This is Yemen's highest-altitude region, with exceptionally hard, dense beans. Flavor profile is a marriage between an earthier, darker, tobacco and prune-like, intensity, which is elevated by a tangy, grape-like acidity. As a green coffee the aroma is exhilaratingly fruity and perfumed. In the 20th century, this region was Yemen's most famous.
William Ukers, writing in 1935, described Matari as "the best" and "commands the highest price".
Kenneth Davids, writing in 1991, described Matari as "One of the best coffees of Yemen. Usually a winier, sharper version of the Yemen style."
Banī Maƫar labeled with a gold star. White color is highest topographical contour. Bani Matar sits SE of Ḫaḑūr Shu'ayb (3760 meter) the tallest mountain in the Arabian Peninsula. (British War Office, 1962)
The Bani Matar region gives us Matari coffee (arguably misspelled "Mattari"). At Al Mokha we like to call it Matari Mountain to underscore the regions geography. Bani Matar is also the name of the district.
The region is the highest of the high: to get to Sana, you go downhill; to get to the neighboring coffee region of Hayma, you go down hill; if you want to go uphill, there's only one option and that's a fine hike to the tallest peak on the Arabian Peninsula.
To simplify Matari Mountain coffee to its most essential, we'd like to say that the region's record breaking altitude gives the tastiest, most intense coffee. It's a ready explanation. But if I'm honest, we don't really know why Matari coffee is so dang tasty. Altitude is certainly part of the story but we have to dig deeper. Let's have a look at genetics, terroir, and processing methods, so you can come to your own conclusion. The coffee is unambiguously intense, but for ambiguous reasons.
There is something morphologically obvious happening in the Matari region, in which much of the coffee suffers from something known as false polyembryony.
Normal coffee seed in center and elephant ears on left and right side. False polyemybryony means a shell shape, which easily fragments into smaller pieces.
In a normally developed coffee cherry, you'll have two coffee seeds that are separate and face each other. One side is rounded and the other side is flat. You can imagine how two of your roasted coffee beans would nestle together within a round coffee cherry. Each of these beans or seeds has one embryo.
In false polyembryony, these two seeds are essentially smooshed together, and one large, lumpy seed—known as an elephant bean—has two embryos. It's bad, because these lumpy seeds have a tendency to break apart into "shells" or "elephant ears", which can fragment easily. As such, bean size ranges from bulging oversize to teeny shards. If you try roasting this miscellany, well, results will vary.
Normally, this visually obvious defect of false polyembryony affects perhaps 1%–2% of coffee but in Bani Matar, we're talking upwards of 25%. That's an expensive problem.
In Yemen, there's much talk of heirloom coffee varietals—or better termed cultivars—and "heirloom" is a catch-all for we don't know what the heck we're working with. Heirloom sounds fancy but really it's just referencing the intriguing uncertainty in Yemen, where coffee has been cultivated in various regions for 500 years, and various regions might have different cultivars.
Bani Matar is part of this heirloom ambiguity, which naturally raises this question: Is Matari coffee genetically different from other coffees in Yemen?
Certainly the defect in 25% of the beans—unseen elsewhere—is reason to pause a moment and wonder. Bottom line, something different is happening and it could be genetics causing the defect and the unique Matari flavor.
The Rayyan Mill, one of our suppliers, had this to say about the region: "Yes. There is an unusually high percentage of shells.... in Arabic they are called broken .... but it is a shell defect. Everyone in Yemen knows it is a problem. We tend to purchase only from areas that do not have that problem." (Oct 2019)
An alternative to genetics is environment. Perhaps the coffee cultivar / varietal in Bani Matar is no different from that in neighboring areas downhill. The differing factor could simply be that altitude. Same genotype but things go haywire and they express in different phenotypes—that is to say, the plant is the same but the altitude makes it grow funny and cause 25% of beans to be messed up but the other ones to taste really good.
But then again, the Rayyan Mill doesn't pick the shells out but instead sources from parts of Bani Matar where the shell defect is less prevalent. Confounding!
Here's another quote from the Rayyan Mil to further push your understanding: "Also, Matari quality seems to be directly tied to rainfall. This year it was not good.... and they had low rainfall." (Oct 2019)
Based on that rainfall information, perhaps that Matari flavor is a combination of altitude, special rainfall, and maybe some other factors like soil, agriculture techniques...who knows.
This factor is simpler. Processing of coffee in Bani Matar is the same as elsewhere in Yemen. The Mattari coffee we're selling now (Winter 2019/2020) is dried at the farm. So nothing odd here.
There is, however, an altitudinal processing factor...kinda. Can you guess what it is? Here's a hint: high altitude means less oxygen and cooler temperatures.
Less oxygen means the metabolic respiration of coffee is slowed.
Cooler temperatures mean the same thing…slower metabolic respiration.
In Yemen, the farmers are not exactly in a rush to sell their coffee. One of our partners, Shabbir at the Haraaz Cooperative™, has this to say: "farmers are known to store their dried harvest for years, bringing them to the market for encashment only in times of financial needs. Welcome to the Yemeni way of savings without the dependency on the modern banking system."
Makes sense? Save the coffee and sell it when you need money. And if you're in Bani Matar at high altitudes, not so bad.
Jean Nicholas Wintgren, the agronomist that wrote THE 1000-page text book on everything coffee summarizes these technical details:
"The altitude factor in storage is related to the combination of the most important factors mentioned above [lower temperatures, lower molecular O2 , lower respiration]. Generally speaking, storage life will be...3 months at 600 m. Whereas at altitudes above 1400 m natural shelf-life can be 8 months."
If you're in Bani Matar, you're above 2000 meters. Your shelf life extends a year or longer, and the intense coffee flavors will at worst, slowly mellow out and evolve.
Yemen's coffee terraces going ever upwards. (photographed by Rayyan Mill)
It seems pretty darn certain that altitude is essential to the Matari flavor. But so too are cultivar and terroir. If you want that elevated coffee, you must have all three.
Musings aside, the proof is in the cup, and I heartily agree with this description: "Matari coffee is the most acidy, most complex, most fragrantly powerful of Yemen origins". (Kenneth Davids)