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Coffee in Middle East

The First Recorded Use of Coffee as a Beverage in Yemen

In this article, readers will embark on a historical journey of coffee in Yemen, beginning with its origins in Ethiopia and its arrival in Yemen. The role of Sufi monasteries in popularizing the drink, and the development of Yemen’s coffee trade in the 15th-16th centuries will be explored. The article will then delve into the cultivation of Yemeni coffee, examining the geographical regions, traditional farming methods, Yemeni coffee varieties, and influence of Yemen’s climate on coffee flavors.

The article takes a closer look at Yemen’s coffee trade, the significant role of the Port of Mocha, its expansion to Europe and Asia, and its influence on global coffee culture, while highlighting the decline in the trade over time. Next, the traditional Yemeni coffee preparation and consumption methods will be discussed, including ingredients, brewing techniques, cultural significance, and modern adaptations. Finally, challenges facing the Yemeni coffee industry such as conflict and efforts to preserve the country’s coffee heritage will be addressed, along with the potential for reviving Yemeni coffee and its global recognition.

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History of Coffee in Yemen

Origins of Coffee in Ethiopia

Although coffee has a long association with Yemen, its origins can be traced back to the neighboring country of Ethiopia. The coffee plant, Coffea arabica, is native to the highland regions of southwest Ethiopia, specifically in the Kaffa province. According to popular coffee legend, a goat herder named Kaldi discovered the energizing effects of coffee beans when he noticed that his goats became unusually active after consuming the berries of the coffee tree. Kaldi shared his discovery with a local abbot, who experimented with brewing a beverage from the beans, and eventually, the popularity of coffee consumption spread across the region.

Historical records also suggest that Arab traders traveling to Ethiopia during the 9th and 10th centuries might have observed locals consuming a beverage made from fermented coffee pulp. However, it is unclear when precisely coffee beans began being roasted and brewed in a form that more resembles modern-day coffee. Nonetheless, it is evident that the origins of coffee as a beverage began in Ethiopia.


Arrival of Coffee in Yemen

The exact chronology of coffee’s arrival in Yemen remains uncertain, but several scholars suggest that it likely occurred around the 15th century. According to a widely accepted account, a Sufi mystic named Al-Shadhili from the port city of Mocha introduced coffee to the people of Yemen after experiencing its stimulating effects while on a trip to Ethiopia. Another popular account attributes the introduction of coffee to Yemen to the Sufi holy man Sheikh Ali ibn Umar al-Shadhili.

Regardless of the specific individuals responsible for bringing coffee to Yemen, it is clear that Yemen played a crucial role in the widespread adoption and trade of coffee. The coastal city of Mocha, located on the Red Sea, became a significant center for coffee cultivation, processing, and trade during the 15th and 16th centuries. The city’s name, which has become synonymous with coffee, reflects the historical importance of Yemen’s role in the coffee trade.


Role of Sufi Monasteries

Sufi monasteries played a significant role in the early adoption and spread of coffee consumption in Yemen. Sufism, a mystical branch of Islam, emphasizes physical practices and rituals that facilitate spiritual awakening and a deep connection with the divine. Sufi practitioners often engaged in long, late-night prayer sessions or meditative practices that required sustained focus and energy.

The stimulating effects of coffee made it an ideal beverage for Sufis seeking to maintain alertness during lengthy spiritual rituals. Coffee houses soon sprang up around Sufi monasteries, and the popularity of the beverage eventually spread beyond religious communities to the broader Yemeni society. It was not long before coffee became an integral part of Yemeni culture and social life.


Yemen’s Coffee Trade in the 15th and 16th Centuries

Throughout the 15th and 16th centuries, Yemen was the epicenter of the global coffee trade. Coffee grown in the fertile highlands of Yemen became renowned for its superior quality and unique flavor profile. It was soon exported to the Arabian Peninsula, Persia, the Ottoman Empire, and eventually to Europe.

Yemeni merchants jealously guarded the lucrative trade and sought to maintain a monopoly on coffee production and export. They implemented strict measures to protect the industry, including a ban on the export of fertile, unroasted coffee beans, ensuring that only beans that had been roasted and rendered infertile could be exported. This ban, along with the port of Mocha’s advantageous location at the intersection of maritime trade routes, contributed to Yemen’s exclusive control over the global coffee trade during this period.

However, as demand for coffee grew, European colonial powers eventually succeeded in breaking Yemen’s coffee monopoly in the 17th and 18th centuries by establishing coffee plantations in their colonies in the Americas, Africa, and Asia. Despite the decline of Yemen’s dominance over the global coffee trade, its historical significance as the birthplace of the modern coffee industry remains firmly etched in history.


Cultivation of Yemeni Coffee

Cultivation of Yemeni Coffee

Yemeni coffee has a rich history and a unique flavor profile that stems from the country’s geographical location, climate, and traditional farming methods. The cultivation of coffee in Yemen dates back to the 15th century, and the country’s beans are highly regarded for their distinctive taste and quality. In this article, we will explore the geography, farming practices, coffee varieties, and the impact of climate on the flavor of Yemeni coffee.


Geographical Regions for Growing Coffee in Yemen

Yemen is located in the southwestern corner of the Arabian Peninsula, bordered by Saudi Arabia and Oman. The country’s topography ranges from rugged mountains to arid desert plains, providing a diverse landscape for coffee cultivation. There are three main regions where coffee is grown in Yemen:

  1. Haraz Mountains: Located west of Sana’a, the capital city of Yemen, the Haraz Mountains are considered the heart of Yemeni coffee production. The region encompasses steep terraced hillsides, with elevations ranging from 1,800 to 2,500 meters above sea level. The high altitude combined with the cool temperatures provides excellent growing conditions for coffee plants.
  2. Eastern Highlands: This region, comprising the governorates of Hadhramaut and Al-Mahrah, is characterized by its rugged terrain and arid climate. Despite the challenging conditions, coffee production has thrived here for centuries. Coffee is grown at elevations around 1,200 to 2,000 meters, providing the plants with ideal conditions for slow maturation, leading to more flavorful and aromatic beans.
  3. Southern Coastal Plains: Coffee cultivation in the southern coastal plains of Yemen takes place between the foothills of the mountain ranges and the Red Sea coastline. The region features both lowland and highland farms, with coffee plants growing at elevations between 500 and 1,600 meters. The combination of coastal breezes, rainfall, and varying elevations creates unique growing conditions that contribute to the region’s distinct coffee flavors.


Traditional Farming Methods

Yemeni coffee farmers use traditional, environmentally sustainable methods to cultivate their crops. Many farms are small, family-owned plots that have been passed down through generations. Traditional practices include:

  1. Terracing: With coffee being predominantly grown in mountainous regions of Yemen, farmers build terraces to maximize the space and conserve water. These terraces increase the surface area available for planting and help prevent soil erosion during heavy rains.
  2. Dry farming: In Yemen, coffee plants are predominately dry-farmed, meaning they do not rely on irrigation systems. Coffee plants are deeply rooted, allowing them to draw water from the soil during the dry seasons.
  3. Organic practices: Yemeni farmers often employ organic methods, avoiding the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. They instead rely on traditional methods and natural sources of nutrients, such as compost and animal manure, to maintain soil fertility.


Yemeni Coffee Varieties

There are several coffee varieties cultivated in Yemen, each with its own distinct characteristics. The most common varieties found in the country are:

  1. Tuffahi: Known for its sweet, wine-like flavor and high acidity, Tuffahi beans are primarily grown in the Haraz Mountains.
  2. Dawairi: Dawairi coffee is known for its bright and fruity flavors, often described as having notes of citrus and apricot. This variety is predominant in the eastern highlands of Yemen.
  3. Ismaili: Often grown in the southern coastal plains, Ismaili coffee showcases a delicate balance of sweetness and acidity, with herbal and floral notes that are highly prized by coffee enthusiasts.


Impact of Yemen’s Climate on Coffee Flavor Profile

The unique climate of Yemen plays a critical role in shaping the flavor profile of its coffee beans. The combination of high altitudes, cool temperatures, and varying rainfall patterns contribute to the slow maturation of coffee cherries, allowing for a more developed and complex array of flavors.

Yemeni coffee is typically characterized by its intense aromatics, bright acidity, and complex flavors. The coffee often showcases wine-like fruity notes and earthy undertones, with subtle hints of chocolate and spices. The diverse growing regions also contribute to the variations in flavor profiles, with beans from the Haraz Mountains showcasing more pronounced acidity, while those from the eastern highlands and southern coastal plains offer a balance of sweetness and bitterness.

Overall, the cultivation of Yemeni coffee is deeply rooted in the country’s history and culture. The combination of geographical regions, traditional farming methods, and climate all contribute to the distinct flavors and high-quality beans that have made Yemeni coffee highly sought after by coffee enthusiasts worldwide.


Yemen’s Coffee Trade and Global Influence

Yemen, a country located at the southwestern tip of the Arabian Peninsula, has a rich history of coffee cultivation and trade that dates back centuries. In fact, coffee is believed to have originated in the highlands of Ethiopia and first cultivated systematically in Yemen in the 15th century. This small Middle Eastern country played a significant role in the global spread of coffee cultivation, trade, and consumption. The following sections will explore the history of Yemen’s coffee trade as well as its subsequent influence on the global coffee culture.


Port of Mocha: Hub of Yemen’s Coffee Trade

The coastal city of Mocha (also spelled Mokha or Mukha), located on the Red Sea, served as the essential hub for Yemen’s coffee trade during the 15th to 18th centuries. The region was well-suited for coffee cultivation due to its high-altitude terrains, fertile soil, and temperate climate. Coffee grown in Yemen became famous for its distinct, rich, and spicy taste, often referred to as “the wine of Arabia.”

The Port of Mocha played a vital role in connecting the coffee traders of Yemen to the merchants in Africa, Europe, and Asia. From Mocha, coffee beans were shipped across the Red Sea and eventually traded in the markets of Egypt, Italy, and the Ottoman Empire. The port became a bustling center for merchants, stimulating the growth of the local economy and turning Mocha into a prosperous city.

The coffee trade in Mocha was tightly regulated, and the Yemeni authorities maintained strict controls over the export of coffee beans. Merchants were required to adhere to closely-monitored trade routes to minimize the risk of smuggling and to ensure that the coffee trade remained under Yemeni control.


Expansion of Coffee Trade to Europe and Asia

The global expansion of the coffee trade began in the 16th century, soon after its introduction in the Ottoman Empire, which served as a crucial gateway for the spread of the beverage to Europe and Asia.

Coffeehouses began to appear in Constantinople (Istanbul) and evolved into social and intellectual hubs. It was not long before the trend spread to Western Europe: first to Venice, Italy, in the early 1600s, then to England, France, and the Netherlands.

Yemeni coffee also gained popularity in Asia, with coffeehouses established in major cities like Mecca and Medina in Arabia, Baghdad in Iraq, and Lahore in India. This helped fuel a cultural exchange that spread beyond the consumption of coffee, influencing literature, art, and politics.

The European powers, fascinated by the potential profits from the growing demand for coffee, sought to bypass Yemeni control over the trade. This led to efforts by the Dutch and French to establish coffee plantations in their colonies, most notably in Indonesia and the Caribbean.


Yemen’s Influence on Global Coffee Culture

Yemen’s role in the global coffee trade has left an indelible mark on the world’s coffee culture. The port city of Mocha, for example, lent its name to a popular coffee blend known as “mocha,” a combination of Arabian coffee beans and chocolate flavoring.

The concept of coffeehouses, first introduced by Yemen’s Sufi monasteries as places for social and intellectual gatherings, continues to be an essential aspect of modern coffee culture. From the Ottoman Empire to Europe and beyond, coffeehouses facilitate conversation, debate, and the exchange of ideas, bridging cultures and socio-economic classes.

Furthermore, Yemeni coffee beans have long been prized for their distinctive flavor profile. Although coffee production in Yemen has diminished over the years, the country continues to produce high-quality beans that are sought after by specialty coffee roasters and aficionados worldwide.


Decline in Yemen’s Coffee Trade over Time

Yemen Coffee Trade

Yemen’s dominance in the global coffee trade gradually declined from the 18th century onwards. Various factors contributed to its diminishing role, including increased competition from European colonies and the diversification of coffee cultivation to other parts of the world, particularly South and Central America.

Another major factor contributing to the decline in Yemen’s coffee trade was the rise of tea cultivation and consumption in the 19th century, which posed a threat to the global demand for coffee.

In recent years, Yemen’s coffee industry has faced significant challenges due to the ongoing civil war, which has disrupted farming activities and trade routes. However, despite these setbacks, passionate coffee farmers, traders, and initiatives work towards preserving and reviving the unique coffee heritage of Yemen for future generations.


Preparation and Consumption of Traditional Yemeni Coffee

Yemeni coffee, known locally as “bun” or “qahwa,” is a unique and flavorful beverage steeped in Yemen’s rich cultural history. The coffee beans used to make traditional Yemeni coffee originate from the Coffea Arabica species, and are grown in the fertile highlands of the country. The preparation and consumption of this treasured beverage involve distinctive roasting, brewing, and serving techniques.


Ingredients and Roasting Techniques

Yemeni coffee beans are typically harvested from terraced fields in the highlands of the country. The coffee cherries are usually handpicked, sun-dried, and then de-hulled to obtain the green coffee beans. These beans are then sorted and cleaned before being roasted.

The roasting process is a crucial part of preparing Yemeni coffee. Traditionally, it is done in a pan on an open fire. The coffee beans are roasted in small batches, allowing them to heat evenly and develop a complex flavor profile. During roasting, the beans undergo various chemical reactions that bring out their unique flavors, including sweet, fruity, and earthy tones. The roast level depends on personal preference, but the beans are typically roasted to a medium or slightly darker shade, which brings out their inherent flavors without overpowering them.

In addition to the beans, Yemeni coffee often features various spices that provide additional layers of flavor. Cardamom, cloves, and cinnamon are common spices used to enhance the coffee’s taste, along with a touch of saffron, which gives it a uniquely Yemeni flair.


Traditional Brewing Methods

Once the beans are roasted and ground, they are brewed using traditional techniques. One such method involves a “jebena,” a coffee pot made of clay, featuring a long neck, narrow spout, and round bottom. Water is heated in the jebena, and then the coffee grounds and spices are added. The mixture is then boiled before being poured into small cups, often through a strainer to catch any remaining coffee grounds.

Another traditional brewing method involves using a “dallah,” a traditional Arabian coffee pot with a pointed spout and a flared top, which is usually made of brass or copper. In this method, the water is first heated in the dallah, after which the coffee grounds are added and allowed to simmer. Once brewed, the coffee is usually strained through a cloth filter, ensuring a clean, rich beverage free from particulate matter.


Cultural Significance of Coffee in Yemeni Society

Coffee holds great cultural significance in Yemen, with roots dating back to the 15th century when the beverage was first cultivated and consumed in the country. Coffee became an important part of Yemeni and Arab society, often enjoyed in gatherings called “qahwa,” where people would come together to socialize, exchange news, and discuss politics, business, and other topics.

Drinking coffee in Yemen is not just about the beverage but has deep symbolic meaning and is often used to signify hospitality and closeness. Offering coffee to a guest is a sign of welcome and friendship, and it is considered impolite to refuse. Traditional Yemeni coffee ceremonies involve brewing and serving coffee with great attention to detail, accompanied by various snacks or sweets, such as dates, nuts, and dried fruits.


Modern Adaptations of Yemeni Coffee

While the traditional Yemeni coffee brewing methods remain an essential part of the coffee culture, modern adaptations have emerged, incorporating strong Arabica beans cultivated in Yemen. A popular trend is mixing Yemeni beans with other coffee varieties, creating unique blends that showcase the diverse flavors of the beans.

Yemeni coffee shops and cafes often offer various takes on traditional Yemeni coffee preparations, allowing customers to experience the rich history of the beverage through both customary and contemporary techniques. Furthermore, coffee enthusiasts worldwide are increasingly seeking Yemeni beans for their distinct flavor profiles and rich cultural heritage.

In conclusion, Yemeni coffee is a storied and delicious part of Yemen’s rich history and cultural legacy. Its unique ingredients, roasting techniques, and brewing methods have stood the test of time; however, modern adaptations are also paving the way for new and innovative ways to enjoy this traditional beverage. Those who have the opportunity to taste this cultural treasure will undoubtedly be captivated by its deep, nuanced flavors and rich Arabic heritage.


Challenges and the Future of Yemeni Coffee

Impact of Conflict on Yemen’s Coffee Industry

Yemen has a long, proud history of growing and producing coffee. The cultivation of coffee in Yemen dates back to the 15th century. Despite its rich coffee history and the unique flavors of Yemeni coffee, the country’s coffee industry has been severely impacted by the ongoing conflict.

The war in Yemen has caused extensive damage to the country’s infrastructure, including its coffee farms and supply chains. This has led to a decrease in production and a significantly reduced workforce. Due to the war, many farmers have abandoned their coffee farms in search of safety, leaving the crops unattended and deteriorating. Additionally, the conflict has disrupted crucial trade routes, making it difficult for Yemeni coffee growers to export their beans.

Amidst the conflict, the Yemeni coffee farmers face additional challenges such as limited access to water, fertilizers, and adequate farming equipment. This hampers their ability to produce the high-quality coffee beans Yemen is known for, reducing the incentive for international coffee companies to source their beans from the war-torn nation. With the prices of Yemeni coffee beans skyrocketing and the quality often compromised, global coffee companies opt for less expensive and more stable sources.


Efforts to Preserve Yemen’s Coffee Heritage

Despite these challenges, efforts are being made to preserve Yemen’s coffee heritage, support Yemeni coffee farmers, and reintroduce Yemeni coffee to the world. Local nonprofits, with the support of international organizations, are providing necessary resources, such as training and equipment, to enable Yemeni coffee farmers to maintain their farms and improve their production processes.

Some Yemeni coffee companies have taken it upon themselves to bring their coffee beans to the international market. They collaborate with international coffee roasters and buyers to increase the visibility of Yemeni coffee at coffee events and tastings around the world.


Global Recognition of Yemeni Coffee

The unique flavors and characteristics of Yemeni coffee have garnered attention and appreciation from coffee enthusiasts worldwide. In recent years, Yemeni coffee has won several prestigious awards at international speciality coffee competitions, further highlighting its potential in the global market.

These accomplishments signal that, despite the difficult circumstances faced by Yemeni coffee farmers, their coffee retains its unique taste and quality. Moreover, it demonstrates that the international coffee community recognizes and values Yemeni coffee and is keen to support the growth and regeneration of the Yemeni coffee industry.


Potential for Reviving the Yemeni Coffee Industry

Yemeni Coffee Industry

The prospect of reviving the Yemeni coffee industry depends on several factors. First, the ongoing conflict needs to be resolved before any form of industry recovery can take place. International efforts to foster peace and stability in the region could pave the way for the return of Yemeni coffee farmers to their lands and allow them to resume production.

Once the conflict subsides, it will be crucial to focus on infrastructure development and the establishment of channels to facilitate the movement of Yemeni beans to the global market. This includes the restoration of trade routes, improvement of transportation systems, and the construction of processing facilities.

Another critical aspect of reviving the Yemeni coffee industry is the need to develop sustainable and environmentally friendly farming practices. Given the country’s water scarcity, this may involve adopting innovative irrigation techniques or utilizing alternative crops that require less water. By embracing sustainability and environmental responsibility, Yemeni coffee farmers can ensure the long-term viability of their coffee production.

Lastly, continued global support and recognition for Yemeni coffee will be essential. The collaboration between international coffee companies and Yemeni growers should be encouraged and strengthened to foster growth and ensure the ongoing success of Yemen’s coffee industry. By combining these efforts, there is potential for Yemeni coffee to overcome the current challenges it faces and flourish once again on the world stage.


FAQs on The First Recorded Use of Coffee as a Beverage in Yemen


1. When and where was coffee first consumed as a beverage?

The first recorded consumption of coffee as a beverage took place in Yemen in the 15th century, particularly at Sufi monasteries, where the monks used it as a means to stay awake and improve their focus during night prayers (Pendergrast, 2010).

2. What types of people first began using coffee as a drink in Yemen?

Sufi mystics, who pursued Islamic spirituality at their monasteries in Yemen, were the initial consumers of coffee, using the drink as an aid to maintain alertness and concentration during extended periods of prayer at night (Hattox, 1985).

3. How was coffee brewed for consumption in 15th century Yemen?

In 15th century Yemen, the coffee beans were roasted, ground, and then mixed with hot water to create a drink called, qahwa, which means to “avert sleep” – reflecting its primary purpose of aiding in nighttime prayer (Hattox, 1985; Pendergrast, 2010).

4. From where were the coffee beans sourced in Yemen during this time?

The coffee beans initially used in Yemen were imported from the southwestern highlands of Ethiopia, where coffee plants (Coffea arabica) had been cultivated and consumed for centuries in the form of a chewable energy source (Pendergrast, 2010).

5. How did the use of coffee as a beverage spread from Yemen to other parts of the world?

Coffee’s popularity as a beverage in Yemen rapidly spread through the Arab world, facilitated by the extensive trading routes of the Ottoman Empire. By the 16th century, coffee had reached Turkey, the Middle East, North Africa, and eventually Europe (Weinberg & Bealer, 2001).

6. What role did Sufi monasteries play in the dissemination of coffee consumption?

Sufi monasteries played a pivotal role in promoting coffee consumption in Yemen and across the Islamic world – it served as a reliable stimulant that facilitated long hours of nocturnal prayer and meditation. The strong network of Sufi monasteries helped in disseminating the beverage rapidly (Pendergrast, 2010).



Related Article:

The Spread of Coffee Cultivation in Yemen during the 15th Century



Hattox, R. S. (1985). Coffee and Coffeehouses: The Origins of a Social Beverage in the Medieval Near East. University of Washington Press.

Pendergrast, M. (2010). Uncommon Grounds: The History of Coffee and How It Transformed Our World. Basic Books.

Weinberg, B. A., & Bealer, B. K. (2001). The World of Caffeine: The Science and Culture of the World’s Most Popular Drug. Routledge.