Two Entrepreneurs Set Out for War-Torn Yemen in Search of a Brew That Could Change Coffee Drinking Forever

NicholsonEXPAND
Nicholson
Courtesy Andrew Nicholson

The small fishing boat carrying two Americans and a local captain bounced and skidded across the choppy waves of the Red Sea. As they sped away from Yemen toward the African nation of Djibouti, Andrew Nicholson and Mokhtar Alkhanshali kept a close eye on the heavy suitcases they had tucked away beneath a protective blue tarp. Inside was the cargo they had driven for seven hours, past Houthi rebel checkpoints and Saudi Arabian airstrikes, to bring back to the United States: ninety kilos of Yemeni coffee beans.

The beans were destined for appraisal at the annual Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA) conference in Washington State later that same month. If they won favor with buyers and critics, it would be a crucial step in restoring Yemen's coffee legacy — not to mention validating the years the two men had spent scouring the war-torn nation for forgotten varieties. It would also mean New York consumers would be some of the first in the country to taste the exotic product — local roaster Mike Love of Coffee Labs in Tarrytown had a date with Nicholson and Alkhanshali in Seattle to sample their newly imported wares for purchase.

First, though, the pair had to make it through a multi-hour trip in a twenty-foot skiff across the twenty-mile strait of the Bab-el-Mandeb, or "gateway of grief," without navigational equipment. Facing violent waves and a waterway stalked by Somali pirates, Nicholson and Alkhanshali could only hope their cargo would end up in American coffee drinkers' cups, and not at the bottom of the sea.

Andrew Nicholson and crew with the boat in which they escaped Yemen with their precious coffee beans
Andrew Nicholson and crew with the boat in which they escaped Yemen with their precious coffee beans
Courtesy Andrew Nicholson

The thousands of coffee varieties in existence today originated in Ethiopia, but they were first commercially cultivated across the Red Sea in the Yemeni port of Mocha. This distinction lives on not just in the city's namesake bean variety but in the name of an entire coffee species — arabica — which represents over three-quarters of all beans grown today. By the fifteenth century, Yemeni Sufis had adopted the beverage for use in all-night religious ceremonies, earning it the moniker "the wine of Islam." (Qahwa, the Arabic word for wine, eventually found its way into English as "coffee.")

Eager to maintain a monopoly on this alluring drink, the Arabs of Yemen prohibited the sale and distribution of live coffee seeds or seedlings, preventing the plant's cultivation abroad for several centuries. It was only when the neighboring Ottoman Turks invaded the peninsula that coffee began to spread, through trade to Constantinople and the port of Vienna. In the early seventeenth century, the Dutch visited Mocha and smuggled out fertile seeds, eventually introducing coffee into Indonesia and other Dutch colonies that offered hospitable climates. By the eighteenth century, every major civilization in the world had sampled the liquid stimulant.

Yet despite its legacy as the founder of cultivated coffee, Yemen has seen its output decline for decades; in 2014 the country did not rank among the world's top thirty coffee-exporting countries. Officially, Yemen's Ministry of Agriculture states that coffee is still the nation's most important cash crop. But an insidious agricultural adversary has swept through the country: narcotics farming.

Chewing qat, a native plant that acts as a mild stimulant, is legal in Yemen. The addictive practice embraced by Yemeni men has become so ubiquitous that the nation now has seven qat farms for every coffee farm, according to Alkhanshali, founder of the Yemen-based specialty coffee export company Mocha Mill. He explains how, drawn to qat's rapid growth, simpler processing, and faster profits, "farmers have replaced coffee trees with qat plants."

Not only does qat farming compete with coffee for arable land, it also consumes what is for Yemen a far scarcer commodity: water. Yemen's annual average rainfall is among the lowest in the world, and certainly the lowest for any coffee-producing country. "Yemen faces one of the greatest water crises on the planet," says Alkhanshali.

Unfortunately, industry obstacles don't end with qat. Yemeni growers have also developed bad habits, such as picking cherries — the coffee fruit that contains the "bean," actually a seed — far too early, without regard for ripeness. Most growers don't drink coffee themselves and aren't worried about maintaining quality standards, knowing they enjoy a ready market in neighboring Saudi Arabia. Saudis regard Yemeni coffee as the world's best irrespective of quality; Alkhanshali notes with disdain that they consider it "even better if a round of AK-47 ammunition gets thrown in with the bag." Craig Holt, founder of Seattle-based Atlas Coffee Importers, calls the exports drunk by Saudis "inconsistent, gamy, and even gnarly."

Improving Yemen's coffee industry has fallen to local coffee advocates, in particular Ali Aldiwani, who serves as coffee project officer for the Small and Micro-Enterprise Promotion Service, a program launched with government backing to promote small-business startups. Aldiwani provides farmers with education on proper agricultural practices to help them raise the quality of their product (and thus the global profile of Yemeni coffee), improve their income and lives, and halt the spread of qat.

Teaching technique to thousands of small landowners is a laborious process, and Aldiwani can't easily reach his audience. "We offered a training course for nearly 600 farmers in the Bura Mountains," he says, where "there are more than 5 million coffee trees in that area alone." Yemen's unique terrain of vertiginous mountains and sinuous terraces makes it a beautiful but challenging environment to work in, so Aldiwani published an instruction booklet to distribute to remote farmers and agronomists. It includes pictures of ripe versus unripe cherries, along with guidelines on drying and storing beans to address the culture of treating coffee as currency.

"Farmers would dry the cherries, then stuff bags of beans in the kitchen or bathroom, sometimes for years, and when they needed money, they'd pull some out and sell it," explains Holt. Other problematic practices include processing exotic spices like cardamom in the same mill used for beans and blending Yemeni coffee with lower-quality beans from countries like Vietnam.

With the deck seemingly stacked against this poorest of Middle Eastern nations, pursuing a coffee business in Yemen is "an uphill battle," says Matt Swenson, director of U.S. operations at New York's own Nobletree Coffee, which plans to open a roastery and tasting room in Red Hook in early 2016. Still, he adds, "I can unequivocally say that Yemen's coffee is one of the most identifiable and unique profiles in the world."

Holt agrees: "Yemeni coffee is exotic, beautiful, and very complex. It comes from heirloom strains of the coffee plant which are unique in the world, and it has great cachet in terms of its history and the trade."

The rugged terrain of Yemen
The rugged terrain of Yemen
Courtesy Mokhtar Alkhanshali

Many people now in the coffee industry, Nicholson observes, start out "addicted to good coffee and end up in the business." He's no exception, having gotten his start as a fervent coffee consumer. "One night, about six years ago, I was sitting around with Sean Marshall, a local roaster and owner of Southside Espresso in Houston," he recalls. "He was the one who taught me to cup and identify good coffees, by the way. He got me hooked." They were discussing Marshall's forthcoming wholesale business when Nicholson's background in the Middle East cropped up. "Marshall explained Yemen's history and jokingly suggested I go and get samples."

It was not as unreasonable a suggestion as it might have sounded. Though born and raised on Toledo Bend Lake in Louisiana, Nicholson had spent a year and a half at an Arabic-language school in Yemen in the mid-Aughts. He had developed a deep affinity for the country and its people, all while gaining a cultural fluency that would later aid in his work as a liaison for American companies conducting business in the region.

When Marshall broached the idea of sourcing beans in Yemen, the country was a "black box," according to Nicholson. Thanks to decades of insurgencies and civil wars, he says, "nobody knew what was going on over there. But I liked the idea that we could have the only direct trade agreement in the world with Yemeni coffee growers. I found the idea amusing at first, but I took it seriously, and the next morning I woke up and decided to go."

Nicholson says he spent a month and a half "bouncing around the mountains in a Land Cruiser, meeting farmers and getting a handle on how things were done." He returned to the States with unhulled beans, not wanting to rely on local mills that were too often compromised by the processing of other organic materials. Marshall and Nicholson spent the next two years researching Yemen's potential in the American market and visiting mills in other countries to determine how the business could work. Finally confident in the concept of opening a modern mill to process and export quality coffee, Nicholson relocated his entire family — including two daughters and a son, all under ten — to the mountains of Yemen to open Rayaan Coffee Mill, leaving business partners Marshall and Michael Cox behind to run operations in the States.

Culture shock was only the first of their impediments. The mill opened in early 2011, not long after a protester against the Tunisian government self-immolated, setting off the Arab Spring, which led to a popular uprising against the government in Yemen. Nicholson persevered, spending the next couple of years building relationships with farmers and communities, careful to maintain separation in the regionally distinct micro-lots he collected, bucking the industry norm of blending them all in bulk.

Nicholson's process comes with high costs, but he insists the results are worth it. "One of my favorite micro-lots tastes like sage and a satsuma orange from Louisiana," he says. "To get this coffee, we head into the Hajjah province by car. The road ends. We walk three hours to pick up the coffee from the farmer and walk back three hours to the car. The harder they are to get, the better they taste."

By focusing on cup quality, Nicholson believes he can improve not just global coffee culture, but the future of Yemen. "I don't think specialty coffee is complete without Yemen," he says. "The country played too important a role in the world to not be involved. Second, the more money we bring into the country, the more we improve the lives of its people. We stand to help everyone in the supply chain, from the farmer to the end user."

In the U.S., Yemen is perhaps best known as the site of Al Qaeda's attack on the USS Cole, which was bombed in the Yemeni port of Aden in 2000, killing seventeen American sailors. Nicholson regrets the press coverage that paints Yemen as a terrorist state in chaos rather than one filled with dignified human beings. "Yemenis are not our enemies," he says. "The Yemeni are the most hospitable, generous, and honorable people that I've ever met."

He tells of a local shoe salesman who, upon learning of Nicholson's difficulties securing a wire transfer, loaned him the equivalent of a year's income on a handshake deal. It was an exceptional gesture in a nation where half the population lives below the poverty line, a number that continues to rise amid the current conflict. "As a foreigner coming in to start a local business, it wasn't stress-free, but they helped me do it with ease, aiding me through a number of difficult periods."

Yemen's primary insurgent group has been the Houthis, a group not aligned with Al Qaeda that carried out a ten-year clash with the Yemeni government of president Ali Abdullah Saleh, who was backed by Saudi Arabia and the U.S. The Arab Spring demonstrations of 2011 eventuated in Saleh's resignation after 33 years in power and a political transition agreement that included a new constitution and national elections.

By 2014, the new government was verging on collapse, with Houthi forces again mobilizing, this time to overthrow Saleh's successor, his former vice president Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi. It was an inopportune year to open a business, let alone one dedicated to developing some of the finest, rarest coffees in the world in an area where the climate, farm practices, and economics already conspired against it, but that's exactly what Mokhtar Alkhanshali did.

Alkhanshali overlooking coffee growing on mountain terraces in YemenEXPAND
Alkhanshali overlooking coffee growing on mountain terraces in Yemen
Courtesy Mokhtar Alkhanshali

Alkhanshali was working behind a desk in San Francisco when he received the sign that would bring him back to his homeland and into the coffee business. His office building on the waterfront Embarcadero sat fortuitously adjacent to the former factory of Hills Brothers, which first introduced vacuum-packed coffee cans in the late nineteenth century. Looking out the window, Alkhanshali identified a statue of "the Taster," the turbaned man who appeared on the first Hills Brothers cans. "This statue is of a Yemeni," Alkhanshali realized. His own family had a coffee-farming legacy that stretched back nine generations, and his parents, both born in Yemen, returned often with Alkhanshali during his childhood. He could remember picking red cherries with his grandmother on their farm in Ibb in the center of the country, an area he has now come to know as home to the oldest cultivated coffees in the world.

With guidance from mentor Willem Boot, founder and CEO of Boot Coffee in Mill Valley, California, and co-author of a 2013 U.S. Agency for International Development study on Yemeni coffee, Alkhanshali immersed himself in the drink's world, starting with becoming the first person of Yemeni heritage to pass the rigorous Q Grader examination to become a certified taste tester. In May 2014, arming himself with nineteenth-century Arabian textbooks and maps, along with USAID and CQI reports, he set out by car and foot to visit 32 coffee-producing regions in Yemen.

At first, Alkhanshali had difficulty finding active sites. Some areas had ceased producing coffee decades prior; others were remote and inaccessible by road, often requiring grueling, days-long hikes up steep mountains and into valleys only to find nothing. Alkhanshali redeemed all the fruitless efforts, however, stumbling upon what he describes as an "unmapped paradise covered in terraces full of coffee. I would meet farmers who had lived there their entire lives, using coffee to buy what they needed."

Undeterred by some rather harrowing encounters, including eleven separate ambushes, Alkhanshali returned to the U.S. convinced of Yemen's caffeinated future. He named his company Mocha Mill, in honor of the famed port town, setting as his goal to source and export the highest-quality specialty-grade coffee he could find while paying farmers a higher price for it than they could receive in Saudi Arabia. In just a year, Alkhanshali's focus on micro-lots and traceability, relationship-building and farmer training, and the establishment of a reliable supply chain had yielded results: His beans were regularly ranked at the top of the specialty range by roasters and professionals around the world.

Inevitably, Alkhanshali and Nicholson crossed paths. As exporters, they are technically competitors, but as the only two in the country working toward similar goals under a shared ethos, they've teamed up on numerous projects. For example, Nicholson, whose facility in the capital city of Sanaa is the best in the country, dry-mills Alkhanshali's coffees.

In late March of 2015, having worked into the night at Nicholson's site, Alkhanshali decided to sleep over. At around 2:30 a.m. he awoke to thunderous explosions. Outside, the night sky was filled with antiaircraft fire. Saudi Arabian airstrikes had begun against Houthi strongholds. The next morning, he tried to book the first departing flight, but the civilian airports had been bombed and a no-fly zone was in effect. By daylight, he recalls, "the scene looked like something out of a Michael Bay movie. A storage facility near the mill had been struck by a bomb."

Informed by the American government that there would be no support for U.S. citizens to evacuate, Alkhanshali and Nicholson weighed their options. Both were resolved to get to the SCAA conference in Seattle — they'd set up meetings with buyers and paid for a booth. Missing the event could prove devastating for their fledgling businesses. But Nicholson was uncomfortable with the idea of heading south to the port city of Aden, a major conflict area. Instead, Alkhanshali went alone to seek passage on a Greek ship. Armed popular committees fighting the Houthis in Aden took him prisoner on the way. "They accused me of being a Houthi sabotager," he says. "I was blindfolded and thrown into the nastiest and dirtiest place I've ever physically been in, with crazy people and criminals." Several times, Alkhanshali thought he was about to die: "I literally saw someone being executed and they told me I was next."

Fortunately, Nicholson spotted a news report that included interviews conducted earlier that day with Alkhanshali and another Yemeni American stranded in the country, Bronx native Summer Nasser. Nicholson contacted Nasser through Facebook; it turned out she knew the right people to extricate Alkhanshali from incarceration. "Summer contacted the owner of a hotel in Aden who was well connected with the southern popular committee militias and a leader in his area of the city," Alkhanshali says. "He came and was able to arrange for me to be released and covertly taken out of the city."

While imprisoned, Alkhanshali had conceived of an alternate exit strategy, one that seemed entirely appropriate, even poetic: departing through the old port of Mocha, once the capital of coffee. "I heard a few guards talking about ships coming in and out of Mocha with cattle from Djibouti," he says. Upon release, he returned to Sanaa, where he linked up with Nicholson. Precious beans in tow, the duo embarked on an all-night drive through pitch-black mountains and valleys. Alkhanshali initially tracked down a commerce ship that could transport a hundred people, almost all Somalis and Djiboutians, but it was out of diesel, and a resupply could take days. Instead, the pair hastily decided to attempt to cross the Red Sea under the guide of a fisherman, in a tiny boat running a forty-horsepower engine.

The trip across the Strait of Grief lasted seven anxiety-ridden hours. After finally disembarking in Djibouti, Alkhanshali and Nicholson untucked their luggage. Their samples represented a year's worth of toil and would soon begin generating buzz among the coffee cognoscenti — who learned, by way of reports on NPR and elsewhere, about their dramatic voyage and impending arrival at the year's largest coffee exposition.

Nicholson cupping the boat-trip coffee on the south side of Houston. (That’s “Hyoo-stun,” the city in Texas. Not “How-stun,” the street.)
Nicholson cupping the boat-trip coffee on the south side of Houston. (That’s “Hyoo-stun,” the city in Texas. Not “How-stun,” the street.)
Courtesy Andrew Nicholson

Each April, the SCAA puts on its annual show, drawing more than 10,000 attendees, over 35 percent of whom arrive from overseas. One of the best ways for a particular coffee to gain credibility and exposure is to be tested in that forum via a century-old tasting procedure known as "cupping." Following a ritualistic, formal set of noisy slurps and spoon-tapping, testers rank each coffee on a 100-point scale, with the term "specialty" reserved for coffees that receive 80 points or higher.

Andrew Hetzel, an SCAA board member and instructor and adviser to over 35 nations, ran the Yemeni cupping at the 2015 convention in Seattle, later describing it on Twitter as a "historic day for Yemen coffee." Coffee Labs owner Love, also in attendance, got his first taste of the suitcase samples. "On the aroma alone, it sparked great interest," he recalls. "After tasting it, I knew I needed it to be in my coffee lineup. The flavors were amazing: stone fruits, honey, vanilla, a semi-sweet chocolate undertone, and floral notes. We have customers waiting for it based on my report." (Love's order, placed last spring and long delayed due to the war, is now finally sailing across the Atlantic. It is scheduled to be available to curious New Yorkers in late December.)

The seeming impossibility of the coffee also helped convert Love. "This stuff grows in some of the steepest, most dangerous terrain," he explains. "In the last couple weeks, there was a bombing in the region. It is important to support the farmers so that this growing area isn't lost and the farmers don't lose income. Despite everything going on in Yemen, they still produce amazing, notable coffees."

Nicholson returned to Yemen following the SCAA conference, enduring a voyage that involved a sandstorm in Dubai, airport closings, and another crossing of the strait from Djibouti, this time a twenty-hour trip on a livestock ship carrying two dozen Yemenis and three cows. "I had to be there for quality control. I had orders to fulfill," explains Nicholson, who also points out he had left behind his wife and children for nearly a month while attending the show and customer meetings.

As a foreigner, Nicholson is prohibited (for his safety) from leaving the city of Sanaa, but even in the capital he deals with many peripheral effects of armed conflict. "Early on, the north fared better than the south," he says. "Down there, they are fighting a ground war. But now, Saudi coalition airstrikes have increased around the city, and we are enduring a food crisis and a fuel crisis. Anything you need, there's a crisis of it, except for people who are hungry and want to go to work." His mill, running on a generator for two months, is still operational, although Nicholson skated through a couple of close calls. "On a daily basis, the mill shakes," he says. "A few bombs were near enough to blow off our doors and shatter windows."

Nicholson eventually shepherded his family back to Houston, where they will remain until the war ends or circumstances improve, though he himself plans to return to Yemen in a few weeks. Alkhanshali is in Europe, where he has been giving lectures on how to create a supply chain in a fragile country, marketing both his and Nicholson's coffees, and planning a possible New York City tasting in December.

During their initial Red Sea crossing, Nicholson recalls, he and Alkhanshali "discussed the future — how we hope, when we are old men, we can look back and see Yemen's entire economy changed due to coffee, when the country will no longer be misunderstood or solely affiliated with terrorism. Our grand goal is to make Yemen famous for coffee again."

Alkhanshali with some locals and ripened arabica beans
Alkhanshali with some locals and ripened arabica beans
Courtesy Mokhtar Alkhanshali

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