This is Yemen's highest-altitude region, with exceptionally hard, dense beans. Flavor profile skews uniquely towards an earthier, darker, tobacco and prune-like, intensity. In the 20th century, this region was Yemen's most famous.
The Bani Matar region gives us Matari coffee. In the 20th century, this was the most famous of all of Yemen's coffee regions. This makes for a good story. In fact, both literally and figuratively, Bani Matar represents both historical center and geographic center.
The region in some ways has its nose in the cloud. In the map above, white represents the highest altitude topography in all of Yemen. You can see that Bani Matar (marked by gold star) is this highest of altitude. The capital city of Sanaa is downhill to the northeast, and the neighboring coffee region of Hayma is downhill to the west. With such prominence, the region is Yemen's highest grown coffee, and it can arguable look down on all other coffee regions of Yemen. Or at least that was the 20th century consensus.
But thing are not quite so simple. We'd like to attribute the tastiest, most intense coffee as being a byproduct of the highest of altitudes. That's perhaps kinda right. But there is also the co-evolution of heirloom coffee varietal with geographic place. Does altitude make the coffee the most intense in all of Yemen? Or maybe it's the genetic stock?
If you talk to coffee professionals, you'll hear a variety of unscientific answers, speculations, and variously informed opinions. But the reality is that we don't know why exactly Matari coffee exhibits this intensity. Certainly it's a combination of genetics, terroir, and processing methods, that add up to an unambiguously intense coffee. But it's ambiguous the effect of each factor individually.
William Ukers, writing in 1935, said that Matari coffee is both "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."
Here is a simple narrative: the coffee is the highest and best.
Let's have a look at these three factors:
There is something obvious happening in the Matari region. So much of the coffee suffers from something known as false polyembryony.
In a normally developed coffee cherry, you'll have two coffee seeds that are separate and mirror each other. Each seed has one embryo. In false polyembryony, these seeds are essentially smooshed together, and one lumpy seed has two embryos. It's bad, because the lumpy seed has a tendency to break apart into flattish "shells" or "elephant ears".
This visually obvious defect affects not the usual 1%–2% of coffee but upwards of 25%! That'a a huge, expensive problem. These shells tend to fragment and roast unevenly, so you're looking at 25% of your coffee being "defective".
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 and how many coffee varieties are to be found. It's a reflection of coevolution of coffee and place over 500 years of cultivation, in various Yemeni regions. Each region may have something different, we don't know, so we'll call it heirloom.
This false polyembryony is extreme in Bani Matar. So bottom line, something genetically funny seems to be happening in the "heirloom" stock. Genetics could be the cause of the unique 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)
A cultivar relates genetics to terroir. In a given plant species, human interventions—cultivation—causes a plant population to genetically evolve and diverge from parent stock.
We've gone over Bani Matar's extreme altitude. Is that causing false polyembryony and elephant ears? Probably not directly but altitude and terroir do play out in a complex way. Terroir is certainly pressure on a cultivar.
Also, by extreme altitude, we're talking this region is in the shadow of Hadur Shu'ayb (on the map), which is the tallest mountain on the entire Arabian peninsula. It's literally the highest to be found.
But is it the altitude directly causing genetic defects and directly causing the coffee to grow differently? Or maybe it's not altitude but a related climate condition. How about rainfall?
Here's another quote from the Rayyan Mill: "Also, Matari quality seems to be directly tied to rainfall. This year it was not good.... and they had low rainfall." (Oct 2019)
Maybe the special flavor is a combination of genetics, altitude, and special rainfall patterns in the region that are altitude independent.
If you're rolling your eyes now, then good. It means you're frustrated with the lack of simple answer.
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 no confounding processing methods, unlike what is found in coffees from other regions (where some coffee is dried in central collection centers).
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. For some, it's a form of banking. Save the coffee and sell it when you need money. Slow down coffees degradation and storing isn't such a bad thing.
Jean Nicholas Wintgren, the agronomist that wrote the 1000-page technical text book on everything coffee has this to say:
"The altitude factor in storage is related to the combination of the most important factors mentioned above. Generally speaking, storage life will be...3 months at 600 m. Whereas at altitudes above 1400 m natural shelf-life can be 8 months."
And if you're in Bani Matar, you're above 2000 meters. I guess that means the coffee will last forever or at least over a year. There's no inevitable decline in quality, just a mellowing of the intense flavors.
It's obvious that altitude matters. But it's unclear if altitude defines Matari coffee. The genetic heirloom cultivar—in part derived from altitude—could be what makes Matari special. Or most likely, it's the mysterious intersection of altitude, elephant-ear cultivar, and terroir combined that gives us the "Matari" flavor.
If you peruse the internet reading about Yemeni coffee there's much self-assurance and bravado to the effect of HIGHEST ALTITUDE AND BEST COFFEE. It makes for good marketing. But instead we have the uneasy truth, we don't really know what precisely makes Bani Matar coffee "Matari". This reality means self-conscious marketing and these 1200 words.
Uneasy truths aside, I agree with this turn of the 21st century (Kenneth Davids) sentiment: "Matari coffee is the most acidy, most complex, most fragrantly powerful of Yemen origins".
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