Our Origins series delves into the history of one country (and coffee) at a time.
This month we're featuring a limited edition coffee from Kiss the Hippo and Yemen. This is a very rare origin with a long history about coffee. Read on to learn more.
Every culture has its craft. When it comes to Yemen, it is coffee. Every country can trade and export just about anything, its craft is what reflects the passion, life and history of the land. France is known for wine and cheese, Italy is known for pasta and pizza, the list goes on. In Yemen, few things reflect a country’s history more that coffee.
HISTORY OF COFFEE IN YEMEN
It’s still up for debate but the original coffee plants were native to the western regions of Ethiopia. We’ve all heard the story about the goats, whether you believe it or not. Coffee was records as a beverage as early as the 6th century, utilized by the Ottoman Empire. It was in Yemen, however, that these plants were finally cultivated and developed into the beans and beverage that we know today. History records Sufi monasteries on the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula processing Yemen coffee over 500 years ago. The Yemen farmers took advantage of the unique terrain of their country which has conditions of climate and environment which were not considered ideal growing conditions for other plants. For 200 years, Yemen was the only source of coffee.
Originally the primary mode of travel was by camel, but later, this Arabic Coffee was named after the Mokha Port which is on the coast of the Red Sea, from which these were eventually shipped. By 1650, coffee became popular in Europe, spawning the beginning of coffee shop and café businesses. There was a time when American coffee companies marketed all of their coffee, regardless of country of origin, as “Mocha," designating it as a coffee from Yemen shipped from the Port of Mokha. So revered was the origin that it took Congress passing the Pure Food Law in 1906—mandating companies to truthfully label the country of origin—for this to change.
Tax documents of coffee sales date back 400 years, though legend, and Yemen’s literary traditions, point to far earlier beginnings. It’s widely believed that Yemen’s Sufi Muslim community popularized the practice of drinking coffee. A Persian medical treatise dating to the ninth century espouses the coffee cherry's curative powers, and itinerant tradesmen had the practice of crushing the cherry and mixing it with clarified butter for a high-energy snack. Some form of husk-tea, an infusion of the dried outer layer of the cherry (now called qishr in Yemen and cascara elsewhere), was popular long before coffee as we know it emerged. That beverage—where the seed is removed, roasted, and boiled—did not happen until, it seems, Yemen's Sufi Muslim community discovered and sanctioned it for an aid during prayer.
With infatuation comes mystery, and myths abound (as they do in Ethiopia) as to the exact moment brewed coffee came into use. One story credits a Yemeni Sufi traveling through Ethiopia who decided to try the berries that caused unusual liveliness in birds that ate them. An alternate legend tells of a Sufi healer who, after trying to seduce a patient’s wife, found himself exiled to a desert cave. Famished, he tried berries hanging on a nearby branch. Sensing them bitter and too hard to chew, he roasted the fruit in a fire and then boiled the toasted seeds to soften them. The liquid energized him, and ultimately, news of the drink won him freedom and sainthood. No matter how brewed coffee came to be known, Sufi monks were drinking a version of it by the fifteenth century to aid in nighttime devotions.
Yemen's fertile landscape and advantageous location enabled the country's monopoly on coffee production. But it was the coffee's profile—chocolatey and full-bodied—that earned such a devoted following. Yemen is remarkably mountainous, with highlands that exceed 3,500 meters in elevation. Its borders and even its name have changed throughout the millennia—it is one of the longest-inhabited places on earth—but it has always occupied the southwest corner of the Arabian peninsula. Bordering the western and southern edge are the Red Sea and Indian Ocean. Even before the Suez Canal streamlined ocean travel in 1869, these waters were among the busiest shipping lanes in the world. Yemen’s port towns have long been of strategic importance. Indeed, the Port of Mokha, for which Mokhtar Alkhanshali’s company is named, was likely the first port to launch coffee out of the Middle East, propelling the ascent of a worldwide drink.
Coffee took well to Yemen’s arid land: Despite mere inches of rain each year, the coffee trees that migrated north from Ethiopia’s lush forests adapted by producing countless drought-resistant mutations. The stress exacerbated by little moisture and extraordinary elevation forced sugar production in the cherry to make finished coffees that were beautifully sweet and fruited. There, as in Ethiopia, natural processing was the de facto method; wet processing had yet to be invented.
Coffee from Al-Makha began to be referred to simply as Mocha coffee, a name originally having little to do with the chocolatey coffee drink you can buy today. (Mocha is also used to refer to a coffee variety originating from Yemen, one that the SCA describes as “genetically very close to Bourbon.”)
However, Yemen couldn’t guard its secrets forever: Dutch traders eventually managed to get their hands on a live coffee plant. Within a few decades, plantations had begun to spring up outside the borders of Yemen and the Ottoman Empire. The connection of Al-Makha port to the Indonesian island of Java also resulted in one of the world’s oldest and most well-known coffee blends, Mocha Java.
And as coffee production across the world increased, Yemen’s monopoly on the trade, as well as the city of Al-Makha, slowly faded.
What Makes Yemen Coffee So Distinctive, Prized and Expensive
The production process for Yemen Coffee beans has stayed the same for over 500 years. Small family farms plant on terraced fields carved into the Yemen landscape. The coffee plants are raised in the old way, without any use of chemicals. Once the fruit, referred to as “cherries” are ripe, they are hand-picked. The beans are not removed from the fruit, but dry-processed together. The fruit goes through a special drying period in caverns, and in some cases, on rooftops.
Once the fruit is dried, it’s easy to separate the beans from the husks, which are discarded. This leaves a very irregular and rough seed, which is the hallmark of Yemen coffee beans. The millstones that grind the beans are mostly turned by donkeys or camels. Even when grinding is powered by small gasoline engines, progress is slow with small output batches. Only the more aged and richly flavored beans are exported since they fetch a higher price. The territory in which this ancient coffee variety is cultivated is in a high altitude and drought-prone land. While these processing factors add to the rarity of these low production crops, it also accounts for the unique character of Yemen Coffee’s special flavor profile.
Yemen coffee has a distinct flavour and aroma. It’s complex earthiness often holds tones of dried fruit, partly due to being dried with the fruit husk. This Arabian Yemen coffee also carries notes of chocolate, cinnamon, cardamom or tobacco. The strongest of these notes is chocolate, which might account for the modern use of the word “Mocha” in association with Yemen coffee.
Authentic Yemen Coffees Can Be Expensive
Due to the conditions in the land in which the coffee fruits are produced, the yield for crops is very low compared to other varieties of coffee produced in the western hemisphere. For example, our recent limited edition coffee from Yemen only harvested 40kgs of that coffee that year.
The low technological processing takes longer, producing fewer beans from what was grown and at a slower rate. Since Yemen coffee production is slow and low, and because of its unique and highly prized flavour profile, the demand for it internationally is very high. This combination of low supply and high demand make it very expensive.
There are similar varieties of Mocha-type coffees, and many which are not considered authentic, which are sold by Saudi Arabia and Ethiopia. This keeps competition very high. It also presents a challenge to have true Yemen coffee authenticated, creating more expense for documentation. Additionally, exporting coffee from the Yemen area has always been challenging, partly due to growing in a mountain terrain, but also from economic and political unrest in the region. Various bans on trade, dangerous trade routes and transporting, tariffs and poorly regulated border procedure can create challenges to exporting the beans.
How Is The Yemeni Civil War Affecting Coffee Producers?
At one point in time, Yemen was known for its historic cities, beautiful landscapes, and good coffee. Now, however, the Yemeni Civil War has been stretching on for two years. Farming coffee in a war-gripped country is hard. Exporting it is nearly impossible.
Challenges Facing Coffee Production in Yemen
This isn’t to say that exporting coffee from Yemen used to be easy: most coffee traders attest that it has always been a challenge. However, the difficulties have been elevated to a whole new level. A blockade imposed on Yemen has made it almost impossible to export coffee. Traders’ only option is to make the dangerous voyage through Northern Yemen into Saudi Arabia.
But war doesn’t always stop trade, so why is this? Military checkpoints, damaged port infrastructure and numerous logistical challenges to exporting coffee right now. However, the primary obstacle is the limited functionality of certain ministries – such as the Ministry of Agriculture or Ministry of Trade. These are the ones responsible for certifying that the contents being loaded into a container are in fact coffee. Without this certification, getting an importing country to accept the cargo is impossible.
Qima Coffee was formed to provide exporting help to Yemen. They’re advocates that Yemen is capable of producing world-class coffee: it’s vast desert landscape gives way to the high altitudes (1,400-2,500 masl), temperate climates, and fertile soil needed to grow specialty coffee. A Yemeni micro-lot earned Coffee Review’s highest score ever of 97, and it’s common for coffees from Yemen to score 90+ from accredited cuppers.
Sourcing coffee from across the country, Qima Coffee aims to offer a full picture of Yemeni coffee and all it has to offer in the cup: bright and complex acidity, notes of candied fruit, dried berries, dark chocolate and a distinctive winey taste. Its flavours are on the same quality level as the coffees that discerning aficionados line up for every day across the world.