Yemen Coffee: Exotic Beans With Ancient Origins

Hi! My name is Arne. Having spent years working as a barista I'm now on a mission to bring more good coffee to the people. To that end, my team and I provide you with a broad knowledge base on the subject of coffee.

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On the Arabian Peninsula, right by the Red Sea, lies a country that produces some of the best coffee worldwide. Yemen coffee, which boasts a centuries-old tradition, has flourished despite adversity.

On the Arabian Peninsula, right by the Red Sea, lies a country that produces some of the best coffee worldwide. Yemen coffee, which boasts a centuries-old tradition, has flourished despite adversity.

More than anything, exceptional quality defines Yemeni Arabica coffee beans. It’s no wonder this brew can command as much as $16 per cup, making it one of the world’s most expensive coffees!

I’ve been curious to explore what makes this ancient coffee tick for a while now. So, please join me on this exciting coffee journey. Let’s uncover the secrets of this exotic brew, worthy of mention in the literary classic Lawrence of Arabia.

A Brief History of Yemen Coffee

Coffee historians agree on the origin and discovery of coffee: Ethiopia circa 950 CE. But Yemenis pride themselves on being the first culture in history to cultivate coffee, starting in the 1400s.

Legend has it that Sufi mystics first brewed coffee to drink. The stimulating effects helped them through their night-long meditations, hence they and others in Yemen established the first plantations. Via Yemen, coffee – or qahwa (incidentally the same word for wine in Arabic) – became a cornerstone of Islamic culture and hospitality.

So, what are the secrets behind Yemen’s Arabica Mochas, some of the best coffees in the world? The first is the favorable growing conditions found in the mountains near the Red Sea. The second is the smallholder families’ dedication passed down through the generations.

The third is the world’s most genetically diverse heirloom coffee seeds, cultivated from Ethiopian accession varieties. In fact, 90 percent of the world’s cultivated Arabica coffee plants trace their origin to Yemen.

The Rise of the Port of Mokha 

With coffee came economic prosperity, which the Yemeni Ottoman rulers fought to protect. Have you read Marco Polo or watched the Netflix TV series lately? Allow me to explain.

Mocha Publicdomain

As seen in Marco Polo, any trader caught smuggling silkworms out of Imperial China faced certain death. Like the Chinese, Yemeni Ottoman rulers adopted a similar policy. For almost two centuries, coffee could only leave the port city of Mokha under their strict supervision. Moreover, they only permitted roasted coffee to leave, for fear of others germinating the seeds.

However, as with the silkworm, which two Byzantine monks smuggled to Constantinople in 550 CE, Ottoman secrecy wouldn’t last. By 1650, traders from the Dutch East India Company stole seven Arabica coffee seeds from Mokha. They then shipped these to their Southeast Asian colony, Java.

Once there, Dutch settlers established commercial-level Indonesian coffee plantations. They then proceeded to harvest and export coffee beans to Europe. As a result, the first coffeehouses in Europe, much like their Ottoman counterparts, flourished in the 17th century.

These coffeehouses became centers for intellectual and social discourse. Heck, these early coffeehouses spurred on the Age of Enlightenment and fueled revolutions!

Yemen Coffee Production Today

Sadly, Yemen hasn’t produced a large crop of coffee in recent years. War, famine, disease and political unrest are to blame. Furthermore, a lack of infrastructure and low mechanization have also kept outputs low.

Just how badly did these factors affect the Yemen coffee industry? Disastrously! 

Coffee Beans Hawaiian Islands

In 2015, the Yemen Civil War broke out. Coffee-growing regions, slap bang in the middle of the war-torn areas, were most affected. Farmers abandoned their plantations, turning to growing the more profitable khat, a mild narcotic.

Then, in 2017, things went from bad to worse. The war ramped up, and with it came starvation and disease. Cholera outbreaks affected as many as half a million people. This virtually collapsed the coffee industry. Things were so bad that the UN declared it one of the worst humanitarian catastrophes in modern times.

The Future of Yemen Coffee 

It’s not all doom and gloom, though. In recent years, interest in Yemeni coffee has been resurgent. Efforts from organizations like GTZ Yemen, Pearl of Tahama and Sheba Coffee are paying off. Local specialty roasters are also doing their part to revive Yemen’s distinctive coffee legacy.

Today, Yemeni smallholders have over 130,000 hectares of coffee under cultivation. They produce an estimated 22,000 metric tons yearly. But compared to Brazil’s 3.6 million tons, Yemen’s production is minuscule.

Despite the setbacks, Yemen has done well, exporting coffee worth $20 million in 2020 and $27.6 million in 2021. Most of it went to Saudi Arabia, the US and Japan.

One specialty coffee company, Qima Coffee, is doing exciting things with Yemen coffee. They want to stop the reliance on the original Ethiopian Coffea arabica mother varieties (Typica, Bourbon, SL-34 and SL-17).

After significant research, this company discovered a new mother variety exclusive to Yemen. Dubbed Yemenia, it’s supposedly giving specialty coffees like Kopi Luwak, Blue Mountain, Geisha and Kona a run for their money. One thing it has going for it is its exceptional cup quality! Hopefully, this new variety will mean better yields and more profits for growers.

As of 2023, the civil war has subsided. I predict that Yemen’s coffee industry will come back with a vengeance. With the resilience of the coffee-growing families, and others in the local coffee chain, how can it not?

Yemen Coffee Growing Regions

Coffee in Yemen grows at between 3,000 and 7,900 feet (914 and 2,400 meters) above sea level. The terrain is challenging. Still, due to the bountiful rainfall, humidity and fertile soils, farmers tough it out in the hope of making a good living.

These coffee-growing families use ancient techniques passed down through the generations to terrace their plots. They also use sustainable farming practices to take care of the soil, such as planting forest trees. These trees act as windbreakers for their coffee shrubs and promote a wet, humid climate in an otherwise arid land.

All Yemen coffee is hand-picked and dry-processed. As a result, like Ethiopian Yirgacheffe, it yields a deliciously sweet beverage. Workers dry ripe coffee cherries in thin layers on raised beds for 16 to 22 days. Then, they husk the cherries using a millstone turned by a donkey or camel.

Yemen Coffee Regions

Next comes winnowing, after which workers clean the beans by hand. After sorting, the beans go in jute bags, ready for market.

So, in which Yemeni regions does this black gold grow? The main areas of coffee production in Yemen cover 17 of the 21 governorates. Still, this equates to a paltry 4 percent of Yemen’s land mass.

Here are a few notable coffee-producing areas in the country:

Sana’a 

The Sana’a growing region covers the areas around Yemen’s capital city. This ancient city is one the oldest inhabited cities in the world. What’s more, its coffee tradition dates back to at least the 12th century.

That tradition continues to this day in the souks of the old city. In fact, Old Sana’a is a UNESCO world heritage site.

With an altitude of no less than 7,200 feet (2,194 meters), this region is famous for its fruity and fragrant Al-Sanani coffee.

Bani Mattar

The Bani Mattar mountains are famous for producing Yemen’s world-famous Al-Mattari Mocha. This region, at 8,200 to 9,842 feet (2,500 to 3,000 meters), is Yemen’s highest coffee-producing region.

As a result, all beans from this area are SHB (Strictly Hard Bean). They display earthy and tobacco notes, with a grape-like acidity.

Bani Ismail

To the west of Sana’a is Bani Ismail, famous for producing some of Yemen’s most unique coffees. At high altitudes of 6,561 to 9,514 feet (2,000 to 2,900 meters), it produces small, pea-shaped beans. These are smaller and lighter in intensity than other Yemen coffees.

Hiraz (Haraz)

The Hiraz mountains, west of Sana’a, lie at high elevations of at least 9,842 feet (3,000 meters) above sea level. Coffee thrives here among centuries-old stone steps carved into hilly terraces. The high altitude and fertile soils yield premium organic coffee with prominent fruit flavors.

What Does Coffee from Yemen Taste Like?

Yemen coffee beans are famous for their complex flavor profiles. As with all coffees, however, the taste varies from region to region.

Generally, Yemen coffee is earthy, rich and bold. Some show noticeable dried fruit tones, while others lean toward chocolate or wild, gamey notes. This coffee has a bright, winey acidity and a smooth, satisfying mouthfeel.

Hot Americano Coffee

Some Yemeni coffee beans are famous for their distinctive spicy and herby aromatics, too. Of note are cinnamon, cardamom, lavender, blueberry, honeysuckle and juniper berry.

But coffees from Mokha are in a league of their own. These chocolate-forward coffees take their name from the port city of Mokha. This is the origin of the association of the word “mocha” with chocolatey coffee.

Due to the unrelenting heat, the long and slow growth of the coffee plant and the dry processing method, almost all Yemen coffees are sweet. This sweetness ranges from syrupy to almost honey-like. No wonder the world’s top specialty coffee enthusiasts pay premium prices for these beans!

Here’s an overview of the flavor profiles of Yemen’s main specialty coffees:

Al-Mattari

This Mocha coffee thrives in the Bani Mattar district. It’s full-bodied with a bright, winey acidity. It’s also famous for its complex, spicy, honeyed aromas. Arabian Mocha Mattari has delicious chocolate notes, which java heads especially prize!

Al-Dhamari/Al-Sanani

From the mountains near the southwest of Sana’a comes Al-Dhamari coffee. Like all Yemen coffee, it’s bold but with a medium body and lower acidity.

What’s distinctive about this coffee is its fruity flavor profile and smooth finish. These qualities give it a complex aroma and sweet aftertaste. Al-Dhamari is also labeled Mocha Sanani or Arabian Mocha Sanani at world coffee markets.

Al-Hirazi/Al-Harazi

Haraaz Region Collection Center Haraz

Al-Hirazi coffee comes from the second-highest mountains in Yemen. It’s easily Yemen’s most unique coffee. When you drink this brew, you’ll appreciate its bold richness, sensual mouthfeel and tangy fruit flavor. Like other Yemeni coffees it also has winey acidity but with a slightly lighter body.

Al-Ismaili

Al-Ismaili coffee grows in the central mountains of Yemen. This distinctive coffee from a pea-like bean is earthy but light, with bright, berry tones. It has a characteristic winey acidity and a fruity rooibos-like flavor profile. Chocolate, hazelnut and lemon notes punctuate its finish.

How to Brew and Drink Yemeni Coffee

Yemeni coffee is unique. It develops rather than fades at darker roast levels, intensifying in aroma and body. The winey fruit tones also mellow, magically transforming them into bold chocolate. The darker roast profile also mutes the wild and gamey notes, which not everyone loves.

Because Yemen coffee is big in flavor and aroma, it’s an asset in coffee blends. Specialty roasters use Yemen Mocha in high-end espresso, Mocha-Java and French roast blends to intensify flavors. The Red Sea blend, a combination of Ethiopian and Yemeni beans, is particularly sought-after. It has a delicious buttery body, bright juicy acidity and clean finish.

You’re best off brewing Yemen coffee Turkish-style into a beverage known as qahwa. Serve this coffee to your guests in small cups, partway filled and let the sipathon begin! In Arabic culture, no less than three cups is polite.

Turkish Home Roasting Coffee

In Yemen, they also sip on a traditional coffee beverage, qishr, served in small cups. This less-caffeinated brew uses coffee husks (cascara) instead of ground coffee, brewed with a wide array of spices, such as ginger, cinnamon, cardamom and cloves. These additions bring out the best flavors in the final cup.

While you may not be able to make authentic qahwa, you can still enjoy Yemeni coffees at home. Brew and drink it as espresso or moka pot coffee using a fine grind size.

It’s also excellent as French press coffee or cold brew with a coarse grind. 

And if you’re lucky enough to get some Yemeni Peaberry, go all out! Experiment with a fine to medium grind using a pour-over or drip coffee maker. You won’t regret it!

How to Buy Yemen Coffee

Buying Yemen coffee can be challenging. These coffee beans are super rare and expensive. Few roasters stock them, so it’s incredibly satisfying when you do get some!

First, as with all specialty coffees, look out for the following to ensure you’re getting the real deal:

  • Origin: This is a deal breaker. If its origin is missing from the packaging, skip the purchase.

  • Roast profile: Light to medium roasts typically apply to specialty coffee beans like Arabian Mocha.

  • Roast date: This will tell you how fresh your beans are.

  • Roaster’s details: Genuine specialty retailers and roasters will give you the story behind their coffee beans. They’ll also tell you what they stand for. Try to buy from these guys.

Back to actually buying Yemen coffee. Your best bet is to search online. Visit online marketplaces like Amazon for a start. Some retailers have listed Yemen coffee for sale on the platform.

Degass Coffee Beans Without Airscape Plunger

However, the problem with general coffee marketplaces is that it can take a lot of work to vet authenticity. Remember, Yemeni beans are super rare and you’re more likely to receive counterfeits.

Fairtrade and direct trade roasters offer better odds. They form relationships with individual coffee growers and cooperatives. This ensures equitable trading practices and traceability. Al Mokha, Qima Coffee and Port of Mokha are excellent examples of such roasters.

If online sourcing isn’t for you, visit specialty coffee shops near you. They may stock a whole host of specialty coffees, including Yemen coffee. Failing all that, I would network at coffee events and festivals.

Alternatively, you can opt to seek individual recommendations from fellow coffee enthusiasts. Chances are, you’ll find excellent leads on where to get these enchanting Arabian beans.

Final Thoughts: Yemen Coffee Is Still the Finest Arabica Mocha in the World

Against the odds, Yemen has maintained its credentials as a beacon of authenticity in the coffee world. This certainly shows. Yemeni coffees have unique flavors shaped by the land and climate. It also gets its exquisite qualities from the heirloom coffee seeds and ancient farming techniques.

This is why this coffee is generally expensive. But by choosing Yemen coffee, you support the preservation of a centuries-old cultural legacy. And you get to provide coffee farmers with fair living conditions.

I’m glad to say that the future of Yemen’s Arabica Mocha looks promising. This, despite a troubling history tinged with political unrest and climatic challenges the country has faced and continues to experience.

Have you had Yemen coffee or Arabica Mochas before? It can be hard to source, so I’d love to hear your opinions on this rare coffee. I look forward to reading your comments!

Yemen Coffee FAQ

Yemen coffee has a complex earthy flavor and satisfying mouthfeel. It also boasts a bright acidity, unique sweetness and fruit or chocolate flavors.

Yemen coffee grows in a harsh Arabian Peninsula climate with little to no infrastructure, mechanization or water. As a result, coffee plants grow longer and slower, producing fewer beans. Coffee in Yemen is also entirely hand-picked, raising costs.

Arabica Mocha from the Coffea arabica plant is the most common coffee in Yemen.

Arabica coffee originated in Ethiopia. It spread to Asia, Europe and the world via Yemen’s Red Sea port of Mokha.

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Arne Preuss

Hi! My name is Arne. Having spent years working as a barista I'm now on a mission to bring more good coffee to the people. To that end, my team and I provide you with a broad knowledge base on the subject of coffee.

More about Arne Preuss

Hi! My name is Arne. Having spent years working as a barista I'm now on a mission to bring more good coffee to the people. To that end, my team and I provide you with a broad knowledge base on the subject of coffee.

More about Arne Preuss

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