To learn more about Yemen as a coffee origin and what makes it so special, we did a Q&A with Sheba coffee.
Hello! Please tell us a bit about the company, its history and your role.
Our name, Sheba Coffee, is inspired by the ancient land of Sheba where Queen Sheba once ruled. A queen and a land recognised by historians and recorded within the three main world religions of Christianity, Judaism and Islam. This same land, which covered most of today’s Ethiopia and Yemen, is the same land from which Arabica coffee and the coffee drink itself originated. Most academics agree that the birthplace of the wild coffee plant is from an area which is known today as Sudan. Historians and academics also agree that the consumption of coffee cherries was first recorded in Ethiopia. However, the earliest recorded history of the Birthplace of coffee as a drink is Yemen. This is where it all started, the propagation and spread of coffee as the drink we know today.
Sheba was established in 2019 with the merger of three green-coffee exporters from Yemen and transferred its Head Quarters to London. The company was established as a vehicle to all Yemeni coffee farmers and farming communities. Its purpose is to support, grow and sustain the coffee industry in Yemen.
The Sheba Coffee team have their roots embedded in Yemen. The founders are from Yemen and we have a local team dedicated to sourcing, drying and processing our coffee. We work directly with farmers to ensure ethical trade practices are employed. We aim to connect these skilled farmers with a global network of buyers, investing in the infrastructure they need to succeed and work in partnerships to deliver socio-economic progress.
Myself, I am one of the founding members of Sheba Coffee but we like to think of ourselves as a “founding team”. I am responsible for finding a good home for our coffee, and other members of the founding team are in charge of other activities from managing social programs to the sourcing of our coffee directly from the farmers in Yemen. With this setup, we find that we can all give our full attention to the different activities required in such an operation.
Within Yemen we work with more than 3,000 small, family-owned farms, some covering less than 100 square meters. You have to remember that Yemen is a mountainous land and at the high altitudes in which coffee grows, there is hardly any flat land. Most coffee in Yemen is grown on ancient hand built terraces. Some of these growing regions are extremely remote, so remote in fact that sometimes we have to use camels and donkeys to transport the coffee to the nearest main road.
If someone is trying coffee from Yemen for the first time - what should they look out for? Are there any general taste characteristics that make it different from other coffee origins?Personally, and this is only a personal opinion, I would say they should expect a fruity flavour. By this I mean, something between coffee and tea with a hint of “what is that”. Yemeni coffee feels natural, the caffeine content does not feel or taste overwhelming hence why the sweet flavours are more pronounced. Most Yemeni
coffee plants are what most people would consider “wild coffee”, a plant which receives less than half the recommended rainfall which forces its roots to squeeze every last bit of nutrients from the soil and surrounding terrace rocks to produce a cherry with a concentrated flavour. It will taste wild, natural, welcomed and never feels like you’ve had too much. It’s a pleasure which every coffee drinker has to experience. I am one of a few people who has the opportunity to try such great coffee from so many different regions within Yemen. I wish to bring that experience to the wider coffee world.
What role does coffee have in the Yemeni culture and everyday life? How is coffee consumed in Yemen? And the wider Middle East, versus the UK?Since the discovery of the coffee drink within Yemen, Coffee has engraved itself within the Yemeni culture in many ways. It is part of our history, and we are part of its history. It has a place within our music and art, our souls and livelihoods as we grow this ancient crop. We ancestors pass stories of it, and we try to revive, maintain and expand it. Because of Yemen, Coffee is an integral part of the middle eastern and Turkish culture. It is served within these regions in many forms as an integral part of their culture.
Although coffee is consumed within Yemen, I would say a more popular drink is “Kishr” also known as coffee cascara. This drink is made from the skin of the coffee which in many ways is a much lighter version of coffee. Historically, when the Ottoman Empire ruled Yemen, coffee was exported all over the world and only the coffee skin was locally available to drink hence the creation of the coffee cascara drink which is still very popular today.
Since the third wave of coffee began and Speciality coffee has a place within the world, the specialty Yemeni Coffee scene has grown also. Yemeni coffee drank in a V60 brings out many of the sought after flavours. As the speciality industry grows, we find the interest for Yemeni coffee is being revived. There is much relatively new demand from the far east in countries such as China which are traditionally tea-drinking nations. With the new generation exploring new beverages, Speciality coffee seems to have found a sweet spot.
Can you tell us about the Al Mahjr, Al Hayma coffee lot that we are roasting here at 39 Steps Coffee, and what makes it so special?Within Al Mahjr village is Wadi Al Mahjr, it is a valley located in one of the highest coffee growing areas in Yemen. High above the clouds, it sits at an altitude of 2,250 meters above sea level. With its sun exposure of 7 hours and cooler night temperature of around 6ºC, an ancient typica cultivar emerged to survive these harsh weather patterns.
Farmers within Al Hayma region claim to have some of the oldest coffee trees in Yemen. This is yet to be scientifically verified but we do notice ancient typicas unique to this area which have proven to translate into exquisite notes on the cup.
This lot is a carefully curated collection of rare peaberry cherries from various prime specific sites, owned by individual farmers from within Wadi Al Mahjr and made up of three classic Yemeni cultivars of Udaini, Tufahi and Dwairi.
Expect a winy toffee-like fragrance, the coffee has a toffee, honey, black-sugar and gooseberries flavour. It has a very smooth body and a complex acidity with a sweet and lingering aftertaste.
What does the future hold for speciality coffee in the region? It looks like you have a done a lot of work around sustainability, NGOs and fair coffee prices for farmers?
We would like for Yemen to have its rightful place within the coffee scene. Yemeni coffee today, and for too long, has been very rare and expensive. We want to reduce the costs, make it more widely available. We have to do this by reducing logistics costs while protecting the farmers and pay them fairly so they continue to invest their livelihoods into this industry. We are proud to say that on average, over 70% of the price that our consumers pay goes directly to the farmers. The farmers are paid a fixed price, and we guarantee them this price right at harvest. There are no risk on the farmers from there on. After this point, the cupping score is established. High scoring coffee tends to sell at a premium and much of this is shared back with the farming community.
Alongside working with local and international NGOs, we actively support education by paying teacher’s salaries as well as building, paving roads and building water reserves.
Thanks to Sheba coffee importers for giving us some valuable insight into the world of Yemeni speciality coffee. You can pre-order this amazing coffee release here from Monday 27th Sept. or try it at our stand at the London Coffee Festival! But be quick, as this coffee is a limited release.