Yemen coffee is the ancestral wild coffee drink, from which 90-100% of all the other coffees we drink today come. From its recent ability to be exported, it has become incredibly sought after and praised for being one of the best coffees in the world.
Mocha is one of the most confusing terms in the coffee lexicon. The coffee we call Mocha (also spelled Moka, Moca, or Mocca) is cultivated as it has been for hundreds of years in the mountains of Yemen, at the southwestern tip of the Arabian Peninsula. It was originally shipped through the old port of Mocha, which has since been replaced by a modern port and fallen into picturesque ruins. The name Mocha has become so permanently a part of the coffee vocabulary that it stubbornly clings to a coffee that today would be more accurately described as Yemen or even Arabic.
Complicating the situation are the coffees that closely resemble Yemen in the character and appearance of the cup in eastern Ethiopia, near the city of Harrar. These dry-processed Harrar coffees from Ethiopia are often sold under the name Mocha or Moka. They are usually lighter than their namesakes in Yemen, but otherwise very similar.
History of Yemen Coffee
Most agree that the original coffee plants originated in the western regions of Ethiopia. Coffee has been recorded as a beverage since the 6th century, used by the Ottoman Empire. However, in Yemen these plants were eventually cultivated and developed into the beans and drinks we know today. History records Sufi monasteries on the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula processing coffee in Yemen more than 500 years ago. Yemeni farmers take advantage of their country's unique land, which has climatic and environmental conditions that have not been considered ideal growing conditions for other plants. For 200 years, Yemen has been the only source of coffee. Initially, the main mode of travel was by camel, but later, this Arabic coffee was named after the port of Mokha, which is located on the coast of the Red Sea, from where they were eventually shipped. By 1650, coffee had become popular in Europe, prompting the start of businesses with cafes and cafes.
What Makes Yemen Coffee So Distinctive
The production process for coffee beans in Yemen has remained the same for over 500 years. Small family farms plant on terraced fields dug in the Yemen landscape. Coffee plants are grown in the old way, without any use of chemicals. Once the fruits, called "cherries", are ripe, they are picked by hand. The beans are not removed from the fruit but are processed dry together. The fruit goes through a special drying period in caves and, in some cases, on roofs.
Once the fruit is dry, it is easy to separate the beans from the peels, which are discarded. This leaves a very irregular and hard seed, which is the hallmark of Yemen coffee beans. The millstones that grind the beans are mostly turned over by donkeys or camels. Even when grinding is powered by small gasoline engines, progress is slow with small output batches. Only older, rich-flavored grains are exported because they come at a higher price. The territory where this ancient coffee variety is grown is located at a high altitude and on land prone to drought. While these processing factors add to the rarity of these low-yielding crops, they also explain the unique character of the special flavor profile of Yemen coffee.
Yemen coffee has a distinct flavor and aroma. The earthy complex often has tons of dried fruit, partly due to drying with fruit peels. This Yemeni Arabian coffee also has notes of chocolate, cinnamon, cardamom, or tobacco. The strongest of these notes is chocolate, which could explain the modern use of the word "Mocha" in association with Yemeni coffee.
Authentic Yemen Coffees Can Be Expensive
Due to the conditions in the land where coffee fruits are produced, the yield for crops is very low compared to other coffee varieties produced in the Western Hemisphere. Low processing takes longer, producing fewer beans than what was grown and at a slower pace. Because Yemen's coffee production is slow and low and due to its unique and highly appreciated profile, the demand for it internationally is very high. This combination of low supply and high demand makes it very expensive.
There are similar varieties of Mocha-type coffees and many that are not considered authentic, which are sold by Saudi Arabia and Ethiopia. This keeps the competition very high. It also presents a challenge for authenticating Yemeni coffee, creating more expense for documentation. In addition, the export of coffee from the Yemeni area has always been a challenge, in part due to mountain growth, but also economic and political unrest in the region. Various bans on trade, dangerous trade routes, poorly regulated transport, tariffs, and border procedure can create challenges in grain exports.
The World’s Most Traditional Coffee
The true Arabian Mocha, from the central mountains of Yemen, is still cultivated as it was over five hundred years ago, on terraces hanging from the sides of semi-arid mountains beneath the old stone villages that rise like geometric extensions of the mountains. In summer, when the small flowering coffee trees bloom and bear fruit, the foggy rains temporarily turn the mountains of Yemen into a bright green. In autumn, the clouds dissipate and the air dries out, once the coffee fruits are ripe, harvested, and appear on the roofs of stone houses, spread out in the sun to dry. In dry winters, water collected in small tanks is often directed to the roots of coffee trees to help them survive until summer spills.
Yemeni coffees are processed as they have been for centuries. All Mochas in Yemen are dry or natural coffees, dried with fruits still attached to beans. After the fruit and beans have dried, the crushed fruit peels are removed from the millstone, which explains the rough and uneven appearance of the Yemeni bean. I was told that some of these millstones are still turned by camels or donkeys, although I have never been able to attend this show. But even the millstones transformed by small gasoline engines are fascinating and nostalgic for the history of coffee because they represent the oldest and most fundamental technology of coffee.
The dried coffee peels, well broken in two by the action of millstones, are used to make a sweet, easy-drinking drink, called by the Yemenis' wish. The shells are combined with spices and boiled. The resulting drink is cooled to room temperature and drunk in the afternoon as a thirst reliever and a takeover. Yemenis drink roasted and ground coffee only in the morning, when, after bathing and praying, they line up at the cafes for a quick cup of morning-brewed coffee with sugar in the Middle East.
Almost all coffee in Yemen comes from ancient varieties of Coffea arabica grown nowhere else in the world than in eastern Ethiopia. Yemenis have dozens, perhaps hundreds, of names for their local coffee varieties. Most of these names and the trees they refer to have never been documented and are identified only within the rich and complex set of oral traditions that make up the Yemeni coffee tradition. However, at least one variety is widely recognized (and admired) in Yemen: Ismaili, which produces small, rounded beans, similar to split peas.
Mysterious Market Names.
Yemen's coffee market names are as erratic as the beans themselves. Many names refer to both a variety of trees and the growing district. For example, it is never entirely clear when a coffee seller says he has an Ismaili coffee at his disposal if he describes a coffee in the Bani Ismail culture district, beans from the Ismaili coffee tree variety, or both.