Roaster of the Week is a series that focuses on specialty roasters and their unique stories. This week, we spoke to Faris Sheibani, the owner of Qima Coffee, who’s on a quest to help smallholder coffee farmers in Yemen and beyond.
When conflict in Yemen broke out in 2015, Faris Sheibani knew he had to do something.
Born and raised in the UK, but with strong Yemeni roots, he was living what he calls “a paradoxical life”; the people he knew and loved in Yemen were in the midst of a civil war, while he had a comfortable life on the other side of the world.
As the conflict intensified, Faris left his job in oil and gas, and travelled to Yemen with the goal of making positive social change on a wide scale. Coffee, he decided, was to be the vehicle.
“My background isn’t in coffee, I’m a chemical engineer,” he says. “But coffee is a beautiful vehicle for connecting people because it is one of the few crops which people take an interest in. They want to know where it’s from and how it’s produced.
“All of the world’s coffee comes from Yemen, so I thought, ‘Let’s try and make this into something that can bring serious and positive change.’”
Driven by this cause, Faris launched Qima Coffee in 2016. All the coffee was to be sourced from Yemen (they’ve now also branched into Colombia), while the roasting and marketing would be done from the UK.
The central aim was to improve the livelihoods of Yemeni coffee farmers by reinvigorating the sector and bringing global recognition to their coffees.
The birthplace of coffee cultivation
Coffee from Yemen isn’t especially easy to find on the consumer market; which is odd, considering its widely acknowledged as the birthplace of coffee cultivation.
Although the first coffee plants can be traced to Ethiopia, it’s in Yemen where coffee farming as we know it today originated.
First introduced to coffee in the mid-1400s, just two centuries later Yemen had become a coffee-growing powerhouse, producing the majority of the world’s coffee.
However, a combination of factors – including falling prices, water shortages, and political strife – led to a dramatic decline in production.
Many of the country’s farmers turned their attention to the more profitable crop “qat” and, by 1800, Yemen was producing just 6% of the world’s coffee. Today, it’s less than 0.1%.
While the story of Yemen’s coffee production demise is a sad one, Faris tells me that, as the birthplace of cultivation, the country still carries significant weight in the coffee world.
“In Yemen, you have this huge history,” he says, “but you also have some of the most genetically diverse coffees in the world.
“With the exception of Ethiopian accessions, you can find the entire world’s genetic diversity in Yemen, which is reflected in a wide range of flavour profiles.”
Contributing to this diversity of flavour is the country’s microclimates and geography: extreme desert plains in the east give way to large coastal plains in the west and south, while the centre is made up of vast volcanic mountain ranges.
As a result, Yemeni coffee can go from floral and fruity, to chocolatey with winey undertones, some of which score 90 and above according to the SCA grading system.
However, inconsistency of quality is something that has plagued Yemeni coffee for decades. While there may have been one or two high-scoring coffees, achieving high-quality across multiple lots is a challenge, not least due to the impact of the war.
This is something that, through Qima, Faris is hoping to change.
“For the last five years, it’s been an exercise in rebuilding market confidence and rebuilding the reputation of Yemeni coffee,” he explains.
“When it comes to trying to sell Yemeni coffee, if the fundamental building blocks are not there, people will not let you in the door. This includes transparency and traceability, as well as long-term consistency.”
Each year, Qima Coffee runs an auction called “Best of Yemen”. The aim of the auction is to showcase Yemen as a coffee origin, while providing a platform for many of the country’s farmers.
After encouraging coffee submissions from each farm, Qima narrows down the pool through a meticulous cupping process.
The tasting is then passed onto an international board of judges who narrow it down further, until only the best lots remain.
The idea is that the final selection contains a range of coffees that represent Yemen’s diversity and complex flavour profiles.
“The auction presents an opportunity to take the best of what we think Yemen has and present them to the world’s best buyers,” Faris tells me.
“We’re confident they’re going to shock and surprise for all the right reasons. And if you have the transparency and traceability behind it, you’ll have a successful auction.”
Above all, the auction is there to create a buzz around Yemeni coffee and spark conversations between not only other coffee professionals, but consumers, too.
As Faris notes, “If you have a successful auction, the market will naturally start to talk about and engage with your products. It gets the market excited and helps people acknowledge the potential of Yemeni coffee.”
Overcoming barriers & bottlenecks
Standing in the way of Yemen’s coffee sector revitalisation are two main obstacles: price and post-harvest processing.
Faris explains that Yemeni coffee is notoriously expensive – often up to fifteen times more expensive than Ethiopian cherries. The reasons are manifold, from the cost of sourcing to the size of Yemeni families (the average household is 10.2 people).
As each farm only produces a small amount of coffee – with no other sources of income – they have little choice but to charge high prices to keep their families from going hungry.
Traditional post-harvest processing, meanwhile, is what Faris describes as “haphazard”.
Once picked, the cherries are dried on floors, on roofs, and in basements, often in the company of animals. The risk of mould and defects is high, leading to inconsistent quality.
To tackle these problems, Qima has implemented a number of strategies.
“For price, we’re trying to speak to the market and say, ‘Do not be afraid of expensive coffee’. If you explain to people precisely why the coffee is expensive and show them that there is something socially positive behind the price, I believe most will engage with it.
“On the other side of that, we’re doing everything we can on the producer side to increase the profitability of the farms. Basically looking at how we can generate more income for these farmers.”
As for post-harvesting, Qima has launched its “Alchemy Series”, which aims to find the best processing method for each lot.
“I understand chemistry and processing because I have a chemical engineering background,” Faris tells me. “So we ran lots of experiments, more than a thousand now, and we like to think we’re moving towards the sweet spot of processing.
“There’s very little investment in processing because the farmers don’t have the money.
“When I look at the coffee industry and the oil and gas industry in terms of processing, we are light years away – which is exciting for me because I think that there is a lot more that can be done.”
This vision has led Faris and the team at Qima to apply what they’ve learned in Yemen to other origins, including Colombia. Although the connection might not be as deep-rooted as it is with Yemen, the drive to improve the livelihoods of smallholder farmers remains at the core of their business.
Just before we end our call, I realise I’ve forgotten to ask Faris where the name Qima comes from. It’s a distinctive name for a roastery and I’m intrigued to see how it fits into everything we’ve been discussing.
“In Arabic, qima means “summit”, so mountain top,” he says. “Mountain top because, typically, high altitudes produce better coffee. But also because I knew it was going to be an uphill struggle.
“That’s what Qima represents. A perpetual uphill struggle towards a better world.”
Did you enjoy this edition of Roaster of the Week? Next time, we’ll be speaking to North Arkansas’ sensationally popular Onyx Coffee Lab.
Photo credits: Qima Coffee