"In the morning, the grinder mesmerized us—it was a concert that needed no strings..."
—Yemeni poet Husayn b. Ali "al-Khayyat" (c. 1800)
Coffee, as we know it, would simply not exist without Yemen. For nearly two centuries, beginning in the 1500s, all of the coffee consumed anywhere in the world was grown in Yemen. The coffee trees that spurred entire industries in other countries, from Indonesia to Brazil, came from Yemen, too. Even coffee’s name bears the imprint of the Arabian Peninsula, coming from the word quawah, a metonym for wine.
The country’s enduring impact is incontrovertible, but its story is obscured by today’s reality: A war that began in 2015 has become “the world’s largest humanitarian crisis,” according to the United Nations. In addition to ongoing Saudi-led airstrikes and on-the-ground fighting, an unprecedented cholera outbreak and widespread food shortages threaten millions of civilians’ lives.
Last year, we were fortunate enough to partner with Port of Mokha, a coffee export company whose mission is to revive Yemen’s coffee economy by linking farmers to the specialty market. To do this, they must build the supply-chain infrastructure from the ground up. Their goal is nothing short of giving farmers, whose coffee lineage goes back centuries, a viable future in the midst of war.
This year’s release of their coffee coincides with Dave Eggers’ publication of The Monk of Mokha, which not only chronicles the adventures of Port of Mokha Founder, Mokhtar Alkhanshali, but also tells the larger history of coffee. In anticipation of the book, and in celebration of Port of Mokha's extraordinary coffee, we want to consider Yemen’s pivotal role as coffee’s first commercial origin.
Land and Legends
There was a time when American coffee companies marketed all of their coffee, regardless of country of origin, as “Mocha," designating it as a coffee from Yemen shipped from the Port of Mokha. So revered was the origin that it took Congress passing the Pure Food Law in 1906—mandating companies to truthfully label the country of origin—for this to change.
Yemen's fertile landscape and advantageous location enabled the country's monopoly on coffee production. But it was the coffee's profile—chocolatey and full-bodied—that earned such a devoted following. Yemen is remarkably mountainous, with highlands that exceed 3,500 meters in elevation. Its borders and even its name have changed throughout the millennia—it is one of the longest-inhabited places on earth—but it has always occupied the southwest corner of the Arabian peninsula. Bordering the western and southern edge are the Red Sea and Indian Ocean. Even before the Suez Canal streamlined ocean travel in 1869, these waters were among the busiest shipping lanes in the world. Yemen’s port towns have long been of strategic importance. Indeed, the Port of Mokha, for which Mokhtar Alkhanshali’s company is named, was likely the first port to launch coffee out of the Middle East, propelling the ascent of a worldwide drink.
Tax documents of coffee sales date back 400 years, though legend, and Yemen’s literary traditions, point to far earlier beginnings. It’s widely believed that Yemen’s Sufi Muslim community popularized the practice of drinking coffee. A Persian medical treatise dating to the ninth century espouses the coffee cherry's curative powers, and itinerant tradesmen had the practice of crushing the cherry and mixing it with clarified butter for a high-energy snack. Some form of husk-tea, an infusion of the dried outer layer of the cherry (now called qishr in Yemen and cascara elsewhere), was popular long before coffee as we know it emerged. That beverage—where the seed is removed, roasted, and boiled—did not happen until, it seems, Yemen's Sufi Muslim community discovered and sanctioned it for an aid during prayer.
With infatuation comes mystery, and myths abound (as they do in Ethiopia) as to the exact moment brewed coffee came into use. One story credits a Yemeni Sufi traveling through Ethiopia who decided to try the berries that caused unusual liveliness in birds that ate them. An alternate legend tells of a Sufi healer who, after trying to seduce a patient’s wife, found himself exiled to a desert cave. Famished, he tried berries hanging on a nearby branch. Sensing them bitter and too hard to chew, he roasted the fruit in a fire and then boiled the toasted seeds to soften them. The liquid energized him, and ultimately, news of the drink won him freedom and sainthood.
No matter how brewed coffee came to be known, Sufi monks were drinking a version of it by the fifteenth century to aid in nighttime devotions. Coffee took well to Yemen’s arid land: Despite mere inches of rain each year, the coffee trees that migrated north from Ethiopia’s lush forests adapted by producing countless drought-resistant mutations. The stress exacerbated by little moisture and extraordinary elevation forced sugar production in the cherry to make finished coffees that were beautifully sweet and fruited. There, as in Ethiopia, natural processing was the de facto method; wet processing had yet to be invented.
Culture and Trade
"O, Coffee! Thou dost dispel all cares."
—Abd-al-Kadir (c. 1587)
Coffee's role in spiritual practice gave it a numinous quality, and it quickly became a favorite literary subject. Mentions of coffee went beyond mystical experiences to exaltations of the effects it had on the very people who drank it: "It washes away the coarseness from a man's nature," one poet, Ahmad b. al-Husayn Sharaf al-Din wrote. As qat, another stimulating substance, gained in popularity, poets would themselves choose loyalties and write about the virtues of one over the other. From one writer's imagination comes a debate between a woman called Coffee and a man named Qat: "I am the one who is lovely to drink and my nicknames have overtaken the East and West. Merchants from the ports seek me and enter the dreaded seas to obtain me." (Ahmad b. Muhammad al'Mu'allimi, d. 1861) Yemen is, and has long been, a place of poetry and literature—its first alphabet dates to more than ten centuries BCE. But coffee's frequent presence in literature acknowledges the profound shift it had on not just one's mood, but on the ways that people socialized. Cafe culture, after all, presented a novel opportunity for people to gather in non-religious spaces.
According to William Ukers’ tome, All About Coffee, Mecca had coffeehouses in the late 1400s, and Cairo’s first coffeehouses were open at the turn of the sixteenth century—all serving coffee from Yemen, of course. With the accompanying cultural changes it brought, coffee had its critics. Political and spiritual leaders across the Middle East, and eventually in Europe, issued denouncements and outright bans against coffee. In 1511, the governor of Mecca banned coffee because coffeehouse culture too closely resembled raucous taverns. But the edict was quickly overruled by his superior, the Sultan of Cairo, a coffee lover himself. In seventeenth-century Yemen, one imam ordered citizens to uproot all coffee bushes. And when coffee reached Europe, it went by many disparaging monikers, like “bitter Mohammedan gruel,” aimed at dissuading the curious.
With the emergence of global trade, Yemeni merchants tried to hold onto their monopoly by preventing coffee seedlings, or fertile seeds, from leaving. It took elusive Dutch traders, who had long been shipping Yemen's coffee to Europe, to abscond with seeds. Along with a few other famous heists, these thefts brought coffee plants to new lands—sparking new economies, colonization, and the spread of a commodity crop worldwide.
Read about contemporary Yemeni farmers in our interview with Port of Mokha Founder Mokhtar Alkhanshali.