Bani Ismail Lot 5
Sana’a Governorate, Yemen
Much of coffee’s early history is shrouded in mystery and folklore. Legends of goat farmers discovering coffee and its magical effects on the body have passed through generations, and have influenced the entire way we think about the drink. For years coffee was considered a mysterious drink, one Ottoman king even putting the drink on trial for allegedly causing “drunkenness.” Clergymen in the 16th century dubbed coffee as “the devil’s drink” until Pope Clement VIII tasted it and according to legend remarked “This Satan’s drink is so delicious that it would be a pity to let the infidels have exclusive use of it.” This same mysterious beverage would become the favorite drink of philosophers Voltaire, Kant, and the father of existentialism, Kirkegaard. Is it any wonder these great thinkers loved coffee. Between the stimulating properties and the complexity of flavor, it’s not surprising these men were able to consider the most fundamental and mystical aspects of human-life itself.
All of these figures were drinking coffee from a very special place, what most consider an under-examined but historically significant origin: Yemen.
It’s widely accepted that coffee cultivation in Yemen was a byproduct of trading within the Arabian Peninsula, specifically between Yemen and Ethiopia, the latter being the genetic homeland of coffee. Because of this, Yemen and Ethiopian beans (namely from Harrar) look very similar and contain a relatively similar flavor profile. Both beans are very small and round, and both are usually naturally (dry) processed which with flavors of red berries and flowers. Nonetheless, those who are familiar with coffees from Harrar and Haraaz will tell you there’s a major difference not to be overlooked.
Grown at some of the highest elevations in the world, Yemeni coffee cherries develop very slowly, aided by cool seasonal mists throughout the summer. Over several months sugars will migrate from the cherry into the bean resulting in a sugary-sweetness which acts to balance the remarkably refined acidity. In the fall the air turns extremely dry which aids in ripening the fruit, but also causes the beans to become denser than their cousins in Ethiopia. Once the cherries are harvested, they’re often laid on roofs and patios to dry in the intense sun, effectively drying both the cherries and the seeds (beans) inside. This method of processing allows the cherry to impart flavors onto the beans. When done correctly, this will lead to lush fruited flavors, but when done incorrectly can lead to off-flavors such as paper and sourness, or worse.
At best, Yemeni coffees are capable of displaying a historical flavor of coffee. The coffee trees in Yemen are directly related to the original coffea arabica, meaning the genetic makeup of these coffees can be traced back to the earliest ancestor. Additionally, because of Yemen’s physical landscape and relative isolation, Yemeni coffee has evolved genetically to withstand the harshest conditions, creating varieties which cannot be found outside of the country.
Why does coffee from Yemen Matter?
Yemeni coffee is our connection to the ancient flavors of coffee dating back hundreds of years ago. The flavors you’ll taste are similar, if not the same as what “Sufis drank in Cairo in 1510, as Europeans first discovered in Constantinople, and as Diderot and Voltaire enjoyed in Paris in the eighteenth century.”1 Yemeni coffee is a modern marvel to put it lightly. While the rest of the coffee-growing world has rapidly adapted to new growing and processing methods, including the focus on growing unique and exotic cultivars (i.e. Gesha, Rume Sudan), Yemeni coffee has remained largely unchanged by the outside world.
In the last decade Yemen has drawn the eye of specialty coffee roasters unlike ever before. While Yemen coffee has always been highly sought after, there seems to be a revival taking place. I think there are several causes for this which I will list here.
- Roasters Seeking Remarkable Seeds: One major change in coffee over the last decade or so has been the focus on roasters to seek out mind-blowing coffees from all ends of the globe. I believe this has naturally led coffee roasters to Yemen, where the coffees highlight the best that Ethiopians can offer with distinct flavors not found elsewhere.
- Dry-Processing Revival: Several years ago, for some reason or another, coffee roasters became a little less than obsessed with dry-processed coffees. I’d like to think this is because they finally realized dry-processing can lead to really wild flavors and not just defect tones. Naturally (pun-intended) roasters realized Yemen only processes coffees this way.
- The Monk of Mohka: Last year author David Eggers released the critically-acclaimed book Monk of Mohka which follows a young Yemeni-American man who traveled to Yemen in order to bring the amazing coffee back to the states. The story goes that as he was attempting to bring coffee samples back from Yemen a civil war broke out and he was subsequently arrested. Upon release he escaped Yemen and managed to bring the coffees to the US. Between his story and the apparent outstanding quality of the coffees, Yemen was once again placed at the center coffee’s history.
These factors have definitely led coffee companies around the world to focus in on Yemen as a truly unique origin. My own first experience with Yemeni coffee came from working at a small roastery that was able to purchase a bag because it had torn and the coffee had spilled out. The owner heard about this and using his connections was able to secure this single bag. I distinctly recall tasting the lush-strawberry tones and thinking “there’s something different about this coffee.”
Utopian’s founder, Brendon Maxwell, has always been drawn toward finding the intersection where coffee meets real-life struggles for small farmers and marginalized people. This eventually led him to an interest in Yemen, which is currently suffering one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world. Around 8 million people are facing starvation, while another 22 million lack the most basic healthcare services. Utopian Coffee wants to find a way to help and one way is by supporting the farmers who are cultivating this amazing coffee.
Our partners at Rayyan Mill have provided an excellent resource to the local farmers. Believe it or not, many former coffee farmers have turned to cultivating khat (qat), a drug used for its euphoric and stimulating properties. While Yemeni coffee has drawn the interest of honest and hardworking coffee professionals, it has also drawn the attention of those who wish to exploit farmers. In every coffee-producing country there are individuals we call “coyotes” who will swoop in and purchase coffee from farmers below market price and flip the coffee for a much higher price. While in our minds we may think of these people as dirty, grimy looking bandits they are far too often wealthy people from surrounding nations including the United Arab Emirates and Turkey. If you don’t truly invest time into checking where your coffee is coming from you could easily purchase coffee from coyotes.2 Rayyan Mill purchases the cherries directly from the farmers at true premiums and processes them at their state-of-the-art coffee mill. Another issues that have plagued farmers is an inability to process their coffees consistently. In some parts of Yemen, farmers still process their coffee from beginning to end. The issue is a lack of education as far as how processing will effect the end quality. Too often farmers would allow their cherries to ferment too much resulting in defective cup qualities. Rayyan Mill brings the cherries to their own mill and processes them using extremely high standards and technology, this way no potential flavor is lost!
This year we tasted several lots from Yemen, and the Yemen Bani Ismail Lot 5 really stood out to us. In the cup, expect flavors of wild strawberries, violets, and deep chocolate, classic of Yemen coffee3. Aromatically, this coffee reminds one of clove, bay leaves, and rose hips.
1. Quoted from Kenneth Davis amazing book “Coffee: A Guide to Buying, Brewing, and Enjoying.” Fifth Edition, 2013. Page 66. ↩
2. We’ve encountered these people on several occasions. They’ll charge extremely high prices for the coffee and the quality will be outstanding, but they’re completely unable to tell you anything about the actual people, their lives, or where exactly the coffee comes from. ↩
3. Where do you think the term Mocha (a latte with chocolate) originates? More than likely from the syrupy-chocolate flavor of Mokka beans in Yemen. ↩