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Coffees from Africa and Arabia: Yemen

Mocha is one of the more confusing terms in the coffee lexicon. The coffee we call Mocha (also spelled Moka, Moca, or Mocca) today is grown as it has been for hundreds of years in the mountains of Yemen, at the southwestern tip of the Arabian Peninsula. It was originally shipped through the ancient port of Mocha, which has since been replaced by a modern port and has fallen into picturesque ruins. The name Mocha has become so permanently a part of coffee vocabulary that it stubbornly sticks to a coffee that today would be described more accurately as Yemen or even Arabian.

Complicating the situation are coffees that closely resemble Yemen in cup character and appearance from eastern Ethiopia, near the town of Harrar. These dry-processed Ethiopia Harrar coffees often are sold under the name Mocha or Moka. They are typically lighter bodied than their Yemen namesakes, but otherwise very similar.

Still another possibility for confusion derives from the occasional chocolate tones of Yemen Mocha, which caused some enthusiast to tag the name onto drinks that combine hot chocolate and coffee. So the term Mocha is an old-fashioned nickname for coffee, a common name for coffee from Yemen, a name for a similar coffee from the Harrar region of Ethiopia, and the name of a drink made up of coffee and hot chocolate.

The World's Most Traditional Coffee. True Arabian Mocha, from the central mountains of Yemen, is still grown as it was over five hundred years ago, on terraces clinging to the sides of semiarid mountains below ancient stone villages that rise like geometric extensions of the mountains themselves. In the summer, when the scrubby little coffee trees are blossoming and setting fruit, misty rains temporarily turn the Yemen mountains a bright green. In the fall the clouds dissipate and the air turns bone dry as the coffee fruit ripens, is picked, and appears in on the roofs of the stone houses, spread in the sun to dry. During the dry winter, water collected in small reservoirs often is directed to the roots of the coffee trees to help them survive until the drizzles of summer return.

Yemen coffees are processed as they have been for centuries. All Yemen Mochas are dry or natural coffees, dried with the fruit still attached to the beans. After the fruit and bean have dried, the shriveled fruit husk is removed by millstone, which accounts for the rough, irregular look of Yemen beans. I have been told that some of these millstones are still turned by camels or donkeys, although I never managed to witness this spectacle. But even millstones turned by little gasoline engines are fascinating and nostalgic for the coffee historian, since they represent the oldest and most fundamental of coffee technologies.

The husks of the dried coffee fruit, neatly broken in half by the action of the millstones, are used to make a sweet, lightly a drink Yemenis call qishr. The husks are combined with spices and boiled. The resulting beverage is cooled to room temperature and drunk in the afternoon as a thirst-quencher and pick-me-up. Yemenis drink roast-and-ground coffee only in the morning, when, after bathing and prayers, they line up at coffee houses for a quick morning cup of coffee boiled with sugar in Middle-Eastern fashion.

Almost all Yemen coffee comes from ancient varieties of coffea arabica grown nowhere else in the world except perhaps in eastern Ethiopia. Yemenis have scores, perhaps hundreds, of names for their local coffee varieties. Most of these names and the trees to which they refer have never been documented, and are identified only within the rich and complex set of oral traditions that make up Yemeni coffee lore. At least one variety is widely recognized (and admired) across Yemen, however: Ismaili, which produces tiny, rounded beans resembling split peas.

Mysterious Market Names. Market names for Yemen coffee are as irregular as the beans themselves. Many names refer both to variety of tree and to growing district. For example, it is never entirely clear when a coffee seller says he has an Ismaili coffee available whether he is describing a coffee from the Bani Ismail growing district, beans from the Ismaili variety of coffee tree, or both.

Given that caveat, this much can be said about market names for Yemen coffee. Mattari, originally describing coffee from Bani Mattar, a very high-altitude growing district just west of the capital of Sana'a, is the most famous of Yemen coffees. Despite the fact that most exporters mix true Mattari coffees with other, similar coffees, coffee sold by that name still is likely to be the most acidy, most complex, most fragrantly powerful of Yemen origins. Hirazi, from the next set of mountains west of Sana'a, is likely to be just as acidy and fruity, but a bit lighter in the cup. Ismaili, regardless of whether the name describes cultivar or region, is also likely to be excellent but a bit gentler and less powerful than Mattari. The market name Sanani describes a blend of coffees from various regions west of Sana'a, and is typically more balanced, less acidy, and less complex than coffees marketed as Mattari, Hirazi, or Ismaili. Sanani usually includes somewhat lower-grown coffees from districts like Rami.

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Adapted from Coffee: A Guide to Buying, Brewing & Enjoying; Espresso: Ultimate Coffee; and Home Coffee Roasting: Romance & Revival. St. Martin's Press.
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