A Past and a Craft: Yemeni Coffee

October 21, 2017

A Past and a Craft: Yemeni Coffee

The passion, craft, and intimacy that is poured into specialty coffee connects the coffee drinker to the roaster, farmer, and barista in a way few other industries can mimic. There’s a grassroots peculiarity to the trade that revives something special in us.

The Beans of Ages Past

I’m not sure the pages of a history book do anything to add to the flavor of a coffee, but if it does, Yemeni coffee would be the pristine example. The history of Yemeni coffee, woven with dramatic tales of trade, adds just a little extra boldness to the cup.

Though coffee was likely born in Ethiopia, it came of age in Yemen. Sufi monks brought it over and began drinking it in need of an extra kick to keep them awake and alert for their devotions. From there, it wasn’t long before Yemeni coffee cultivation and production took root and became a commercial enterprise.

In time, the enterprise became colossal as Yemen became the first country to commercialize the trade, and soon they were utilizing the small port of al-Makha, which turned into a boom town, linking the West and East in caffeinated frenzy. Coffee from the region also began to be named after the port, being referred to simply as Mocha Coffee, and is still one of the more famous names associated with coffee today.

Due to their unwillingness to sell live coffee seeds or plants, Yemen managed to establish 

a world monopoly on coffee trade, that is, until Dutch sailors launched some sort of a bean heist, acquired a live sample, and from there coffee plantations made their way west.

Despite the eventual fall of the coffee monopoly, Yemen still had time to refine and perfect its trade, and Yemeni coffee established an unrivaled identity that still holds its own today. What we commonly call arabica beans, in one way or another, trace their roots back to the soil of Yemen, the original producer of the 100% arabica coffee bean.

But what exactly is an Arabic coffee bean? A quick look at the varieties produced in Yemen reveals that the rabbit hole actually goes quite deep. The two main offshoots you’ll find of Yemeni arabica variations are bourbon and typica. Bourbon is typically known for the high altitudes it’s grown in and its acidic complexity, whereas typica is a slightly more pristine variety with lower yields, difficult processing, but a distinct sweetness.

However, even though for commercial sake it’s far easier to just label Yemeni coffee according to the overarching bourbon or typica varieties, within Yemeni circles you will find the coffee varieties extend even further, down to the very mountain slope they are grown on. For instance, there’s Tufahi coffee which has a round almost apple like appearance you’d find grown throughout the country, but then there’s also Haraazi Coffee, which you’d only find grown at the high and isolated elevations of the city of Hiraaz. There’s also Ismaeli, Borai, Ahjiri, and countless other variations under the umbrella of Yemeni, arabica beans, and each one boasts its own subtleties in terms of taste and character.

The varied elevations and peculiarities in each coffee region of Yemen provide a plethora of characteristics among cups of Yemeni coffee that are sure to thrill the caffeinated curious. However, there it is far more than location that distinguishes the Yemeni brew.

The Farm Guided by Tradition

A glimpse into the practices of Yemeni farmers is much like taking a step into a time machine, as many farmers still utilize the same methods you would have seen hundreds of years ago during the height of al-Makha port and Yemen’s dominance in the coffee world.

In fact, many of the places that grow the best Yemeni still can’t be reached by motorized shipping trucks, and still rely on donkeys to haul harvested beans from their mountain shelves to the markets below.

There are two factors among the variety of ancestral secrets Yemeni farmers utilize that especially add to the pristine nature of Yemeni coffee. These are their use of selective, manual harvesting coupled with 100% all natural dry-processing.

The steep and isolated elevations Yemeni coffee is grown at eliminates any ideas of utilizing machines to harvest coffee. Instead, the job is left to the well-practiced hands of farmers, and their families, with hundreds of years of tradition and expertise guiding them as they move between trees, careful to remove only the red, ripe cherries whilst preserving the tree for continual harvest.

After meticulously insuring only the perfectly ripe cherries have been picked, the coffee is then spread across rooftops in the dry mountain air, and left for days to dry out the fruity case surrounding the bean. Once dried, the coffee is run through stone mills powered by animals, hand ground, or maybe occasionally finds itself in a machine to separate the coffee bean from its dried fruit casing.

The shells of the dried fruit, once separated, are actually used for another distinctively Yemeni drink called ‘qishr’, while the beans, retaining an earthy yet fruity flavor due to their dry processing, begin their journey to either local or foreign markets.

The Identity Upheld in a Cup

In an age that necessitates mass production even in the specialty coffee market, there’s something reassuring and humbling about the story and tradition behind a Yemeni cup of coffee. There’s a stark historical and human involvement that leaves its trace of care that adds to the character of Yemeni coffee.

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