For our final entry in the African portion of our Countries of Origin series, I will be focusing on the country of Yemen. Though technically part of the continent of Asia, some of the islands controlled by Yemen are closer to Africa. Yemen’s history also shares very close ties with Ethiopia especially with regard to coffee. The country consists mainly of deserts and mountains and has coastlines along the Red Sea and Arabian Sea.
Yemen was the first country to produce coffee on a commercial basis. Coffee was likely first brought there by Ethiopian pilgrims on their way to Mecca. Many Yemeni coffee farmers would likely say that coffee actually originated in Yemen, however, research in the genetic diversity of coffee plants from Ethiopia suggests that is truly the place of coffee’s genesis. Most of Yemen’s coffee is grown in the mountainous regions in the West on terraced plantations. Yemen is also the home of the famous port city of Mocha, the name also given to contemporary lattes with chocolate added.
Yemeni coffee is some of the most difficult to source in the world today. This is largely due to the volatile nature of the country throughout recent decades. There is a substantial presence of terrorist organizations throughout the country and it has been fraught with conflict since the early 2000s. On top of that, foreigners are not allowed within the country’s borders, forcing coffee importers to rely much more heavily on native exporters within the country.
The flavors associated with Yemeni coffee seem to be somewhat divisive. In his very comprehensive World Atlas of Coffee, James Hoffman criticizes the hap-hazard and antiquated methods of drying and processing the coffee cherries as well as the convoluted networks of middle-men responsible for distributing the coffee. He describes Yemeni coffee overall as “wild, complex, and pungent.” Hoffman also cautions buyers going in blindly saying that they may easily end up with something “dirty, rotten, and unpleasant.” Meanwhile, many fans of natural processed coffees prize Yemeni coffees highly for their genuinely unique yet unpredictable flavors.
Unfortunately for lovers of Yemeni coffee, Yemen sits on the brink of a catastrophic water crisis. The country is mostly desert and suffers from regular droughts. Coffee cultivation, like most other agriculture throughout Yemen, relies heavily on irrigation sourced from underground aquifers. These sources of water are being tapped much more heavily than they can be replenished and projections show that they may be dried up within a decade. This adds another layer of instability to the country and could fuel future conflicts. Fanack outlines the challenges facing the country extensively here.