it looked like we were ready. The coffees were tasting great, the farmers were excited, and I was ready to go back to the United States and share these treasures with the world. Then, the war began and made an already difficult situation even more complicated.
But we managed. By boat, plane, car, and hook or crook, in 2016, these coffees met the world, and the world fell back in love with the land that gave us coffee.
Over the next two years, I continued working with farmers, onboarding new farms, selling our coffee to roasters and importers in the US, Middle East, Asia, Australia, and Europe, and even roasting and selling my own coffee through e-commerce. In 2018, I decided it was time for Yemen to have an auction. So, my company, Port of Mokha, and I organized the first private auction of Yemeni coffees in history.
We gathered all of our farmers’ best lots together that year, shipped them to the US, packed and bagged samples, emailed, called, knocked down buyers’ doors, and sent our samples all over the world. And on November 21, 2018, Yemeni coffee had its first auction. It was a success. Our average price was $55.85/lb, and our high bid was $100/lb, of which two lots sold that year.
Following the success of our private auction, the potential of Yemeni coffee was again in the forefront of my mind. The words of Willem and James kept ringing in my ears. I truly believed and continue to believe that coffee has a unique ability to transform human conditions—personal, societal, and political.
It was time to think bigger. We would need nurseries, cupping labs, training facilities, academic symposiums, coffee festivals, and, more than anything, a national auction. With this dream in mind, a handful of my colleagues—most notably Willem Boot—and I founded The Mokha Institute. Through this non-profit organization, we could raise the money necessary to fund all of these initiatives and give back in a way that my business ventures could not.
We started small with nurseries and planted 50,000 coffee seedlings. And during the same time, whenever I was in Yemen for work, I would talk to industry people about organizing a national coffee auction. Unsurprisingly, it’s difficult to convince people in an already challenging industry, operating amidst a war, to get together and sit in a boardroom for weeks on end discussing this sort of thing. So, I left it alone and continued doing our yearly auction while slowly growing and establishing The Mokha Institute for the next two years.
In the third year of our auction, we broke the world record for the highest recorded price for a Yemeni coffee at $300/lb. Also, in the span of those two years, two other Yemeni coffee exporters held their own private auctions and saw incredible results. The Yemen industry began to take notice, and people were beginning to see the real potential that specialty coffee had to radically change not just the coffee industry in Yemen but also the Yemeni economy as a whole.
But all of our company’s auctions had something unsettling in common. Namely, they were all organized and led by Yemenis with Western passports and, by extension, access to the global market. Access that, by no fault of their own, hundreds of Yemeni coffee professionals had essentially been barred from. A national auction felt more vital and necessary than ever.
So, last year, in 2021, I again began beating the drum for a national auction. This time, we were ready. The energy and excitement needed to get everyone to the table were there. I approached my good friend Rasheed Ahmad, who was leading the Yemeni Coffee Export Association and is one of the pioneers of specialty coffee in Yemen. Rasheed and I shared the vision that Yemen, more than anything else, needed a national auction. And immediately, he knew who could get the ball rolling. He connected me with Muhammad al Qassemi, who had recently founded the Unity of Coffee Organization which aimed to create a unifying body for the entire industry. Al Qassemi loved the idea and shortly thereafter put out a call for proposals to organize the auction. The Mokha Institute, of course, submitted our proposal, and we were fortunate enough to win the contract. From there, the real work began, which you can view a full time line of here. Needless to say, it has been an absolutely incredible journey. And one that fills me with more hope and excitement than ever before.
Yemen was the first country to sell coffee commercially and, for a long time, was the only country you could get coffee from. The vast majority of coffee consumed throughout the entire world came from a plant whose great-great-ancestor came from this beautiful country of ours. This incredible drink has sparked critical thought, facilitated debate and discussion, woken us up in our mornings, comforted us in our intimate moments, kept us up to cram for exams, and brought so much value to so many of our lives.
This drink would have never reached our lips if it weren’t for these Yemenis toiling in their fields, warehouses, nurseries, universities and cafes. But due to circumstances beyond their control they have been cut off from direct access to the global coffee market. We now have an opportunity to change that. We have an opportunity to give back more than ever and more than they could have ever imagined just a few short years ago.