This article is part of our return to origin series.
The history of coffee is long, full of intrigue, and a cause of global power struggles. Yet, all that began with the simple relationship between the plant and the farmer. Coffee was first discovered by a goatherd named Kaldi in Ethiopia in the ninth century. Whether this origin story is legend or truth (which, worry not, will be explored another time) is not the task at hand. What is important, is that coffee went from a locally used food additive, to a widely consumed beverage all over the known world. This expansion occurred when coffee was brought across the Arabian Sea into Yemen.
In the 15th century, Yemen became the first region to cultivate and export coffee. This was to become a cultural shift as coffee became ritualized into the lives of many nations. As the cradle of the modern coffee trade, Yemen hosts nearly all families of Arabica coffee, in fact almost all Arabica species can be traced back to Yemen (hence the term, Coffea Arabica).
The modern coffee industry in Yemen is very unique. Water and arable land are very precious in Yemen, in addition, depleting soil nutrients and remote growing locations lead to a huge amount of heirloom varieties of Arabica in the country. This variation is reflected in the cup. David (Rabbit Hole Roasters co-founder) writes:
My first few cups of Yemeni coffee were completely different from what I am used to. I still have trouble explaining it even after tasting 30+ lots from the country. This coffee experience cannot be replicated from any other origin, either you’re drinking coffee from Yemen or you’re not. For instance, a tasting note I've never had in any other origin, yet appeared in three different Yemeni coffees was mulberry.
As mentioned, the agricultural challenges (not to mention war and geo-political implications) lend to Yemeni coffee being a very unique product. However, one of the main challenges facing Yemeni coffee is traceability. Much of the coffee produced in Yemen comes from small households (99,000 in 2000), which average around 250 lbs of raw coffee in that particular year.* As such, each household's crop is often combined with others of the region.** This leads to coffee being traceable back to the region, rather than to the farms they came from. In addition, coffee varieties are often referred to by local names, which often sees different names attached to the same variety of coffee.
So what does all this mean for consumers and producers alike? Well, for the consumer, this often leads to an exciting experience in the cup. The conditions of Yemeni coffee production lead to wild, pungent, complex, even funky notes, which can be a positive for the producer. However, the lack of precise traceability found in other origins (for example Africa or Central America), can leave Yemen behind in terms of consistent and reliably sourced product.
Yet, there is exciting work being done to solve this issue, and the result may not only elevate the Yemeni coffee industry, it may change coffee on a global scale.
Next time, we will discuss Qima Coffee, the discovery of a potential new strain of Arabica, and the potential implications for the future of coffee in both Yemen and around the world.
* James Hoffmann, The World Atlas of Coffee, 175.
** Though, larger households sometimes sell under their own name, thus making the coffee traceable to the specific farm and not the wider region.
Charles joined Rabbit Hole in the Fall of 2020 as a creative consultant. He has been both a professional photographer, videographer, and writer. After completing his MA on the History of Racism, he strives to be socially engaged in all aspects of his personal and professional life. When writing, he follows the mantra of Dr. Cornel West: “bear witness and speak truth to power.”
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Arabica coffee originates from the cloud forests of Ethiopia, not Yemen. It was cultivated on mountain terraces in Yemen.
From Yemen, it passed through the port of Mokka, was introduced by Sufi mystics into Medieval Islamic Arabia, used in their devotions.
Coffee then spread through the Ottoman Empire and into Europe.
Carolus Linnaeus incorrectly attributed coffee to Arabia, Coffea arabica, as at the time it was believed to originate from Arabia.
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I really enjoyed this! I am super excited for the more that there is to come! 💖