Beans from war-torn Yemen find a home in Mich. coffee shop
By HASAN DUDAR | Detroit Free Press (Tribune News Service) | Published: January 13, 2018
When you order a cup of coffee at Qahwah House in Dearborn, you're ordering a lot more than a hot, caffeinated brew.
Before being roasted in-house, finely ground and boiled in a raqwa pot at the chic, wood-accented digs at 6655 Schaefer Road, these beans embarked on a perilous journey that began in the mountains of Yemen, a country afflicted with hunger, blockades, and a war that has claimed thousands of lives.
It's a country that Qahwah House owner and Yemen-native Ibrahim Alhasbani wants his customers to learn about, a country that he boasts is the "homeland for coffee."
"It's not just about the coffee," said Alhasbani, who is hosting a grand opening on Saturday, after a soft opening in September. "It's about ... Yemen."
Coffee was almost exclusively obtained from Yemen until about the end of the 17th Century, but three centuries later, most beans were produced in the Western Hemisphere, particularly Brazil, according to Encyclopedia Britannica.
Paul Toscano, coffee connoisseur and chief marketing officer at Joyride Coffee Distributors, says Yemeni coffee is rare in the U.S. and that it's a "time-honored debate in the coffee world" whether coffee originated in Yemen or Ethiopia.
"Both of those places sort of claim the provenance," Toscano said. "The Ethiopia coffee market is a lot more developed than Yemen as far as American coffee drinkers are concerned."
And though there's debate about where the bean first appeared, there's little dispute that the word coffee is a cognate of qahwah, the Arabic word for both the bean and drink.
Or as Alhasbani, who comes from a family of coffee growers, puts it: "There's nothing called before it, 'coffee.' "
A pound of Yemeni coffee can fetch anywhere from $200 to $240, said Alhasbani, 35 of Dearborn, whose family owns a coffee farm in the Haraz region of Yemen. At Qahwah House, he sells a pound for $25, a price reflective of the fact that his family owns a farm, which he says has been passed down from generation to generation.
"You didn't notice what you have until, you know, when you grow up and you know you have kinz," Alhasbani said, using the Arabic word kinz, meaning treasure, to describe his family's coffee farm, where he said he sometimes worked as a child.
The fruit of that treasure, according to Alhasbani, is not an easy commodity to ship from Yemen, an impoverished but strategic country on the southwestern edge of the Arabian Peninsula that the Human Rights Watch has described as a "humanitarian catastrophe."
Since the 2011 outbreak of Arab Spring protests, the country's 28 million citizens have witnessed political upheaval, civil war, a deadly Saudi Arabian-led blockade and military intervention and an outbreak of cholera.
The political and civil strife has made it more difficult and costlier for Alhasbani to get his beans from Yemen to the U.S.
There have been reports of airport closures both in the Yemeni capital of Sana'a and the southern port city of Aden, from where Alhasbani said he shipped his 5-ton haul of raw green coffee beans by sea in May because the airports were closed.
The shipment arrived to Dearborn in August, costing him anywhere from $10,000 to $12,000, Alhasbani said.
Part of the cost involves planning for the dangerous road from Sana'a to Aden, added Alhasbani, who said the road normally takes about seven or eight hours but could take at least 15 hours because it's riddled with checkpoints for different armed factions, who might steal the goods or demand money to pass.
He said he has to choose a special driver and route for the journey.
"Shipping is hard from there because the situation – it's war," Alhasbani said. "Sometimes they close the port. You can't send anything. So you gotta wait when they open it so you can send it. And you take the risk because, you know, our coffee come from Sana'a and there's no port in Sana'a."
Alhasbani said that he didn't sleep for 28 hours when the beans were being sent from Sana'a to Aden because he wanted to make sure that the shipment would make it safely to port, before embarking on an ocean journey to the U.S. that he said could take anywhere from 45 to 60 days.
Alhasbani is now planning for a second shipment, which he hopes will arrive before Ramadan in May, and expects the same problem.
"You take risk," Alhasbani said. "There's no insurance, there's nothing. If you lost it, you lost it. That's it."
'My family's still there'
Despite the long journey the beans take to arrive, for Alhasbani, it may be easier to bring coffee to the U.S. than it is his family.
Most of his family – aside from his brother, Mohammad Alhasbani, who is in Dearborn – remains in Yemen, stuck in a situation that he describes as "really hard." They're kept from entering the U.S. because of President Donald Trump's travel ban, which bars entry to the U.S. for citizens of Yemen and five other Muslim-majority countries, along with North Korea and certain officials from Venezuela.
Alhasbani, who supports his family financially, would like to bring them all to the U.S. but describes the travel ban as the "biggest problem."
He hasn't seen his family in Yemen since he immigrated to the U.S. in 2011.
"This country makes you older," said Alhasbani, who occasionally sports a light beard, before showing a reporter a photo of himself clean shaven before having arrived in the U.S.
"See the difference? Too much stress, man. Too much stress. ... My family's still there, so it just makes you crazy, man."
Alhasbani says "it was good over there," when describing his time in Yemen before the protests and before emigrating. He owned a coffee and hookah spot in Sana'a and a chain of shawarma shops with friends but left all that behind in Yemen after the unrest in 2011 and settled in New York City.
He said he hasn't been back to Yemen since.
"I wish I can go back," Alhasbani said. "I wish. Six years, more than six years now, I didn't see my mom. I didn't see my family. It's just crazy."
Alhasbani said part of his mission at Qahwah House is to spread the word about the situation in Yemen and to eventually donate money that would go toward children's education there.
"A lot of people, they don't know where is Yemen," Alhasbani said. "They don't know what's going on in Yemen. They don't know how you can help people over there. How you can help kids. That's why our mission is just to bring good coffee and also to help the kids over there, children, to go back to school, to education."
The menu at Qahwah House reflects a mix of cultures, something Alhasbani says he likes about Dearborn, where he has lived since 2016.
"It's like a mix between Arabic style, American style," said Alhasbani, who moved to Dearborn for his wife Abeir Aleidaroos, who is from there and with whom he has a 1-year-old daughter, Talia Alhasbani.
Dearborn is home to one of the largest concentrations of Arab Americans in the U.S., with more than 42,000 people, or 44% of its population, of Arab ancestry, according to the 2016 American Community Survey five-year study.
Patrons will see many of the usual favorites at American coffee houses, such as pour-overs, cappuccinos, Americanos among other names they might not recognize, like: Sana'ani (medium roast with cardamom), qishr (coffee husks with ginger), Jubani (medium, light roast with husks, cardamom, ginger, and cinnamon), and Alhasbani's favorite, Mofawar (medium roast with cardamom and cream).
Many of the names are derived from the geographic region where each style of brewing developed.
"Every city in Yemen, maybe even from place to place, you'll find different style of coffee," Alhasbani said.
Though the menu offers an assortment of coffees, when it comes to the beans, Alhasbani sticks to Yemeni.
What makes it unique? Alhasbani says that coffee's flavor is affected by its surroundings when it's cultivated. Altitude, weather, soil, and other things that grow in the vicinity can all affect it.
"Always, the coffee takes the flavor from what you have around. It takes any flavor. ... Coffee takes easy," said Alhasbani.
Alhasbani said that he sent his coffee in for cup testing and it has been described as having a milky-chocolate fruity-mango flavor with natural sweetness. Even the harvest time has a sweet, fruity scent, said Alhasbani, whose face lights up when describing the happiness the harvest season on his farm brings him.
The coffee looks like fruit in a tree, he said, and they must wait until the coffee cherries are "100-percent red" before picking and sun-drying. He describes the process as organic and said they don't use machines.
"It's still the same way from long, long time. Generations."
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