Every morning at first light, Sa'id Ahmad Wardah makes his way along the winding, cobblestone streets of the Old City in Sanaa, the ancient capital of Yemen. He opens the heavy steel doors to his coffee shop, and then takes up position behind a waist-high, tiled counter-top. He sets the kettles boiling and lays out a tray of clean glasses; within half an hour, the customers start to arrive from the nearby mosque. On a recent morning I found myself surrounded by a talkative crowd of coffee drinkers who were bundled up against the mid-winter chill. I was in Sanaa to investigate the unique qualities of Yemeni coffee, which is not only the world's oldest and most famous, but also one of the most expensive and sought-after of coffees. Sa'id's shop on the edge of the Suq al-Baqr, in the Old City's market district, seemed like a good place to start.
"Bunn halib!" ("Milk coffee!") I shouted my order above the roar of Sa'id's pressure kerosene burners. He poured hot, sugared water into a long-handled, wide-bottomed container called a jazwah, spooned in a tablespoon or so of medium-roasted, fine-ground coffee and added some five tablespoons of evaporated milk. He allowed the mixture to boil up to the rim a couple of times before pouring out a frothy glassful. I took a sip and the hot, fragrant drink soon filled my mouth with rich and pleasantly pungent flavors: smooth, earthy and mellow with just the right touch of acidity to give it some bite. This was followed by the distinct bittersweet, chocolate-like aftertaste that distinguishes Yemeni coffee from all others. When properly made from high-quality beans, there is no other coffee quite like it.
"Water can be drunk in gulps, but not coffee," advised Mohammed Saleh Hussein, an elderly man who was sitting next to me. "Small sips with lots of air. And don't wait for the grounds to settle, because that is where you will find the flavor."
In Yemen, men often drink their early morning coffee at shops before breakfast; women often drink it at home, where many also do their own roasting. But from mid-morning on, the drink of choice among all Yemenis becomes qishr, a delicately flavored, tea-like infusion made from the dried husks of the coffee cherry. Unless one stays in a family home or arrives in a coffee shop sufficiently early, a traveler might see only qishr served, and this has led to the false impression that Yemenis no longer drink their own coffee. Yet the truth is that Yemenis not only drink the best of what they grow, but also on occasion spice it with cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, cardamom or cloves.
Holding the hot glass of bunn halib with both hands to warm my fingers I thought about the discovery of coffee and how it first came to be cultivated in Yemen. Coffea arabica, classified by Linnaeus in 1737, is indigenous to the high-land mountain forests of southwestern Ethiopia, especially the districts of Gamo-Gofa, Sidarno and Kefa, or Kaffa—whose name sounds intriguingly close to the common Arabic word for coffee, qahwah, though most scholars agree there is no documented connection between the two. In those regions, coffee can still be found growing wild beneath forest shade trees.
It is this wild coffee that has been harvested since ancient times, but it is generally agreed that formal cultivation of coffee in terraced fields started in Yemen in the 1300's. There is a surplus of colorful anecdotes and legends regarding the discovery of coffee as a food and beverage. One fable credits the angel Gabriel with showing King Solomon how to brew a decent cup. Another account tells how, in 850, an Abyssinian goatherd by the name of Khaldi found his goats dancing wildly after eating ripe coffee berries. (See Aramco World, September/October 1973.)
Having tasted ripe coffee fruit myself, I think the most plausible explanation is that people originally ate the sweet white flesh of the berry and then discarded the hard, bitter green bean. Like other hard beans, nuts and grains, however, people eventually learned to roast coffee beans to make them palatable. As everyone knows, fresh roasted coffee gives off a wonderful aroma, and when chewed, the beans create a flavorful liqueur in the mouth. Dancing goat theories notwithstanding, I suspect the fragrance, the unique taste and the caffeine jolt are what finally led to the practice of pounding the roasted beans into a powder, mixing that with hot water, and preparing an infusion. No one is quite certain when this event first took place.
Trade routes across the Red Sea have linked East Africa and the Arabian Peninsula since the early first millennium BC, and it has been suggested by William H. Ukers, in his definitive 1922 work All About Coffee, that sometime around the Abyssinian invasion of Southern Arabia in 525, coffee was introduced to the area that is now Yemen. Shaykh Abu Hasan al-Shadhili, the legendary founder of the south Arabian export city of al-Mukha, discovered coffee growing on the terraced slopes of the emerald-green mountains of Osab around the middle of the 13th century. It was villagers, the story goes, who introduced al-Shadhili to coffee as a beverage. The new drink stimulated his thoughts and kept him awake. As a result of his discovery, al-Shadhili began promoting coffee as the perfect drink to help focus one's thoughts and engage in religious contemplation. Coffee also became a common aid to producing a state of kayf which may be described as a condition of dreamy mindfulness and euphoric well-being.
The English word "coffee," however, comes from the Turkish kahveh, which in turn stems from the Arabic qahwah, a word that originally referred to wine. But in Yemen, coffee is called bunn (pronounced halfway between "bun" and "boon"), a word which in other Arabic-speaking countries refers only to the bean itself. This is the term used by 10th-century Arab physician al-Razi (See Aramco World, May/June 1997), who is credited with the first written description of the medicinal properties of coffee. He refers to the bean and the tree as bunn and to the drink as bunchum—which, he adds, is good for the stomach. Shortly after him, around 1000, the scholar and physician Ibn Sina (Avicenna) also mentioned the value of bunchum, claiming that coffee "fortifies the members, cleans the skin...and gives an excellent smell to all the body."
Though the originals of these writings have been lost, the quotations survive in the Argument in Favor of the Legitimate Use of Coffee, a manuscript produced sometime before 1587 by Abel al-Qadir ibn Muhammad al-Ansari al-Jazari, an adherent of the Hanbali school of jurisprudence. Written in response to a religious debate over the merits and legality, under Islamic law, of the beverage that was sweeping Ottoman society, the Abd al-Qadir manuscript is the oldest existing document about the history, preparation, use, virtues, and benefits of coffee drinking. Once coffee had become established in Makkah and Madinah, it wasn't long before pilgrims and traders disseminated it to the far corners of the Islamic world. From there, coffee also came to Europe in the 17th century through Venice, Marseilles, Amsterdam, London and Vienna.
As a result, Yemen's coffee export business boomed during the first Ottoman occupation, which lasted from 1536 to 1636. As the beverage gained popularity, the port of al-Mukha enjoyed an increasingly powerful monopoly as the world's only source of bunn until the 18th century.
It was a pilgrim, Baba Budan, who, on his way home from Makkah to southern India, around 1600, took with him Coffea arabica seeds from Yemen. Almost a century later, the Dutch carried the plant from southern India to their colonies in Java. Commercial coffee cultivation soon spread throughput the Netherlands East Indies (now Indonesia). The French took a single Coffea arabica tree and transplanted it to Martinique in the Caribbean. From that tree, Yemeni coffee traveled to the highlands of Mexico and Central and South America. By the 19th century, Yemen's coffee exports had dwindled to a mere one percent of world demand. In 1893, coffee beans were transported from Brazil to the British colonies of Kenya and Uganda, not far from the bean's ancient roots in southwest Ethiopia. Since its discovery, the drinking of coffee has been a social matter, in Yemen as elsewhere. Carsten Niebuhr, the intrepid Danish explorer who visited Yemen from 1761 to 1763, had this to say about the coffeehouse culture he found:
"These are the only theatres for the exercise of [non-religious] eloquence.... The Arabs would find their evenings extremely irksome if readers and orators, mainly poor scholars, were not there to entertain them. These young scholars walk about and recite or deliver discourses upon all subjects. They make up the most wonderful tales, inventing, singing, making tales and fables."
Sitting in the Sanaa coffeehouse of Sa'id Ahmad Wardah, I asked my fellow drinkers if they knew any verses or songs commemorating coffee. One man from Osab sang me a coffee farmer's song:
Coffee of Yemen, oh pearls!
Oh treasure on the tree!
He who grows you will not be poor,
Nor will he suffer from scorn.
Another man offered a local expression: "If a member of the al-Kibsi family faints, give him the lifah to sniff to revive him." The al-Kibsis are renowned for their love of good coffee, and the lifah is the palm-fiber filter and stopper used in a terra-cotta coffee pot known as jamanah.
As the morning coffee crowd began to thin, I paid a visit to Amin Muhammad al-Kabous, a third-generation coffee roaster and exporter who buys his coffee from farmers he knows and trusts. Amin separates the husk from the bean using a mechanized stone mill, though many coffee merchants still grind by hand in Yemen. He sends the husks to the qishr merchants and then inspects the green beans and smells them to determine their quality. This is followed by a careful sample roast to confirm his selection.
Throughout this process, he takes an artisan's approach to his work, and this attitude is reflected in the excellence of his coffee. Amin looks for large, well-formed beans for the export market, and Japanese coffee buyers, in particular, have developed a long-term working relationship with the al-Kabous family. There are larger and more modern coffee businesses in Yemen, but the al-Kabous operation is the most highly regarded of them all. I asked Amin the secret of running a successful business in such a competitive market.
"There is no secret," he told me. "This coffee is the bounty of God. We protect the quality and we guard our reputation."
As we spoke, poor and elderly men and women came to the shop. They waited quietly at the side of the front door where they were handed small packets of ground coffee by one of Amin's assistants. "The poor?" he said, anticipating my question. "They are known and they don't have to ask. No one should be without coffee."
Hamid al-'Awadi is another successful Sanaa coffee roaster. He carries several different types, but specializes in the coffee from Wadi al-'Udayn. He offers three roasts: a light yellow, usually prepared with ginger and cardamom (and sometimes with sesame or sorghum) that is popular among the tribesmen of the eastern desert; a medium roast to suit the typical Yemeni palate, and a dark roast for export that he calls bunn al-Nasraniyyiin, "coffee for the followers of the Nazarene,"—that is, Christians. He also sells several different grades of husks for qishr. When I asked Hamid about the popular misconception that Yemenis drink qishr because they can no longer afford their own coffee, he laughed. "The truth is that we save the best beans for ourselves," he said. "The early harvest produces the sweetest coffee. It is roasted in small batches, and this is what is served at home. A farmer sells his surplus, but keeps the very best for his family."
Coffee-growing, long a noble and honorable occupation in Yemen, remains widespread, so, following Hamid's suggestion, I drove into the countryside to talk with the farmers who grow the best coffee. I traveled for five days, during which time I made a loop that included the coffee regions of Bani Matar (near al-Mahwit), Wadi al-'Udayn, Yafi' (near Ta'izz) and the region of Osab. In a remote village, near the upper reaches of Wadi Surdud, I was invited to lunch in a private house where young men recited poetry praising coffee. I interviewed farmers, middlemen, and exporters. In each province I bought different types of green bunn to take back to the United States for roasting and tasting. I was curious to know how these samples would compare to each other, and how they might stack up against what is presently available at the top of the coffee market in the United States.
High-quality Yemeni coffee is cultivated on the narrow mountain terraces and in the fertile wadis of the western escarpment roughly between 1000 and 2000 meters' height (3250-6500'). It is produced by small-scale farmers, and one reason for the complex flavor of Yemeni coffee is that coffee is grown in a variety of places with a variety of exposures. Within the same valley or on the same mountain, Yemenis can distinguish different varietal characteristics. They have named the different types of coffee according to the areas in which they grow. Throughout the country, the beans are small and irregular due to the dry conditions, and the color varies from light green to yellow.
Among the coffee regions, Wadi al-'Udayn is among the most renowned—and mangos, bananas, sugar cane and papayas also grow superbly here. Throughout the wadi a beautiful canopy of fig (Ficus vasta) and tamarind (Tamarindus indica) trees provides shade for both the fruit crops and the coffee trees that are interplanted with them. I arrived in Wadi al-'Udayn just as the autumn coffee harvest was beginning. Yemeni coffee is picked by hand, and the best comes when only the fully ripened cherries are harvested. Because not all the cherries on a tree ripen at the same time, each tree must be revisited repeatedly, as the fruit ripens, which extends the picking season over several months.
The coffee cherries are then dried in the sun for two weeks to a month, depending on weather conditions. If the coffee gets wet during this time, it may ferment and develop a sour flavor. Coffee needs even drying conditions, and unpredictable weather can adversely affect the end result. According to a Ministry of Agriculture booklet on coffee-growing in al-Mahwit Province, the moisture content in well-dried coffee cherries varies from 9.5 to 13 percent. The coffee should be hulled within three to six weeks of drying. All coffee in Yemen is carefully hand-sorted to remove stones and unripe or broken beans. The green beans are then stored in a dry place to even out the moisture content prior to roasting.
Because I had read that Yemeni coffee was a natural, organic product, I asked a farmer from Wadi al-'Udayn if he ever used chemical fertilizers or pesticides.
"Who can afford fertilizers?" he replied. "We use dried animal dung, and the irrigation water brings minerals and nutrients. Pesticides?" he laughed. "We tried them on a caterpillar [of the coffee-cherry moth, Prophantis smaragdina] that gets into the green fruit. The government distributed and encouraged the use of this pesticide. It worked for a few years, but the worms came back and then nothing would kill them!"
Following that experience, the farmers of Wadi al-'Udayn went back to their traditional technique of lighting smoldering fires around the trees to smoke out most of the caterpillars. It doesn't kill them all, but it is an effective and time-tested method of pest control. It is just as well that the farmers don't spray pesticides on the coffee fruit because, unlike other coffee-producing countries where coffee husks are discarded, Yemen uses the husks to make qishr.
I returned home with about 20 kilos (nearly 45 pounds) of carefully bagged and labeled green coffee beans. Each sample was roasted and evaluated at several formal tastings that I arranged with coffee roasters near San Francisco. It was at this point I began to appreciate why Yemeni coffee is—with the single exception of Jamaican Blue Mountain—the world's most expensive, commanding a price that can be 30 to 50 percent higher than that of more common specialty coffees.
Coffee buyers in the United States judge green beans first by appearance, and then by roasting and "cupping," which involves brewing individual cups, smelling and tasting. With a surprisingly loud, even aggressive, slurping sound, professional tasters sip lukewarm coffee from soup spoons. The idea is to spray the inside of the mouth with fine particles of coffee and plenty of air without actually swallowing any. The coffee is then spat out, and the taster moves on to the next sample.
Jim Reynolds, coffee buyer and taster at Peet's Coffee & Tea in Berkeley, California was enthusiastic in his praise of Yemeni coffee. "It is very provincial..., a treasure from the earth. Rich, full-bodied, green, nutty, woody, yet inconsistent and unpredictable. Very pronounced tastes: fruity, chocolatey, winey, exotic and complex. Subtleties of flavor are often on a subconscious level—not quite there, if you know what I mean. As in a good friendship, a bit of mystery remains, and this is what makes Yemeni coffee so great." In the blind sampling, Jim was partial to the Matari and Ahjeri beans.
Importers and roasters Bob Fulmer and Helen Nicholas from Royal Coffee in Emeryville, California explained that "in the specialty coffee trade, Yemeni is as special as it can get. Yemeni coffee is the wild card of the coffee business. It has a lot of varietal character and this makes it difficult to maintain consistency, but it is well worth the effort."
While the samples were being roasted, I asked Bob what he looked for in a good Yemeni coffee. He explained that the first step involves detecting any problems or faults. A faintly metallic smell, or a musty, vinegary ferment is the tell-tale aroma of a coffee packed wet or dried improperly. Then he looks for "fruitiness."
"A good Yemeni coffee has a soft blueberry back-taste or flavor," Bob told me. "It is not in the first taste of the coffee, but the second or aftertaste. Deep, thick, rich and full of fruit." With your mouth full of coffee, it helps to exhale through your nose to pick up this subtle but unmistakable blueberry quality. Bob and Helen thought the 'Udayni variety had great body and excellent blueberry notes.
At the Universal Cafe in San Francisco, owner and coffee roaster Bob Voorhees transformed the last lot of my green beans into the finished product. These beans were special to me because they came from the emerald mountains of Osab, where Shaykh Abu Hasan al-Shadhili was said to have first learned the secret of drinking coffee. Bob, however, was unaware of the centuries of lore embodied in the beans he was about to commit to the flames.
"Yemeni coffee doesn't roast evenly because of the irregular bean size," Bob said as he pre-heated the roaster. "The coffee loses about 20 percent of bean weight during the roasting, and I like to maintain the temperature at around 400 degrees [200°C]." Bob poured the beans into the roaster, and soon they began to give off a fresh, woody aroma. The beans start off with an 11-percent moisture content, he explained, and after about nine minutes they begin to pop, as the expansion of internal gases puffs each bean to nearly twice its original size. When the time arrived, I could hardly detect the soft sound of the popping above the roar of the roasting machine and the sound of cascading beans.
"This is where it gets tricky," Bob said as he raised the temperature to 450 degrees (233°C) in order to make the beans, in his word, "sizzle." With great dexterity he sniffed at small samples and adjusted the heat while closely examining the color of the beans. At the decisive moment he threw back a lever. Nine kilos of perfectly roasted bunn Osabi Yemeni coffee spilled out onto a revolving cooling tray and we were enveloped in a wonderful cloud of fragrant steam. The air was filled with the rich, oily smell of coffee, pungent, sweet and smoky. Once the beans had cooled slightly, Bob ground up a handful of them and produced two espressos. For me, just the smell of that freshly ground coffee from Osab was enough to produce an instant state of kayf.
"To the memory of Shaykh Abu Hasan al-Shadhili," I said, lifting my cup.
Bob took a sip, paused, and then took another sip. He was quiet for a few moments before confessing that he was devoted to a particular type of aged coffee from the west coast of Sumatra. But those fabled beans from Osab were starting to work their magic and, with each small sip, I could see his loyalty crumbling.
"Not bad.... Not bad at all," he finally concluded. "You know, I think I really can taste those blueberries."
Eric Hansen is the author of Motoring with Mohammed: Journeys to Yemen and the Red Sea (Houghton Mifflin, 1991). He lives in Sacramento, California.