Posted in Kafevend Blog
When you go out for coffee do you like to linger over a latte; do you crave a cappuccino? Perhaps, and let's keep the alliteration going a little longer, you prefer to muse on matters with a mocha. It's the mocha which brings us closest to our subject for today, but although for many of us the mention of mocha conjures up a delectable mix of coffee and chocolate, mocha coffee can also mean something quite different.
While wild coffee has grown in Ethiopia's Great Rift Valley since time immemorial, it was in Yemen, lying to the south of Saudi Arabia, that it was first formally cultivated. The coffee that was farmed then and is still grown there to this day is the mocha coffee bean, a variety of arabica coffee. The coffee takes its name from the port of Mocha, on Yemen's Red Sea coast. In fact, it's where global trade in coffee first began. The Dutch are believed to have started the ball rolling all the way back in 1628. By the early years of the 1700s both the Dutch and the French had built factories in the port and were exporting coffee in volume back to Europe.
Coffee is cultivated on terraces in the country's mountainous regions in much the same way as it has been for centuries past. Summer mists and rain help the mocha beans along, until by autumn the weather turns very dry and the beans are ripe for harvest. The dry weather and scarcity of water resources mean that the crops are dry-processed; hand picked coffee cherries are laid out in the sun and left until the skins have dried out and shrivelled. The skins are then removed via millstones and the coffee cherries crushed, a practice lost to mechanisation in most locations.
Rather than being discarded, the dried coffee cherry skins are boiled and mixed with spices such as ginger and cardamom to create a drink called qishr. Coffee tends to be more of a morning drink in Yemen, with the milder qishr taking over as a thirst quencher in the hot afternoon sun.
As well as being harvested and processed the old way, Yemen's mocha coffee beans are mostly grown organically too. Unsurprisingly then, mocha is both sought after by coffee connoisseurs and very expensive to boot. Few of us will have tasted pure mocha coffee from Yemen because the coffee plants taken by European colonists of the past to grow in other climatically favourable locations eventually resulted in affordable coffee for all and a much smaller role for Yemen's coffee industry. Although it continued to meet its own domestic demand, by the nineteenth century it accounted for a mere one percent of the global coffee market.
Another obstacle to coffee export in Yemen today is the growing prevalence of qat, a stimulant, which farmers grow as a cash crop to help them stay economically viable. Nevertheless, just as farmers in Latin America are being encouraged by government initiatives to grow cocoa in place of coca, so too are Yemeni farmers being urged via support from their government to turn land back over to coffee. Let's hope they succeed; then we can look forward to more opportunities for relishing true Mocha in the future!