A new Yemeni coffee story

THE COFFEE

From our Vice President of Coffee and Green Coffee Buyer for Yemen, Geoff Watts:

Yemen’s coffee culture is the stuff of myth. It appears in the pages of texts of the ancient world as the legendary source of coffee. Yemen may be the most fascinating of all the many coffee-producing countries on Earth, given its ancient culture and its pivotal role in the story of humankind’s relationship with coffee. It holds a sacred place among coffee historians who immerse themselves in the emotional and cultural past of our beloved tree.  But for most of us, Yemeni coffee is relegated to the realm of the imagination.

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If Yemen’s coffee sector is epic, it is also ironic: Yemen is the true birthplace of the global coffee trade, but its coffees remain mostly unknown in a world gone mad for coffee.

The trade ships that docked at Mocha inserted coffee grown and roasted in Yemen into the slipstream of maritime commerce at a time in the Middle Ages when it was unknown beyond a narrow range of latitudes. It became the center of origin for coffee’s diaspora, sending roasted coffee to the world and seed for the first time to many of the more than 70 countries Coffea Arabica now inhabits. Yemen is home to some of the most intriguing heirloom coffee types still in production, yet is almost entirely disconnected from the specialty coffee movement and inaccessible to most consumers.  Truly well-crafted Yemeni coffee is a genuine white whale for even the most dedicated and persistent industry professionals, who routinely go to extreme lengths to track down elusive and unlikely coffees.  

How has such a mythical coffee origin remained on the margins of the marketplace during specialty coffee’s dramatic push into mainstream consumer culture over the past few decades? Political and civil instability, security issues, cultural barriers, language and basic travel logistics play a role: they have stood in the way of the kind of real-time connectivity with growers that has driven advances in specialty coffee elsewhere. The production model itself is also a challenge: farms extremely small in scale, located in especially remote and hard-to-reach mountain communities present significant obstacles to development and outsized risk for anyone looking to engage. Furthermore, most farmers in Yemen are working in relative isolation and have not been exposed to technologies or strategies for managing quality. Most still cultivate and process coffee in a manner that has endured with little change for centuries, and are largely unaware of all the transformations that have taken place in the quality coffee marketplace.  What little coffee makes it off the farms with most of its quality intact gets mixed with dozens of other, less attractive coffees before ever leaving the country. If a lot of fine coffee ever manages to run the gauntlet and make it into the hands of a quality-focused roaster, it usually comes bearing no verifiable connection to those who grew it and so degraded in quality as a result of age and exposure to damaging environmental conditions that whatever made it exciting in the first place is a distant memory: quality lost in an unfortunate vapor trail, with just a trace of quality remaining to tease us with the thought of what it might have been and to keep us chasing the ghost.

For nearly two decades I’ve looked forward to the day that we could roast and serve a Yemeni coffee that met our standards for quality and traceability. The potential is tantalizing. Yemen boasts heirloom coffee types that exist nowhere else on Earth.  They are grown in near desert-like conditions at extreme elevations under improbable conditions, but have somehow manage to survive for centuries against long odds. These ancient trees have adapted and learned to live in an especially inhospitable habitat, and the seed they yield is the product of environmental stressors unlike those anywhere else in the coffeelands.

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Today, Yemen is a stage set for old stories and new: the resumption of the romantic tale of the genesis of the coffee trade born of the collision of cultures, and a new narrative of creation centered on exhilarating and utterly unique flavors. The new Yemeni coffee story bridges a fascinating history with a hopeful future. It is a story of discovery and risk, persistence and extraordinary effort, the story of one man who went looking to reconnect with his own heritage and unlock some of the latent potential he knew existed in the country of his birth.  

Mokhtar Alkhanshali fell in love with an idea: he believed that he could play a role in helping to bring Yemeni coffee back to prominence and, in doing so, create new opportunity for thousands of farmers in his homeland for whom growing coffee was an intensely meaningful part of life, but not a meaningful source of income.   Mokhtar traveled to Yemen and spent years building relationships and laying the groundwork that would allow him to awaken an industry that had drifted into a state of dormancy and reveal the unique quality of Yemeni coffee to a new global market following decades of isolation.

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Not unlike Yemen’s coffee trees, which managed to bear mouthwatering fruit despite exceptionally challenging conditions, Mokhtar himself overcame profound odds to bring delicious coffees from a forgotten origin to a generation of coffee lovers who never had the chance to know them.    

Thanks to Mokhtar’s efforts and those of his dedicated team, great Yemeni coffee is no longer the stuff myth.  Today it is a spectacular, unforgettable experience within our reach that provides a visceral link back to the ancient origins of the coffee industry. Bravo!

This coffee is now available for pre-order HERE.  Orders received by 3 pm on Friday, 2 February will roast and ship on Monday, 5 February.  If we have any coffee left after that, we will fulfill web orders weekly on Wednesdays.

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THE STORY

Geoff alludes to the “profound odds” Mokhtar overcame to get his coffee business off the ground.  That ordinary language obscures an extraordinary ordeal: a harrowing episode during one of Mokhtar’s early sourcing visits in which he found himself trapped by civil war in Yemen’s capital and cut off from his contacts at the U.S. Embassy.  He navigated his way to the coast and arranged a cinematic escape by boat across the Red Sea.  Despite the peril, Mokhtar found time for a selfie as he sped to safety.

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We weren’t the only ones spellbound by Mokhtar’s story.  The award-winning writer Dave Eggers tells Mokhtar’s story in a new book released today and titled Monk of Mokha.

From the publisher:

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We are delighted to offer copies of Monk of Mohka signed by Mokhtar and the author, Dave Eggers, HERE.
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Fazenda Progresso, Sim!

From James McLaughlin, Intelligentsia President and Green Coffee Buyer for Brazil:

Meaningful collaboration between a coffee farmer and a coffee roaster is still a relatively new concept.

Farmers have spent years—sometimes generations—developing farming and post-harvest practices that reflect the climate, geography and traditions of the regions where they live.  Roasters, on the other hand, travel to farms all over the world.   We have the opportunity to see growing practices and processing systems that have been adopted in dramatically different contexts and taste the impacts those differences make on coffee flavor.

Increasingly, we are seeing an interest among the farmers we work with in sharing their own practices and learning from one another.  But this only happens with the kind of deep trust that develops over years of working together and treating each other as partners.  This year’s edition of Agua Preta exemplifies that spirit of collaboration.

Fazenda Progresso has been an Intelligentsia Direct Trade partner for the past five years, and is a familiar name to anyone who enjoys our Black Cat Espresso blend.  Located in the Chapada Diamantina region of Bahia, the 700-hectare farm sits on a plateau 1,150 meters above sea level.  The farm’s infrastructure was meticulously designed and is well cared for, with a robust quality control program led by the experienced cupper Ednaldo Nascimento.  Producer Fabiano Borré embodies the type of forward-thinking, quality-focused entrepreneur leading the specialty coffee revolution in Brazil.

For the last few years, Fabiano and I have talked about the success other farms have had with  micro-lot programs, innovative drying practices and the infrastructure needed to support it.  We’ve shared ideas and pored over countless photos of the post-harvest processing centers we work with around the world.  This year, Fabiano rolled out a micro-lot program that is a worthy model for other farms across Brazil and beyond.

Fabiano’s data-driven approach is based on advanced analysis of environmental data (think rainfall, nutrition, diurnal temperature ranges) from each of the coffee plots on Fazenda Progresso to identify those with the highest quality potential.  Armed with that information, Fabiano deploys a group of trained pickers who select only red cherry.  The crates of red, ripe cherries are not what you commonly see in Brazil and, quite honestly, would be right at home on farms in countries known for the quality of their harvesting like El Salvador or Ethiopia.

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James McLaughlin, Intelligentsia President and Green Coffee Buyer for Brazil (left) and Fabiano Borré of Fazenda Progresso review day lots from this year’s harvest.

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After processing the cherry, the coffee is delivered to raised beds arrayed in a brand new drying greenhouse.  The design of the structure was inspired by photos I shared with Fabiano of a similar installation used by one of our partners in Costa Rica, but he made several upgrades that substantially improve airflow and drying efficiency.  His quality team regularly monitors the temperature and humidity of the raised beds to ensure a slow and uniform drying process.  On average, the coffee dries on the bed for 15 days.

This year, Fabiano went all-in with this incredible drying program.  He also has a team sorting the parchment as it dries, just like you’d find in East African countries.  By removing cracked parchment during the drying process, Fabiano ensures the uniformity of the lots he offers.

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The results of Fabiano’s micro-lot program are plainly evident on the cupping table.  During my visit, I tasted 12 gorgeous samples that had a clarity of flavor and cleanliness that would have been unimaginable just a year earlier.  It would seem that I wasn’t the only cupper impressed by the improvements, as Fazenda Progresso placed 20th in Brazil’s Cup of Excellence competition for pulped naturals this year.

After cupping through numerous samples from Fabiano’s micro-lot program, we purchased the sweetest, cleanest most complex coffee we could find: a 50-bag lot harvested over one week in mid-August on the Manuela parcel of the farm.  We are delighted to present a coffee that represents the very best of Brazil, and we look forward to many more years of collaborating with Fabiano and the Fazenda Progresso team.

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Click here for more detailed information or to purchase this lot, the first in our 2018 Agua Preta Brasil lineup.

Closing the Books on 2017

We have closed the books on 2017.  It was, in our estimation, a very good year for our sourcing program.

This issue of Axioma, the curated data set that tells the story of Intelligentsia Direct Trade in numbers, shows where we went in 2017.  Literally.

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Our seven-strong sourcing team took 19 trips to 14 countries in 2017 and logged nearly a quarter-million miles visiting dozens of our Direct Trade partners to plan for coming seasons, taste current harvests and celebrate past ones.  Our Quality Control team backed all that field work with a feverish year in the lab, where they cupped thousands of lots during hundreds of sessions.  The results of all that work were embodied in the 51 single-origin lots we released in 2017, including three winning Cup of Excellence lots from growers who are part of our Direct Trade network.

We also convened our Direct Trade partners from around the world for the ninth straight year when we brought them to San Francisco in September for our Extraordinary Coffee Workshop, where more than three-quarters of a millennium of coffee experience was brought to bear on the four-day event that has become the highlight of our year in sourcing.

The story our 2017 Year-in-Review Axioma tells is a compelling one, but what it does not say is where we are going.  While there is no certainty about what 2018 will bring, we are preparing for an exciting year.

We believe that the best growers are renovating their farms constantly, and the best buyers should be no different.  In almost every country where we sourced coffee in 2017, we are actively engaged in efforts to renovate our sourcing program by reinvigorating existing relationships, actively building exciting new ones, or both.  In 2017, we sourced more than four-fifths of all our coffee from Direct Trade relationships more than five years old and nearly two-fifths from relationships more than 10 years old.  As we look forward, we will build on that solid foundation while folding new partners into the mix to diversify our menu and grow our purchases.

We are redoubling our commitment to quality in ways you will see (deeper engagement with the Cup of Excellence in 2018) and ways you won’t (tightening our QC protocols internally) that will position our sourcing program to bring you the kinds of coffees you won’t forget about easily.

We will expand our efforts to measure the impacts of our sourcing program on social inclusion, economic profitability and environmental conservation, even as we invest in projects to drive positive impacts to smallholder growers: we are proud to partner with Root Capital and USAID to bring our ECW model to smallholders Colombia in 2018.  Our forthcoming ECWx format will be to our annual ECW event what TEDx is to TED.

All of these efforts will position us to grow in 2018 and help us begin to test the limits of the scalability of Direct Trade with one of the oldest and deepest DT programs in the coffee sector.