The practice of cultivating, roasting, and drinking black coffee started in Yemen, circa 1450. It was there that Sufi monks first learned that they could roast the raw, green seed of the botanical plant coffea arabica, blacken it with heat, and brew an invigorating beverage. They stayed up all night studying the word of God.
Notably, while coffee cultivation and brewing was a Yemeni invention, the plant was most likely endemic to Ethiopia or Sudan.
From 1450–1650 coffee culture spread outward: first Mecca, Cairo, Damascus, and Istanbul. But not yet Europe.
That all changed in 1650. Virtually overnight coffee became all the rage and thousands of coffee houses opened in London, Paris, Vienna, and more. Lloyds of London was founded in one of these shops, actually, like you see below. To supply these coffee houses, coffee was imported from Yemen's port city of Al Mokha. And guess what? The word mocha was a synonym for coffee for the next 250 years.
Yemen's coffee cultivation monopoly lasted until 1726. But then Java began producing…java! Blame it on the Dutch (colony of Batavia). In that year seven VOC cargo vessels stuffed to the gills with bales of coffee left Java, arrived in Amsterdam, and ended the chapter of Yemen's coffee monopoly. It's a history book.
Yemen's coffee production methods are largely unchanged over the last 550 years. Farmers tend to small plots of land, which consist of terraces carved into the mountainside and climbing upwards into the clouds. Rain-fed cisterns store water, and gravity sends the water downwards and spidering across the terraces. The average farming family has about an acre of land and produces just 250 pounds of coffee.
The coffee production is decentralized, and to gather it for export, a network of specialized collectors and middlemen travel by truck and donkey, arriving at remote farms and hamlets spread throughout the mountains. The coffee is then consolidated in villages, towns, and finally major cities.
The final production step most frequently occurs in a major city, such as the capital of Sana, where the coffee husk (i.e. qishr tea) is milled from the coffee seed. Then the green coffee is ready for export.
If you want to buy Yemeni coffee, then you need to plug into this supply chain. At Al Mokha, we work with three partners who are doing a phenomenal job navigating this historic, at times confusing, and remarkable coffee origin. In some ways, Yemen's production is lost in time. But in others ways, 550 years of history has given us an incredible coffee, and arguably the very best that money can buy. Here are our three partners and their approach:
There is no need to reinvent the wheel. In Yemen's decentralized production, the challenge—but also the opportunity—is finding the very best coffees produced in the most traditional of techniques. Certainly there is much that can go wrong while cultivating coffee: maybe there is not enough rain one season; or perhaps the cherries are harvested too early or too late; or maybe the post-harvest drying of cherries is carelessly done resulting in mold. But what if you get each traditional step just right. What if the farmers and coffee mill collaborate, build trust, and build a longterm relationship. No corners are cut, and every step of the process is done with care.
This is the Rayyan Mill in a nutshell: relationships, traditional coffee, and exceptional results.
They have been operating in Yemen since 2011 and we have worked with them since 2013.
Coffee is traditionally dried at the farm level. The ripe cherries are picked from the tree and over about 10–21 days the farmer dries the fruit in the sun—maybe on his rooftop, a concrete platform, or even just on a tarp or piece of plastic. Once dried, the farmer can store the coffee cherries until he needs some money, and sells it to a collector.
How can things go wrong? The cherries may not be at peak ripeness, they may mold during drying, or they may sit for months or years before the farmer needs some cash and sells his coffee savings. (Yes, dried coffee cherries can be a form of banking!)
One solution to these three challenges is building regional collection centers, where fresh red cherries are sundried under optimal conditions. That's a collection center in the photo Affectively, shift the post-processing from the farm level to the collection center level.
Another solution, however, is training farmers in better harvesting and drying techniques. Keep drying at the farm level and register farmers to track output and ensure freshly dried coffee.
That's the Haraaz Cooperative™ in a nutshell. It's spearhead by Shabbir Ezzi at Al Ezzi Industries. He has over 800 registered farmers, and has been in operation since 2006. We have worked with him since 2014, and have found him indefatigable in supporting Yemeni coffee farmers in any way possible. We look forward to working with him for decades.
To be honest, this last category is a catch all. Yemen's coffee need not be intimidating. What if we stripped it of all pretension, and got as close to the original product as possible? Rather than invest in perfecting each step, what if you instead embrace the rustic, wild, fermented flavors of Yemen. This is why we love working with old school exporters. Embedded in their multi-generational and decades of success, is the wisdom of what has worked for centuries. By this I mean that specialty coffee is the new kid on the block, and while we love it, we also love mocha coffee for where it came from. More on that.
Part of how Yemen's coffee came to travel around the world, is that the cultivars and flavors were resilient to whatever nature and human threw at it. This included imperfect drying conditions; oppressive humidity at port (e.g port of Hodeida, pictured above); long journeys by sea; frigid warehouse storage; and searing heat blackening the beans. Yet somehow, mocha coffee not only traveled around the world, it was twice the price of other origins, whether you were at a 1726 Amsterdam bourse or a 1926 New York City dockyard. The Yemeni coffee had quality and flavors that thrived under duress, and consistently outperformed the new entrants.
That is the story of the Yemen's coffee. Old world, unrestrained flavors that blow the mind. Skip the lecture on nuances of dried citrus peels and notes of tart cherries. The history (and flavors) of Yemeni coffee is complex but it is also really simple: black coffee done perfectly.
Our old-school partners include the Pearl of Tehama, Sowaid & sons, and Muslot & Sons. We select coffees from them that best celebrate 1726 and 1926 camel-transported beans!
[Note: Nov 2019 – ~Mar 2020 these three coffees are sourced from the Haraaz Cooperative. They are similarly rustic and original—and from the Haraaz region. Normally it's from the more general Sanani region, so free upgrade!]
If you want the really simple answer, Yemen has a mountainous west, and the coffee is grown there. If you're in the capital city of Sana, go west and south a bit and you'll find the famous regions of Matari, Haraaz, Hayma, Sanani, and Ismaeli.
But it is far from that simple. Regions are nested in others; they're kinda overlapping; beans are named after regions but then grown elsewhere; historic regions are now administrative areas that don't perfectly align...it's really complicated.
Let's look at an example: take an Ismaeli coffee. It can refer either to the Ismaeli mountain region or to the Ismaeli coffee varietal. If the varietal is grown in the eponymous region, then it's simple: Ismaeli coffee. To add more confusion, the Ismaeli geographic region is somewhat co-located in the greater Haraaz region. And the greater Haraaz region is nested in the Sanani region. So Ismaeli coffee could be called Haraazi or Sanani as well. But typically coffees are named for the most specific region, as that carries the most prestige.
Matari coffee is probably the most famous in all of Yemen, and has been described as the "most acidity, most complex, most fragrantly powerful of Yemen origins". The region is exceedingly high in altitude, which likely gives the coffee such intensity. Moreover, the the local varietal has probably coevolved to these high altitude conditions.
These Matari beans (named for the region!) are known for a genetic defect called false polyembryony. This results in hollowed out beans called shells or elephant ears, which break easily and roast poorly. Upwards of 25% of the crop can have this defect. This increases the cost and difficulty of sourcing this region.
The Matari region is sandwiched between Sana to the east and the Hayma(t) region to the west. (visible in map)
The Haraaz region is a broad designation, which also includes the Haraaz mountain. To the north is the overlapping Bani Ismael region. To the east is both the Hayma(t) and Anis (Aniz/Anesi) region.
Compared to Matari coffee, Haraaz is just as zippy but is lighter in body. Both are fruity, but Haraaz is more mellow, gentle, clean. The difference is respectively akin to a Bordeaux versus a Burgundy. (i.e. Cabernet Sauvignon vs Pinot Noir)
The Haraaz Cooperative is located in the eastern side of the region, and qat has been ripped out and replaced with coffee. Your purchase has changed the economics and given farmers better incomes.