Coffee farming in the Yemen
Garfield Kerr, Kim Thompson and Matt Toogood are the co-owners of a new Dubai coffee hangout, Mokha 1450 on Al Wasl Road. They’re obsessed with their craft and have made countless trips to Yemen and Ethiopia to source their product, learning a lot more about the people who grow the crops and the challenges of farming in developing countries. Esquire discovered more about the journey of the coffee bean during a conversation with the founders. Over an exceptional latte, naturally.
On the story behind the founding.
Garfield: We first met in Yemen, in 2009, at a huge coffee conference. We travelled throughout the whole country, up mountain passes that are so steep you can just see sky. You can’t see the ground so you just have to hope on every turn. One time I woke up to screaming, it turned out our driver was blind at night. We were just heading towards a mountain of gravel the size of a building and we only didn’t hit it as Matt reached over and stamped on the brakes. We tipped him at the end telling him, “This is for a pair of glasses. Nothing else. Go straight to the shop!”
On the moment Mokha 1450 was founded.
Garfield: Before meeting we had never had the idea of opening a coffee place.
Kim: Matt and I would be going to coffee conferences worldwide, and every time we would show up somewhere Garfield would be there. We knew we had to work with one another and once you’re in coffee you never get out.
Garfield: That’s true – I use to share an office with a media guy and it literally rubbed off on him – now he’s in coffee too. The idea really came from the fact that I was working with a women’s cooperative in Yemen and wanted them to have an outlet.
On the inspirational people behind the source of their coffee.
Matt: We have begun right at the heart of coffee, ethically sourcing from women’s cooperatives such as our exceptionally driven female coffee farmers, Fatimah Khabeer in Yemen and Asnakech Thomas in Ethiopia.
Garfield: Asnakech Thomas is a wonderful woman. Married at 13 by a forced marriage, she ran away several times but was always brought back. Eventually she got away to Addis Ababa, married a British guy and moved to the UK. She came back to Ethiopia and got into coffee. Her first ever batch was marked at 90+.
Matt: To explain the number, coffee is ranked from 0-100 by sommeliers and there has never been a 100. Specialty coffee is seen normally as 80+; we only stock 84, 85+ ratings. We don’t go looking for a 90+, we look for fantastic speciality coffees from places around the world that we can also help. Thanks to Garfield’s influence, some of these suppliers go from a 60 to an 80+.
Garfield: Asnakech Thomas is a force of nature, she’s building a hotel, she’s employed a women’s cooperative to work with her on the coffee. This was a process in itself because these women became the bread winners in their homes and the traditional family structure would then fall apart. So what she did was employ couples and pays into a joint account to which the women are the signatories. That was a fantastic way of working it out. Fatimah Khabeer in Yemen is also fantastic. She was the only person we met who actually took advice. People there have been farming the same was for hundreds of years. They’re very proud but the technology has been left behind. They‘re fantastic at dealing with droughts and their knowledge is invaluable, but with modern cultivation and harvesting methods it’s unfortunately last century.
On helping the coffee industry.
Garfield: Traditionally Yemen has lost between 30 and 40 percent of its coffee due to thestrip picking methods used there. Asnakech taught them to twist each individual cherry off, a method that the translator couldn’t even describe at first. The agronomist with us had tears in his eyes because for hundreds of years they’d been losing so much coffee – and it all changed by doing this. We ended up taking more farmers and agronomists to Yemen, doing more for coffee in Yemen than any NGO or government body had done before. When we were there, there was a meeting with the biggest coffee farmers in Yemen. They were complaining about the difficulties in forming a cooperative. When we brought the people from the other cooperative over, and explained that the roads and electricity were all thanks to the cooperative, they were mind-blown. Fatimah’s father, an influential Sheikh who was there just started talking, and explained that his daughter, alone, had formed this cooperative. He asked the farmers how much area they controlled – these were rich and powerful people – and he told them,”‘My daughter has done it, it can be done, now shut up and do it!”
Garfield Kerr (centre in blue shirt) with Kim Thompson (white shirt) and and Matt Toogood (black polo shirt) at Mokha 1450
On the local marketplace.
Kim: Matt won third place in the world recently at a competition in Italy using our coffee.
Garfield: Kim won second place in this region using Fatima’s coffee. So our name is getting out there through the quality. We’ve been to our farms and we know how our coffee is produced, which is incredibly important to us.
Kim: Our menu will suggest which coffees should have sugar or milk added and which should be black. We’ve got one you add milk to and it tastes like blueberry cheesecake. Of course we’ll have our cappuccinos, but we’ll introduce our coffees and talk to people about where they’re from and the story behind them. It’s an experience that you’ll pay for and not just a coffee.
On specialty coffee.
Matt: People are moving towards higher quality coffee. It’s moving like waves, as demand for high quality coffee boutiques increases and the big chains move on. They’re here now and we’ll them move onto India and China over the next five years. People want organic coffee, but we forget that all coffee is organic by default. The big challenge is that certification is expensive. For someone not earning much, spending money on certification just can’t happen.
Kim: We even re-mineralise our water to make sure it’s the best.
On the Mokha 1450 family.
Kim: Our whole staff are coffee people.. You don’t get that in other places where it’s just a job. Our majlis seating here is designed to create conversations. Give us 15 minutes of your time and just talk and enjoy your coffee. Our tagline is ‘the heart of Coffee’ – we want to be the heart of a coffee revolution
On Gesha coffee.
Garfield: Our Gesha coffee is one of the most sought after coffees in the industry. People who drink here will be among the first in the world to drink Ethiopian Gesha coffee.
Matt: We have a customer who literally sends a plane over here to get his coffee.
Mokha1450.com. Open April 15