Around the Caffeinated World: Yemen


Coffee in a Yemeni market. [Photograph: Carpetblogger on Flickr]

Coffee beans have have been shuffled from their native Africa to new origins far and wide for centuries, but just how much the actual terroir contributes to a bean's flavor remains up for debate. Both the cultivation and the culture around a coffee crop can differ wildly from place to place, origin to origin, as traditions are handed down through generations.

This is the second column in a series exploring the history and lore of various coffee origins. Today, we'll follow our favorite beans as they venture out of the motherland for the first time, making a pit stop in Yemen.

With its major port, Al Mokha, situated right close to Ethiopia (that is, once you pass through tiny Djibouti), Yemen was perfectly positioned to be the first place coffee visited on its globe-circling trek. Possibly brought by either slaves from the southwest or by spice-hunting traders, Ethiopian coffees were quickly planted in the hotter, slightly more arid soil of this Middle Eastern land.

The terroir might have a hand in the beans' flavor transformation, too, but it's hard to say: The delicacy and fruitlike acidity so prominent in Ethiopian coffees became an earthier, chocolaty ("Al Mokha" sounds suspiciously like "mocha," doesn't it?) cup after the big move. Processing might also have something to do with it, as the coffees were subject to the drier climate.

And with the change of scenery also came a major cultural shift around the brewing and drinking of the stuff itself: While Ethiopian coffee continued to be methodically prepared by a household's most respected female member, imbibing in Yemen became a strictly masculine affair, as men would gather to talk business over the tiny, potent cups in the world's first commercial coffee houses.

What to try: Yemeni beans have largely fallen off the specialty-coffee radar due to concerns over both quality and politics in the region, but some roasters find their way around issues. Peet's Coffee, for instance, has an Arabian Mocha Sanani among its current offerings, promising a "distinctive, pungent, winy flavor."

Next on our global trek around the caffeinated world: The Ottoman Empire and coffee's journey west.