Why This Coffee Sourcer Risked His Life to Travel to Yemen


Last December in Yemen, an American photojournalist held hostage by Al Qaeda was killed during an attempted rescue mission by U.S. Special Forces. Less than two weeks later, a bomb killed over a dozen schoolchildren on a bus. In early January, an explosion at the police academy in Yemen’s capital took several lives. And last weekend, two French citizens were arrested on charges of being members of Al Qaeda. The U.S. State Department, not surprisingly, characterizes the security threat level in Yemen as “extremely high,” and months earlier had urged all U.S. citizens to depart the country immediately.

Yet Matt Swenson, director of sourcing, education, and quality control at the coffee company Nobletree, was undeterred by the State Department warning, and, perhaps justifying the risk through some curious calculus of the mind, found himself on a 31-hour flight pattern (which in itself could be considered crazy) from New York to Yemen on the same day as the rescue mission. Swenson’s life-risking mission? Tasting coffees from one of the founding countries in the history of the beverage.

Coffee in Yemen? You’ve probably never even seen a bag of beans from the southernmost country on the Arabian Peninsula. However, the country factors heavily in the history of coffee, in propagating its export to India, North Africa, and the Middle East, as well as cultivating Ethiopian heirlooms, which survived despite the inhospitable low rainfall. Only 25 miles across the gulf from East Africa, the birthplace of coffee, Yemen’s historic port of Mocha served as the world’s chief coffee marketplace for centuries. En route to Asia in the thirteenth century, Marco Polo purchased coffee in Lebanon that was stocked from Mocha. Today, the word “mocha” means chocolate-infused coffee to most, but that was a European transmogrification.

All that history is what drove our modern-day Indiana Jones to risk his life for your daily three dollars and fifty cents. Not that Swenson didn’t find it a harrowing experience. Just to get to Yemen, he had to undergo a rigorous visa approval process. Then there was his arrival: “As we approached checkpoints, there were men with AK-47s with big Arabic signs plastered everywhere,” he says. “When I asked what it read, they stated: ‘God is Great, Death to America, Death to Israel, Curse on the Jews, Victory to Islam.’ ” Swenson isn’t an expatriate, nor a globetrotter; he’s just as likely to be found in Red Hook as near the Red Sea, especially given Nobletree’s ambitious plans for the NYC coffee market.

Nobletree has an unusual business model in that it owns two relatively large coffee farms in Brazil. This requires Swenson to wear different hats depending on the source of coffee he is selecting. If it’s from Nobletree’s own farms, he functions much like the head winemaker at an estate vineyard — he’s in charge of quality control. He tastes every lot of coffee produced in-house and traces this to specific sub-areas of the farm. That means control over processing details (picking and drying times, storage conditions, etc.) and the ability to adjust variables that influence the final product. He’s proud of the results. “We always call the coffee from our farms comfort food,” he says. “It’s big, sweet, delicious, and, most importantly, approachable. I’m a buyer with access to almost any coffee in the world, and our farm coffees have a permanent spot in my kitchen.”

However, when he dons his other hat, as director of sourcing, he travels the world to remote areas that can sustain coffee — the equatorial and subtropical regions, at elevations over 3,000 feet, even beyond a mile up.

Swenson didn’t get his start due to an outsized sense of adventure. His first related job was at a coffee drive-thru while in high school. Eventually, he worked his way through myriad roles, from barista to sales to roasting to president of a small coffee company. He became a Q grader (a certified coffee taster and evaluator; someone who can parse out a flavor note among coffee’s 800-plus flavor compounds while most of us aren’t thinking much more complicated than “that taste’s bold and strong”).

Perhaps the fortuitous turn in his career was heading to Queens to join fellow future Nobletree executives at Dallis Brothers, experiences which prepared them for their current ambitious undertaking. Even today, with more regions developing and improving their coffee production, a coffee buyer who sources from around the world spends more time hashing out standard business issues than chasing down exotic sources. Swenson says, “It’s far more important for a coffee buyer to understand the company’s inventory position, generate accurate projections, and manage financial risk effectively than it is to manage an Instagram feed.”

Among some of the other key factors in finding and bringing the world’s best coffee to New York, Swenson had a few things to say about the following:

Building relationships: “As a buyer, I sometimes purposefully view coffee production with a slightly pessimistic approach. I believe that once a coffee cherry has been picked, the quality has peaked. The coffee cannot improve from that moment — it can only be maintained if, and only if, 100 different influential variables are executed with precision. We spend a great deal of energy to find like-minded, quality-focused producer partners that take not only pride in their craft, but also truly understand what we are looking for in their coffee.”

Understanding the producing regions: “Similar to wine, coffee has general country/tasting profiles to guide people. However, in recent years, and most notably in the specialty markets, those old-school suggestions don’t always hold true. All Brazil[ian coffees] don’t have to taste like chocolate and nuts. All Sumatras don’t have a ‘fresh forest floor’ profile. As a specialty buyer, I’m more interested in the average rainfall and diurnal temperature, along with altitude and latitude of a specific micro-region. Once that passes, I’ll focus on genetics, best practices, and cup quality.”

Investing in inventory: “When buying a container of coffee [around 20 tons], you have to pay anywhere from $80,000 to $250,000, depending on the quality of the coffee. Typically, you’ll have to pay that right when the coffee hits the water, which ties that money up for sometimes months before you even receive it, let alone roast it and sell it.”

Moving coffee from a third-world country to your local coffee shop: “Much of the most prized coffee comes from the highest altitudes. As you can imagine, these areas are not very accessible and they are usually not flourishing economically either…This always proves to be the hardest part about buying coffee ‘direct.’ With specialty, we like to complicate things. Instead of buying 320 bags of one coffee in one container…I will want to buy ten bags of a really delicious coffee. Another roaster will buy twenty of another, and so on. One poor soul that knows us all has to wait on each and every one of us, compile, organize, and then absorb the financial risk for us. This usually results in huge delays and multiple headaches.”

Swenson is also focused on being at the forefront of new trends — or forging his own. It’s what led him to one of the more dangerous locations in the world. “I expect to see some of the larger companies looking into emerging specialty-coffee-producing countries,” he says. “Places like Uganda, Congo, Taiwan, China, where production is either new or quality has been suffering. Buyers are going to look ahead and start to build relationships where an undiscovered value can still be found. Did I mention I just got back from a development trip to Yemen, working on this exact type of thing?”