A Café That Makes Traditional Coffees Using Beans from Yemen, the Brew’s Birthplace
For many people who visit Qahwah House, a series of cafés with locations in Brooklyn; Chicago; and Dearborn, Michigan, the drinks they consume are their first experience with Yemeni coffee, which is known for its floral, spicy notes and natural sweetness. The shop, named for the Arabic term for “coffee,” is owned by Ibrahim Alhasbani, who moved to the United States from his native Yemen in 2011, and opened the first Qahwah House in Dearborn, which has a high concentration of Arabs and Arab Americans, six years later.
His aim, Alhasbani says, is to make Yemeni coffee more accessible to the public—and his connections to the beverage run deep. While the coffee plant originated in Ethiopia, by the 15th century—according to early European and Arab sources—it had made its way across the Bab el-Mandeb strait to Yemen, where Sufi monks brewed the plant’s berries into the liquid we know today as a now ubiquitous drink. Trading companies helped the beans reach locations throughout the Ottoman Empire, and into cities including Istanbul, Cairo, Venice, and Paris. By the 18th century, Europeans had started smuggling the seeds out of Yemen, and spreading them to colonies such as Martinique and Java, where people were made to grow them on plantations for little or no compensation. Soon, inexpensive coffee became widely available and, by 1800, Yemen was producing only 6 percent of the world’s coffee.
Miraculously, Alhasbani’s family has owned and operated a coffee farm in Yemen for eight generations. It’s where he sources all of Qahwah House’s beans, which he roasts in-house and prepares using the same recipes his ancestors and family have used for decades. We recently spoke with Alhasbani about his perspective on the drink and its distinctive flavor, as well as how it can be a portal to other aspects of Yemeni history and culture.
When did you start drinking coffee?
I don’t remember exactly, but I must have been a kid. It’s a family tradition. I remember, growing up, the scents and sounds of my mom roasting coffee and grinding the beans at home. I could smell the coffee everywhere. Of course, we drank it black. We didn’t add anything to it. Our coffee and our family originate from the same place: the mountains of Haraz, near Sana’a. Haraz is a big village with multiple small villages inside. We believe our coffee is number one in the world.
How would you describe the taste of Yemeni coffee?
Yemeni coffee has a very special taste. There are a lot of countries that grow coffee—and I’ve tried versions from a lot of them—but Yemeni coffee, because we started the drinking of coffee, is the highest quality, and the most tasty. It has the most flavor out of all coffee in the world. The natural sweetness is akin to chocolate, and fruity. It also has very low acidity, so it doesn't bother your stomach.
Is there a specific or traditional way it’s served?
In the States, many consumers take coffee quickly on the go. In Yemen, the coffee culture is the opposite. It is one of sitting down, relaxing, and gathering. It is a social thing. Friends and family gather at a café and discuss their day, work, or anything else over a large pot of coffee—not just a single cup. It is social. It is ceremonial. It is essentially an experience, not simply a drink to consume.
Tell us more about the origins of coffee in Yemen.
All of the original stories about drinking coffee are from Yemen. The first people to grow coffee were in Yemen. It started in the mid-fourteenth century. Yemen was, for more than two hundred years, the only source of coffee. The first official shipment was to Holland, around 1660. There is a popular blend called Arabica coffee—of course, because Yemen is an Arabic country, located in an area that was once called Arabia.
The country still uses the same natural growing process. When they harvest, they don’t pick the berries when they’re green—the husk of the coffee plant starts out green, then turns to yellow, then to red. When it’s red, it’s the right time to handpick the coffee. After that, they sand-dry the berries until they’re dry, and then separate them from the husk. After that is a process of separating the different sizes of beans, and [rejecting] beans that aren’t good or are damaged. Then, they’re ready to roast. Growing up, I saw the entire process at home, every day, on the farm.
How do you think about continuing this tradition through your work today?
Representing my country, my people, and my coffee is my number one [priority]. What I like about it is that it feels like it benefits not just me, but all of Yemeni culture and Arab culture.
When I’m working, roasting, making the coffee, talking to the customers—this is the best time for me. It makes me really happy to hear feedback from them, which is mostly that they are quite happy with not only the coffee, but also with the idea and style of the business, too. It's building a bridge between different cultures: It’s not just a cup of coffee—it’s a way to tell everyone about Yemeni culture.
Are there other aspects of Yemeni culture that come through your cafés?
We always say that our mission is giving back to the community here in the U.S.A. or back home in Yemen. We support various organizations that provide children with better education, because we believe that education is the foundation for everything. Especially in Yemen, education is not really strong at this time. That’s why we're trying to make sure to speak about it, to grow it back, to make sure that children grow up and have that to support their future and take them in the right direction for them. We try to be a part of the community and to help anyone who needs it.