Yemen is the first place coffee was commercialized, traded through the port city of Al Mahka (Mokha). Yemeni coffee has a distinct, rustic flavor profile which can be attributed to the fact it is all dry-processed, as well as the old landraces of coffee cultivated there. Coffee production is greatly impacted by the near-drought condition in which the crop survives.
Some of the “character” of Yemeni coffee has to do with the unique processing, and mixing of off grades of coffee exported from Yemen. These defects are usually due to poor picking and processing, delays in transporting the coffee, and the very humid climate of the port city, Al Hudaydah (or Hodeidah), and mixing of “past crop” coffees with newer harvests. However, when these issues are eliminated, Yemeni coffee is a truly unique experience.
Exporters do not buy from farms, but through an extensive network of middlemen. Local buyers receive coffee in the pod, the entire dried cherry, which is stored, usually in underground caverns! Most coffee that is actually exported is the oldest of their stocks, not new crop coffee! But this is the way it has been, and is one reason that new Yemeni arrivals often have moisture content readings in the 10.5% range. Yemeni growers are not hurt by this system with so many middlemen, largely because the coffee land under cultivation is limited, production is fairly low due to high altitude and limited inputs, and the crop is in such high demand.
Competition from the Saudis also keeps Yemeni coffee prices very high. We sometimes offer Yemeni Qishr now too (also spelled Quishir, Keshir, Geshir) – the dried coffee husks used to make traditional hot infused coffee tea, or Yemen Ginger Tea. Another local beverage of Kahwah (coffee) in Yemen is made from the entire dried coffee fruit, skin, bean and all, roasted lightly in a pan, ground all together and served. It’s quite unique!
Yemeni coffee is sold by trade names that usually correspond to geographic areas, although there is some vaguery and variation to the way they are used.
See our current selection of Yemeni Coffees at Sweet Maria’s.
In general Yemen coffees we offer are very high-grown (although other growing regions in the South are quite low) and need to be roasted slightly longer than other arabica coffees. This is a dry-processed natural coffee, and the roast color will be uneven from bean to bean. But we judge coffee by the “cup quality”, not visual appearances. “Don’t be an “eye-cupper””, my friend would always say to me. Some Yemeni coffees are very small in screen size, which might cause problems in the Behmor roaster.
Yemeni coffee really develops its flavors over the first 2 days after roasting, especially body and mouthfeel. Ideally, try to wait 24-48 hours before brewing. Since this is a hand prepared coffee dried in the sun, there can be bits of coffee fruit skin. Expect uneven roast colors from Yemeni coffees, just as with dry-processed Ethiopian coffees. Yemeni coffees pass from 1st crack to 2nd crack rapidly, so be on your toes!
Yemen was the original commercial coffee source, brought to Europe by Arabic traders or their trading partners. It is also the source of most coffee grown in the world today: Bourbon and Typica came from Yemen. In a way, Yemen has a greater claim as the origin of coffee as Ethiopia, because recorded history of coffee dates back 1200 years. Yet most agree that coffee was not native to Yemen; it came from the highlands of Western Ethiopia (some claim Jimma, others Kaffa). It was transported along with other goods and slaves and was cultivated all along the way, ending up in the Eastern Ethiopian kingdom of Harar. From there it came to Yemen where it was grown for local consumption and to trade around Arabia, the Mediterranean, and beyond.
But in the era of maritime trade by sailing vessels, personal “taste” was cultivated by coffee aged in the holds of the ship, as with the legendary Old Brown Java that would leave Indonesia green and arrive in the US the color of wood chips (and the taste of them as well). It seems that acidic brightness in coffee was not appreciated, nor was a clean taste, or freshness. So in that sense, Yemeni coffee is still judged by a different yardstick than many prized wet-processed coffees of the modern day.
In many areas the coffee is grown on terraces with stone supporting walls, some dating back 2000 years! The only reason the soil in the terraces isn’t completely depleted and can sustain coffee growth is the historical lack of intensive farming methods. With such scant water supply, most areas couldn’t sustain intensive crops with high yielding output anyway, so the nutritional requirements have been in a sustainable balance with what the soil can produce.
Mokha (Al-Mahka) is the port city that Yemeni coffee ships from. It has nothing to do with chocolate. Why has Yemeni coffee been called “Yemen Moka” in the global market? Because in the coffee trade was too complicated to name all the little sub-regions where the coffee is actually grown, even though they do produce notably different coffees in terms of the cup. At times some of the dry-process Ethiopian coffees will also call themselves Moka (Moka Harar etc) I believe to associate themselves with the taste profile they share with coffee from Yemen.
Mokha is usually spelled in the trade as “Mocca” or “Mocha” or “Moka” …but in fact the most correct spelling is the one you will never see: “Al-Mahka”, which is the truest to the Arabic spelling. I am trying to use it, but you will see I lapse, or in fact want to indicate also the way I am seeing it spelled on the burlap bag. Yemen is on the Asian continent (on the Arabian Peninsula), although it is really just a stone’s throw from Africa, across the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. For coffee reasons, and since there is no other “Arabian” coffee, we put it in the family of tastes that are North African.
It has been surprising that with all the turmoil in Yemen, the coffee trade continues. I believe it is a good sign, as our trading partners are part of a Yemeni society that seeks economic cooperation, as they also are importers of appliances into Yemen. Promoting Yemeni products in the world can only aid in a better understanding of common ground, and respectful difference (We also have a great appreciation of the cuisine, and some of our favorite restaurants are Yemeni).
I was fortunate to visit Yemen just once, years ago, and my only regret is not having the opportunity to return yet. It was a beautiful place, amazing! And I found the people very hospitable, despite all the conflict they had experienced. That was so long ago now, 2007, and so much has changed since. Still my goal is to return to Yemen, to see more of the rural areas, enjoy the amazing hospitality, incredible food and of course, coffee.