Yemen has a coffee culture like no other place, and the distinct flavor profile can be partially credited to the old style of trade in the country. 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 seed stocks cultivated there, and also due to the near-drought condition in which the coffee survives. But some of the “character” of this coffee has to do with the defective 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.
The Yemen trade is complicated. 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!
Yemen was the original commercial coffee source, brought to Europe by Muslim 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.
In the 19th century Mokha coffee retained it’s status as rare and valuable, even if the article sold was rarely genuine. 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 is the coffee called Mokha? Because in the coffee trade it 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. Many 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. 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.
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).
In general Yemen coffees Sweet Maria’s 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 mouth feel. Ideally, try to wait 24-48 hours before brewing. Since this is a hand prepared coffee dried in the sun – watch out for rocks! There can be small stones in the coffee that you need to cull out before roasting and definitely before grinding as these can jam a grinder (in wet processed coffees the stones fall out in the water channel but in dry processed coffees, small stones can escape detection and make it all the way through to the final bag). 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!