June 27, 2019

Tracing Coffee’s Roots Back to Al-Mokha, Yemen


At one point in time, almost every coffee drank in Europe was from Yemen. Nowadays, Yemeni coffee exports account for less than 1% of global production. 

Despite being eclipsed in volume by other coffee-producing countries, Yemen’s impact on coffee culture and the coffee varieties we enjoy today can’t be understated. There’s a chance the coffee you drank this morning could trace its lineage to a plant that grew in Yemen hundreds of years ago.

Moreover, coffee is still of great importance for many rural Yemeni communities. Producers are working to overcome economic and security challenges stemming from the civil war. Yet some of them are also earning much-needed income by providing coffee connoisseurs with beans with distinctive, complex flavours. 

Lee este artículo en español Regresando a Las Raíces Del Café en Moka, Yemen

Coffee farmers Ameen Alguaidi, Ali Saleh, Ahmed Jalal, Ammar Al-Anssi, Abdullah Tamesh, Jamal Almughni and Esam Alguaidi (left to right) stand in front of their raised beds on which natural processed coffee dries under the sun. Anis Dhamar, Yemen. Credit: Sabcomeed

Yemen: An Early Stepping Stone in The History of Coffee

Starting in 1536, the majority of coffees consumed across Europe and modern-day Turkey were brewed from beans grown exclusively in Yemen. 

Historians don’t know precisely when coffee cultivation began in Yemen. Ethiopia is credited as being the birthplace of coffee, although it has yet to be verified whether there are also species of Arabica coffee fully indigenous to Yemen. At some point, however, likely in the 13th or 14th century, historians suggest that Arabs introduced coffee to Yemen. This was probably through Sufi monks who took advantage of coffee’s caffeine to stay alert during night-long religious rituals.

Coffee became an intrinsic part of the Yemeni economy once the Ottoman Empire took control in 1536. The Ottomans realised that Yemen could export large quantities of coffee, and for the first time coffee was traded on a global scale. As merchants shipped this newly discovered beverage across the Ottoman Empire and Europe, coffee shops also began springing up and increasing demand.

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Coffee cherries dry on raised beds under the late-afternoon sun at the Hiwar Drying Centre in Yemen. Credit: Sabcomeed

Port Al-Mokha Supplies The World’s Coffee

Yemeni coffee would pass through the Port of Al-Mokha, a sleepy port town on the Red Sea. To reach Europe, the beans would travel by ship north. When they landed, the coffee was unloaded onto camels, which then trudged overland to Alexandria, the capital of Egypt, on the Mediterranean coast. 

From here, European merchants such as the Dutch East India Company hauled the coffee onto wooden ships and began transporting it to the European market. The Dutch sold this new drink as Mocha Coffee after the port it originally shipped from. Over time, coffee became synonymous with Al-Mokha.

Yemeni coffee was lucrative for the Ottomans and they shrewdly guarded production of it to keep their empire wealthy. “The plant itself was heavily guarded,” Abdulrahman Saeed, CEO of Sabcomeed, a direct trade partner for Yemeni producers, tells me.

In fact, to ensure no other country could begin growing coffee, they steeped all exportable beans in boiling water or partially roasted them. In this way, they stopped germination and prevented the buyers of these beans from growing coffee themselves. 

For over 150 years, this worked. But with the appetite for coffee rising in Europe, it was just a matter of time before the Ottomans lost control of this lucrative monopoly.

Coffee farmer Manea Obadi makes notes on the progress of natural processed cherries as they dry under the sun in Anis Dhamar, Yemen. Credit: Sabcomeed

Al-Mokha to Mochaccino

Muslim pilgrim Baba Budan is often credited for breaking the Ottoman stranglehold on coffee production in the 1600s. He allegedly smuggled out seven seeds by taping them to his stomach and then successfully cultivated them in southern India, in the mountains of Mysore (known as Malabar at the time). Soon after, the Dutch began planting coffee on the island of Java in Indonesia, one of their colonial conquests. 

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It didn’t take long for Yemen and the Ottoman Empire to lose their monopoly on the global coffee trade. In 1721, it’s estimated that 90% of the coffee drank in Amsterdam was grown in Yemen. But, just five years later, 90% of it came from Java instead.

As the decades slipped by, coffee was planted across many more colonised countries and people started to forget that their daily drink, in fact, had its roots in Port Al-Mokha. However, the importance of Yemen to coffee’s history persists in two important ways. 

For one, let’s take a look at the two principal varieties of coffee spreading across the world: Typica and Bourbon. World Coffee Research considers them “the most culturally and genetically important groups of C. arabica coffees in the world”. From these two varieties, we have many of the coffees you’ll find in countries as diverse as Brazil, El Salvador, Burundi, and Indonesia. Caturra, Pacamara, SL28, Blue Mountain… they are all descended from these two parents.

Typica and Bourbon are also the seeds that left Yemen to be grown in India, Indonesia, and eventually Latin America. And while many mutations and hybrids of them have been developed, the two base varieties that grew for so many years in Yemen still remain the same – and they are still loved by consumers all over the world.

In other words, that specialty Arabica coffee you’re drinking? It may well come from the descendants of trees grown in Yemen.

Discover more! Read Geisha vs Bourbon: A Crash Course in Coffee Varieties

Farmer Mohamed Salem selectively harvests ripe coffee cherries at the Shaia’an Drying Center. Credit: Sabcomeed

Secondly, the term Mokha has endured in popular Western culture, from the Italian Moka stovetop coffee maker all the way to Starbucks’ chocolate-infused Mocha Frappuccino. The jury is still out on when people began to use “mocha” to refer to a combination of chocolate and coffee, although it appears that the first recorded reference is a Betty Crocker recipe from 1892. It was for a so-called Mocha cake that used coffee frosting. 

Centuries on, variations of the term Mokha are still used to refer to many types of coffee. But as it was applied more and more to generic drinks, the word lost its direct association with the Port of Al-Mokha and slowly obscured Yemen’s important role in the history and culture of coffee.

Coffee producers Nabil Alsalemi and Khaled Al-Ansi check the moisture content of their cherries as they dry under the sun in Al-Hiwar, Yemen. Credit: Sabcomeed

Yemeni Coffee Re-Emerging on The World Stage

As the centuries passed, the global coffee spotlight landed on Africa, Latin America, and Asia while Yemen was overlooked. But its producers never stopped cultivating coffee. 

On first glance of Yemen’s relatively dry, rocky environment, you’d be forgiven for questioning how coffee plants can thrive. Yet when carefully farmed, Yemeni coffee’s complex flavours of stone fruits, dried figs, and berries win admirers the world over. 

That’s despite today’s Yemeni producers using many of the same organic cultivation practices their ancestors used. These techniques include incubating seeds in ash to keep moisture low before planting them in the ground, as well as using organic fertiliser from local livestock. It’s manual and exacting work that requires precision.

The dry, mountainous region of Anis Dhamar, Yemen, where coffee is grown. Credit: Sabcomeed

The most distinctive feature of Yemeni coffee cultivation is the use of terraces etched into the mountainside. Abdulrahman tells me that these are used to help conserve water in this dry climate. Take Anis Dhamar, a coffee-growing community in the southwest of Yemen and nestled in the mountains. Sabcomeed works with 90 villagers there, where they use terraces along with Sabcomeed-provided hoses to combat the arid climate.

Today, Yemen is also struggling through a geopolitical conflict. Abdulrahman says this has increased the challenges for producers as they try to access international markets, and many of them need infrastructure for water and electricity. Yemeni coffee is now scarcer than ever.

Yet despite these challenges, he stresses, the country has the potential for outstanding and unique coffees that will only get better with time. He emphasises the fruitiness, the raspberry and jasmine notes, of the best coffees from this origin.

Coffee cherries ripen on the branch in Anis Dhamar, Yemen. Credit: Sabcomeed

From Mochaccino Back to Mokha

One of the biggest challenges facing Yemeni coffee producers today is the disconnect with international markets. 

“If we were not to be involved, these farmers would grow coffee but they would sell it at $1, $2 per kg in the local market. Same for their fruits and everything else,” says Abdulrahman. At 2.2 lb to a kg, this works out less than the current global coffee price – something which is already considered insufficient for coffee farmers to support themselves and a family.

However, Abdulrahman tells me that their earnings can rise to over US $8 per kg of green beans if they are able to export it abroad. With these economic incentives, farmers are focusing on producing coffee with increasingly complex flavour profiles. As higher-quality coffees are produced, the coffee world’s spotlight may return to Yemen and “Mokha” might begin to embody its original meaning.

“It’s all about identity, at the end of the day,” Abdulrahman says. “[The term ‘Mokha’] is an identity connection that belongs to a people.”

Enjoyed this? Read A Brief History of Coffee Consumption

Feature photo: Coffee cherries dry on raised beds at the Hiwar Drying Centre in Yemen. Feature photo credit: Sabcomeed

Please note: This article has been sponsored by Sabcomeed.  

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