How Qahwah House in Lombard celebrates coffee’s Yemeni roots

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The immediate sights and sounds of Qahwah House, a Yemeni coffee spot in suburban Lombard, are unlike that of the typical American cafe. Ginormous silver kettles of coffee and chai are in clear view, brewing away, while the clinking of teacups and trays feels foreign, yet somehow familiar.

“People who want to experience something different will come,” says Ibrahim Alhasbani, the founder and owner of the coffee shop based in Dearborn, Michigan.

Alhasbani’s vision when he opened his first location in Dearborn in 2017 was to bring his homeland back to the forefront of coffee culture.

“We use coffee as a form of communication with people. If you go to someone’s house in Yemen, the first thing they give you is coffee — it’s a big deal. If someone doesn’t offer you coffee, there’s something wrong,” he says, with a laugh.

Now onto his fourth location of Qahwah House, with two in Dearborn and one in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, he’s gotten more and more intentional about building a bridge between coffee drinkers and the history of their favorite pick-me-up.

Mofawar is served steaming hot in a glass coffee pot at Qahwah House in Lombard.

“A lot of people don’t know Yemen is the birthplace of coffee,” he says over the phone, speaking from Michigan. “My mom, my father, grandfather, grandma — all of their families are coffee farmers on both sides. You get the most authentic form of coffee here.”

Qahwah means coffee in Arabic. And naturally, Alhasbani sources the beans directly from his family’s eighth-generation farm in the Sanaa region of Yemen.

The menu at Qahwah House in Lombard lists five types of Yemeni-style coffees that can be ordered steaming hot in a glass teapot or single serve. Sana’ani is a medium roast with hints of cardamom — a warm, slightly pungent and aromatic spice that gives most Yemeni coffee drinks their distinctive taste. Jubani is a medium-light roast made with both the bean and its dried skin, known as coffee husks, brewed with cardamom, ginger and cinnamon. And for coffee drinkers who need that splash of milk, mofawar is a traditional, softer-on-the-palate choice brewed gently with cream.

Adeni chai — arguably the shop’s most popular tea drink and hailing from the Aden region of Yemen — is made with black tea, evaporated milk, cloves, cardamom, cinnamon and sugar. The ingredient list is simple, but the nuance of the boil and brew makes all the difference.

Arif Jaffery, partner and managing director of Qahwah House, says the timing is critical for Yemeni drinks like adeni chai, and communication is quintessential for the entire operation.

Some of the specialty teas and coffees, rich with cardamon, cinnamon and cloves, are prepared in giant metal pots at Qahwah House.

The baristas, unofficially called Yemeni station masters, have to keep a close eye on the pots of chai and coffee so they don’t boil over, especially when several kettles are roiling at once.

Five stations have to come together seamlessly when the order buzzer goes off: the cashier (which Jaffery himself will often man during peak hours), pastry, espresso, adeni and pickup.

“Most big group orders will have something from each station,” Jaffery says. “If the adeni chai is still brewing, but the latte is already made, it messes up all the drinks going out at once.”

People who come in groups typically order the teas and coffees in pot sizes. The small pot is $9 and serves one to two people, while two to three can share the medium for $13, and the large is $22 and serves three to four people, though the servings can be stretched, depending on the pour.

Alhasbani revels in his customer’s first impulse upon settling down with the goods. They usually bust out their phones for an overhead shot of the dainty Arabic-style glass flute teacups and clear kettle arranged on a tray.

Sofia Syed reads a book at Qahwah House on Dec. 1, 2022, in Lombard.

On weekend evenings, there’s typically a line of people out the door waiting to order, as well as people waiting for a place to sit after ordering. The chaos is comforting — frothing milk, the whoosh of the pours, each station in full speed amid the steady stream of conversation.

Alhasbani likens the vibe to a halal bar.

“A lot of people in the community don’t drink alcohol, they don’t go to bars. There isn’t really a place for them that’s open late,” he says of Lombard and the surrounding area’s high population of Muslims. “It’s also in our culture — we drink coffee all day. Over here (in America), they don’t drink coffee at night; they think they are not going to go to sleep.”

Alhasbani stresses that he didn’t want to serve “regular coffee in a regular place,” and consciously created an atmosphere that celebrated the drink’s origin story — which, as it happens, is deeply rooted in Yemen.

An iced caramel macchiato at Qahwah House on Dec. 1, 2022, in Lombard.

“Ethiopia is where coffee arabica, the coffee that we use, grows wild. But what we know is that from around the 1450s, coffee was being imported into Yemen from Ethiopia,” says Jonathan Morris, coffee historian and author of “Coffee: A Global History.”

Within a century, Yemenis were cultivating coffee themselves. “So whereas Ethiopia is the place where coffee is indigenous, Yemen is the first place where coffee is farmed,” he says.

Yemeni farmers would grow coffee in the mountains around Sanaa, while the merchants readied it for export at the Yemeni port of Mocha, a city on Yemen’s western coast that borders the Red Sea, Morris says. The coffee from that region took on the name of the port, which is where mocha as we know it comes from.

Coffee was essentially put on the map by Sufis — who follow a mystical-leaning sect of Islam — when they began importing coffee from Yemen across the Islamic diaspora for a drink shared at spiritual gatherings, Morris says. The caffeine in coffee would help the Sufis get into elevated spiritual “highs,” Morris adds.

Soon Yemen became the center of coffee export with trade running from the Indian Ocean into the gulf — a depiction spelled out on a large map on the wall opposite the service counter at Qahwah House in Lombard.

Adeni chai is served steaming hot in a glass tea pot at Qahwah House on Dec. 1, 2022, in Lombard.

For Yemenis like Alhasbani, coffee is associated with a rich history of innovation and adventure, and new beginnings. It’s far from the Eurocentric image of coffee, which is often rooted in drive-thrus and espresso shots.

“I want (customers) to see the color of the coffee, and the color of the tea. I want them to come together, I want them to talk — not with a cellphone or a laptop, but with each other,” Alhasbani says. “Maybe they know each other from the beginning, or maybe they just met.”

And while the emphasis is on Yemen, the cafe has something for everybody, and they’re able to accommodate most preferences, Jaffery says.

Qahwah House’s signature pastries are also their bestselling: the khallat alnahl, a soft pull-apart buttery cheese honeycomb bread drizzled with honey; and sabaya, baked-to-order layers of flaky dough coated with Yemeni butter. Basboasaa, a semolina cake soaked in sweet syrup, is another fan favorite. Chocolate cake, pistachio cheesecakes and croissants, though not Yemeni, sell exceptionally well, too.

Areeba Jaffery holds a traditional Yemeni honeycomb bread at Qahwah House in Lombard. The bread features cheese, honey and sesame seeds.
Traditional Yemeni honeycomb bread with cheese, honey and sesame seeds is seen at Qahwah House on Dec. 1, 2022, in Lombard.

The menu lists lattes and iced mochas, a photogenic iced caramel macchiato, a matcha latte and cappuccino, a cortado, affogato and hot chocolate. Every coffee drink is made with Yemeni beans.

“We receive the Yemeni green beans from our warehouse in Michigan that we roast weekly — so our concept is not just freshly brewed, but freshly roasted as well,” Jaffery says.

The burlap bags of coffee stacked around the shop coupled with images of Alhasbani and his family’s farm conveys the farm-to-cup concept that ensures the quality of the coffee is controlled by those who grow it.

“When I started my business, I had to call my mom a lot to ask her so many questions,” Alhasbani says with a laugh. “She knows more than me. She still lives in Yemen.”

He has plans to open up more Qahwah House locations soon, but unlike Dearborn or Lombard, the new shops will likely be in places where Middle Eastern coffee is an unfamiliar concept.

“I want to build a bridge through coffee,” Alhasbani says. “People come and they learn about Yemeni coffee and culture: the history, how we live, how we process. We need to bring everyone together.”

Qahwah House, 406 E. Roosevelt Road, Lombard; 630-519-3632, qahwahhouse.com. Open 9 a.m. to 11 p.m., Sunday through Thursday; 9 a.m. to 1 a.m. Friday and Saturday.

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