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Yemen’s Erratic Bean

TIMES STAFF WRITER

“What’s the name of this plantation?”

“Beit al-Rabh,” said my driver. “The home of the baboon.”

“There are baboons around here?”

“Millions. They eat the coffee cherries sometimes. It’s a problem.”

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Ah, but where to begin with the coffee problems of Yemen, where coffee-drinking began in the 15th century?

For three centuries, Yemen had the world monopoly on coffee production. Merchants came from all over to buy coffee at Mocha, its port on the Red Sea. The new coffee trade handily replaced the spice and incense trade that had enriched Yemen in the Middle Ages.

Then in the 18th century, Dutch merchants smuggled out some live coffee plants and the jig was up. People started growing coffee throughout the world’s tropical and subtropical highlands.

In the 19th century, to add insult to injury, the Turkish and British empires built up rival ports on the Red Sea and starved out Mocha’s remaining trade. Mocha is a ghost town today. Nothing is left but the association of Mocha with Java coffee (in Mocha-Java blends) and chocolate, both of which are complemented by Yemen coffee’s winey, cherry-like flavor.

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While Yemen was being menaced by Turkey and partly occupied by England, which depended on the port of Aden at the southern tip of the country to protect its East India trade, the western highlands remained doggedly independent under a dynasty of isolationist imams who had ruled there for more than a thousand years. They resisted the modern world, with its electricity and paved roads and other fripperies, as long as they could. It wasn’t until after World War II that an imam established diplomatic contact with the U.S.

Yemen was so out of touch it didn’t participate in the International Coffee Trade Agreement of 1962, which fixed export quotas for the main coffee-growing nations. So until the agreement collapsed in 1989, Yemen was effectively frozen out of the international coffee trade--except to other countries that hadn’t signed the agreement, basically Japan and the USSR. And they only saw Yemen as a source of cheap coffee--until 1989, when the agreement collapsed.

As a result, Yemeni farmers got such a low price for their coffee that it wasn’t worth the time to pick for ripeness. They took to strip-picking the whole crop--ripe, underripe and overripe--at the same time.

Yemeni coffee was erratic to begin with; some would say that’s its charm. Partly because transportation is so difficult in Yemen, farmers often store beans for months at a time in their houses, where beans may acquire musty or smoky flavors. The traditional winey quality of Yemen coffee is actually due to fermentation of the beans.

To put it mildly, the product of Yemen’s thousands of dispersed coffee plantings is a mixed bag. A merchant in Sana expects about 5% of a shipment to be stones and other extraneous matter (even plastic toys have been found) and 10% damaged beans. Even after the merchants sort it, the beans are still of inconsistent quality.

So Yemeni coffee is a serious challenge for the importer. “Yemen coffee is the wild game of coffee,” says coffee importer Tim Castle. “You never know what you’re going to get. No two sacks are the same. No two beans in a sack are necessarily the same.” Still, at its best, Castle says, Yemeni coffee is “quite good.” And true Yemen Mocha is highly prized by coffee connoisseurs.

Yemen doesn’t even produce much coffee to begin with--only 50% more than Kona on the island of Hawaii. Often, says Castle, beans labeled “Yemeni” are really from Ethiopia. A lot of farmers (grain farmers as well as coffee farmers) have switched over to the narcotic qat plant, which is easier to grow and brings in more money.

Nevertheless, a visit to Haima, the coffee country west of Sana, is a splendid drive. (“The terraced fields and valleys of the two Haimas are among the richest and most beautiful agricultural regions, and much coffee is grown there,” says the Encyclopedia of Yemen.)

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Haima is divided into two parts, Inner and Outer. A handsome highway built by Chinese engineers in the ‘70s runs through Outer Haima, which is mostly sorghum-farming country; Inner Haima, which has always been a premier coffee region, is accessible only by donkey. From the highway, Haima is a stunning panorama of steep, terraced slopes.

Beit al-Rabh is actually in Outer Haima, on bottom land near a seasonal stream bed. Farmers prefer to grow coffee near a source of water rather than on a terraced hillside, because coffee trees need a certain amount of summer irrigation.

The plantation is like a small orchard with a few fruit trees--limes, figs--scattered around to provide the partial shade coffee trees like. You’d never mistake it for a plantation in tropical Indonesia or Central America, surrounded as it is by barren, rocky hills.

The crop from plantations like this one will be dried on the farmer’s rooftop and eventually carried to coffee markets, stone warehouses in mountain villages such as Suq al-Aman. Down the road from the Suq al-Aman market is a “factory,” where a crude machine removes the dried husk from the coffee beans--or most of them.

The husks are not thrown away. They have no value on the international market, but they can be brewed into a tea with a flavor something like green coffee (much improved if you add ginger and cinnamon). This coffee husk tea, gishr, is now the national beverage.

That’s what Yemen’s problems have come to. In Yemen, the original home of coffee, the source of some of the most distinctive coffee, people rarely drink coffee these days.


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