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Yemen's First Specialty Coffee Farmer

In the early 1970s, my grandfather, Sayyid Abdo al Qassemi, along with a delegation of Yemeni coffee farmers and agricultural professionals, visited Ethiopia and Brazil. The purpose of the trip was to build bridges across the coffee-growing world, share best practices, and educate their hosts on the history and culture of Yemeni coffee and coffee cultivation. Yemeni coffee farmers at that time had abandoned many cultivation practices of their forefathers in favor of quantity and expediency over quality and patience. This meant that there was no pruning of coffee trees and that cherries were picked before they were ripe. What my grandfather witnessed in Ethiopia and Brazil would change his life and how he understood coffee forever.

He witnessed every detail being observed. The way the coffees were pruned and picked, how they were dried, the way they were stored, the kinds of bags that were used. He became determined to return home and implement these practices immediately. He acquired dozens of books on coffee culture, cultivation, and science that we still have in our family library. My grandfather loved coffee, and he loved his people. And when he returned from this trip, he attempted what our friend Mokhtar would, more than 40 years later, also attempt—to convince the farmers in our village to change their methods and improve the quality of their coffee.

Al Koraba, Anis, Dhammar, Yemen, 2022

My grandfather and I come from a long line of coffee farmers, extending back to the days when the port city of Mokha was the only place in the world exporting coffee. The kingdom in authority had placed our tribe, Bait al Qassemi, in charge of administration in Mokha, which at the time was the central hub for the entire coffee industry. To this day, a coffee store my family established operates in Mokha, selling our famed “Fadhli Coffee.” It is named after the region Bani Fadhl, where our village, Al Kuraba, is located, in the northwest of the Dhammar province.

My grandfather was a tribal chief and a beloved, venerated leader who is often spoken of to this day. He was known to have never neglected his coffee farm. And when he returned from his trip and began telling the farmers in our region of what he’d learned, they were skeptical but, of course, trusted him and began implementing what he taught them. As one farmer in our village put it, “Sayyid Abdo, there was no soul better than him. He cared about coffee, and he was a real coffee farmer. When he started to cut [prune] those trees, we thought he was crazy. We didn’t know.”

He trained our farmers in the correct methods of picking, pruning, and drying. Rather than drying the coffee on tarps, as was the typical practice, he only allowed drying on specific mats that provided better airflow. He purchased special bags to be used exclusively for coffee and didn’t allow farmers to store their coffees in flour bags or unclean, reused bags. He even had a method of testing moisture with a combination of specialized scales and comparing that against the number of days and hours the coffee had been drying.

He’s remembered well for his forward thinking in terms of coffee but even more for his charitable works in our region. Most notably, he played a major role in bringing irrigated water to where we live—something many villages in Yemen, even to this day, still go without.

Syed Abdo al Qassemi, Year Unknown

His efforts in the realm of coffee cultivation were incredible, and the farmers took to them. But unfortunately, these efforts came at a time well before specialty coffee would spread across the world. And without access to a market that would support these coffees, most farmers returned to their old ways, except for my grandfather, who would continue his work until he was no longer able.

When I learned of the work Mokhtar and others were doing on farms in Yemen, I immediately remembered my grandfather. These were the exact same things he was talking about all those years ago. Naturally, I was inspired to get involved and contribute as best I could.

I, along with my colleagues, founded the Unity of Coffee Organization, where I serve as president. We operate as a central authority to eliminate existing divisions and problems, address those problems, integrate all efforts in the coffee sector, and serve stakeholders in Yemen’s coffee industry. These stakeholders include farmers, producers, associations, traders, unions, researchers, academics, and any and all workers and lovers of Yemeni coffee.

Muhammad al Qassemi sits for interview at NYCA HQ, 2022

The first NYCA represents an unprecedented opportunity for Yemeni coffee. For the simple farmer who spends all day on coffee plantations and cannot sell at fair prices or send their coffees out into the world, this auction is a window of hope. Now, in the eighth year of war, when suffering, displacement, fatigue, poverty, and hunger plague so much of our countrymen, the national auction is a shining light and a window for the world to look through and see that there is beauty in Yemen—that here, there are treasures, stories, and unimaginable value.

The Yemeni coffee brand is over 800 years old, and for the first time, the men and women we can thank for building and establishing this brand will be given a platform to deliver their treasures directly to the world in a way befitting Yemen’s glorious history. And in a way my grandfather, Yemen’s first specialty coffee farmer, would be proud of.

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