Sunday, July 10, 2016

Yemen: First Coffee

Coffee was discovered in Ethiopia, by a goatherd named Kaldi, according to legend. But it was first cultivated across the Red Sea in Yemen. Because this all happened some time ago, we should add "what is now" to the place names. We should also note that we call the main species of coffee (comprising 70 percent of world production) Arabica because Yemen is on the Arabian Peninsula. About 30 percent is known as robusta because it comes from a heartier, heat-resistant plant that originated somewhere in West Africa.
I was thinking of this recently because a new friend told me of a fort he had visited in Yemen -- constructed by the Portuguese to protect exports of coffee to Brazil. Of course, Brazil itself eventually became the leading producer of coffee, currently growing about 1/3 of the world total of both major types.

This led me to revisit some of my earlier posts about Yemen. In Missing Coffee (2013), I point readers to a whimsical but informative essay by a professor of food science, who explains the importance of Moka. In Arabica and Arabians (2010), I point to a few items related to Arabian iconography in the coffee business.

Coffee grows on terraces at unusually high elevation in Yemen, where it is too hot and
dry for coffee to be grown in more typical circumstances.
Image: Al Mokha
In my coffee seminars, students work in small groups to do research about the coffees of specific countries. They make posters and brew coffee from each country, which we present and serve at a large tasting event. Only one group has undertaken to research Yemen. They had difficulty finding much information about the current status of the coffee industry there. They learned that production is small -- something like 1/10 of one percent of the world total -- and the only vendors they could find were selling by the container (37,000 pound minimum). This suggested that most Yemen coffee production is for commodity markets, but I did find a single-origin source in the strangest place: Amazon.com, which does coffee from Yemen by way of several roasters.

One of those roasters is among those I found in today's research -- a company that is based in my home town and that is deeply committed to the coffee farmers of Yemen. Even though Yemen is not a major producer, its coffee industry is thought to employ one million people, or about 4 percent of the world's population. Washington-based Al Mokha (The World's First CoffeeTM) is connecting customers directly to those workers through direct trade, development programs, and consumer education. I hope to visit with Al Mokha staff during my next trip to D.C.

It is from Al Mokha's blog that I learned about a 2004 report on Yemen's coffee from the U.S. Agency for International Development. A dozen years is a long time -- especially in coffee -- but the great detail of the report suggests that it would be valuable for understanding at least the background of the current coffee scene in Yemen. Yemen's Coffee Revival is a briefer but more recent (2014) report from the regional news magazine Al-Monitor.

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