Coffee from Yemen has a long history, but for many reasons until recently quality was not the primary focus. Traditionally, coffee would await export in trader’s basements and grow stale as they anticipated higher prices. This led to Yemeni coffee gaining a reputation for woody and spicy flavours created by this inadvertent ageing. With recent focus turning back towards quality the flavour profile is changing dramatically, full of fruit flavours and bright florality. With the hope that there can be peace in Yemen, and the suffering of its people ended, the country will surely return to its place among the world’s best origins for coffee.
History of Coffee
Yemen was the first country to export coffee, and even today it retains this historical reputation, one built by the farmers and traders who dispatched coffee to the world through the port of Mocha.
Beginning in the 1450s, coffee came to Yemen from Ethiopia via Sufi monks who would drink what they called “qahwa” to stay awake during evening prayers. This usage was essentially a proto-coffeehouse, as worshippers would brew coffee in large pots and pass it along the rows of those praying, who would sip from the bowl with a ladle. It quickly broke out of its religious birthplace and entered everyday life. As demand grew, farmers began planting coffee in small-scale gardens—the coffee would be picked by hand and dried on the roofs of their houses, a method that is still in practice today.
Yemen’s production grew and with it the beginning of exports across the middle-east and eventually the world. The first European country to receive Yemen’s coffee was Holland in the 1640s; the supply chain would eventually make its way to London’s first coffee house, opened by Pasqua Rosée in 1663. This was a golden age for Yemeni coffee—as it was the world’s sole supply, it was in every cup and so inspired the world’s fascination with and love for coffee.
It wasn’t until the 18th century that Europeans began introducing coffee seeds to their colonies, where growing conditions were ideal and slave labour plentiful, thus destroying Yemen’s monopoly. As its own coffee output decreased and production across Africa, Latin America and Asia increased, Yemen’s influence began to wane until it was one of the world’s smallest producers of coffee.
In the modern era, coffee production in Yemen has remained virtually unchanged. Coffee cultivars go back hundreds of years and the methods of cultivation have not progressed much since then. This means that coffee yields are among the lowest in the world and defects are common, but it also means Yemen is a country with huge potential.
Change is indeed coming: exporters like Qima Coffee have been part of this transformation, investing heavily in bringing modern techniques to the country’s coffee production.The results have been remarkable: after only a few years of work, Qima’s offerings have started attaining some of the highest quality scores a coffee can achieve, a truly incredible feat and one which bodes well for the future.
Kiss the Hippo & Yemen
We released our first Yemeni coffee in January 2019. After tasting over a dozen different lots, which represented all that was available in the UK at the time, the first coffee we showcased was called Al-Lahaba. What drew us to Yemen was its long history, which reaches back almost to the very start of coffee. It’s also a place that we often only seem to hear about from terrible stories in the news, so we wanted to showcase the country’s extraordinarily talented coffee producers who are developing some unique and delicious lots.
Kiss the Hippo Team