Yemen’s contributions to the history and culture of coffee are impossible to overstate. It is where the crop was first commercially cultivated and popularized. The peninsula lent the species its name, Arabica, and established its own unique consumption trends including q’shir, a brew made from the dried cherry skins and husks with spices. Innovations like roasting, grinding, the ibrik (or cezve) coffee pot, the coffeehouse, and even the word “coffee” are all gifts from Islam’s Golden age—the globe’s smoldering appetite for coffee was first stoked by Sufi Imams in Yemen’s port of Aden in the fifteenth century.
Freshly landed Yemeni coffee is back in our coffers, and always warrants a little celebration. While the odds might be stacked against coffee in general, Yemeni coffee likely has one of the figuratively and literally steepest uphill climbs to make it to your cup. The country’s climate is dry and unforgiving and its people beleaguered by war, disease and famine. Yet Yemen is blessed with unparalleled history, uncommon elevation, and unusual access to a wealth of genetic diversity. Out of all of this comes a distinctive coffee that defies convention at nearly every turn.
We were really impressed by the immense blueberry fruitiness of this selection from a small group of farmers in and around Bura’a, a district named for its impressive granite mountain, Jabal Bura’a. In 2011, it was added to UNESCO’s list of biosphere reserves, noted for its “rugged mountainous area intersected by several deep valleys rich in rare, vulnerable and endemic plant species.” Located thirty miles or so inland from the crucial port city of Al Hudaydah—a center of regional conflict and which Saudi and UAE backed forces have made bids for control—Bura’a, its people, and its local biodiversity, including coffee, remain at the highest of risks.
Our finest quality Yemeni coffees have frequently come to us from the Muslot family; Royal has been buying coffee from Ali Hibah Muslot and his children since 1984. This year, exceptional coffees from the Pearl of Tehama company run by Ali Hibah’s daughter, Fatoum Muslot, have been especially impressive. Elsewhere on the blog you can read an extended interview with Fatoum to hear more of her story in her own words.
The coffee farming community in Bura’a is tiny. Small outlying villages tend to have community-style gardens for their coffee terraces, typically farmers who share the plots also share a common ancestor, and have inherited the land, passed down in this manner for centuries. Most are averaging tiny, 2,500-tree coffee gardens, relying almost exclusively on traditional horticultural and preparation methods. Ms. Muslot has worked tirelessly to improve practices and traceability for her coffees, down to providing the names of many of the individual farmers who grow each lot of coffee she has supplied this year.
We’re pleased as punch to present this sustainably sourced Yemeni coffee to the American market with all its glimmering fruit flavors in both 10kg Crown Jewel boxes and 60kg Ecotact lined bags.
Yemen, apart from Ethiopia, boasts the world’s greatest genetic diversity of varieties, and was once thought to be the origin of the species Arabica—so named by Carl Linnaeus for the peninsula that supplied the world at the time. Coffee does grow wild in parts of Yemen, and the landrace varieties are not well documented. The country is the origin of both Typica and Bourbon—the genetic parent of nearly all the world’s Arabicas—as well as the small-berry mutation, Mocha/Mokka, not coincidentally the same name as the old port city through which some of these varieties reached the rest of the world.
Fatoum Muslot identifies this lot as mostly Bura’a (also spelled “Burrai”) landraces. Landrace indicates that the coffee is a “wild” heirloom plant, not a selection or breeding crafted in a lab. It’s quite common for a regionally specific land race to simply take the name of its locale.
This selection is lightly fruity smelling, like a dry red wine, and a little cleaner in prep than some Yemens we’ve seen in the past. It has very stable looking moisture and water activity figures, especially confidence inspiring for Yemeni coffees which historically can vary somewhat due to high demand and low reward for good preparation practices. Attention to detail here has paid dividends to the coffee’s shelf life. Small screen size here is counterbalanced by slightly lower than average density. Treat the coffee gently in the roaster during early stages to prevent over-drying and you’ll reap rewards with even sugar browning and exquisite natural berry flavors developing later in the roast.
This natural Yemen coffee was quite dynamic on the arrival table and had a lot of fruit acidity. I wanted to see what this coffee could taste like at a lighter roast level, but also make sure to fully develop the coffee. On the Ikawa I decided to employ two very similar roasts that were much longer not only because of the low density, but also because of the processing. Often natural processed coffees can appear to be too mottled in color and development if the total roast is too short.
Both roasts have the same temperature profile, but slightly different fan speed settings. Roast one descends from 80% to 65% at three quarters of the way between yellowing and the end of the roast. Roast two descends from 80% to 65% at the midway point between yellowing and the end of the roast. Interestingly, I was able to hear a distinct first crack on Ikawa roast 1, but Ikawa roast 2 was either too quiet or did not reach first crack at all.
On the cupping table Ikawa roast 1 was delightfully bright and fruity, but the hay and cereal flavors of an underdeveloped coffee were also very prominent. In Ikawa roast 2, the roasted sample looked much more uniform in color and in flavor. Adjusting roast 1 to lengthen the total roast to 6 minutes and increasing post crack development time might be a good compromise, but the balance of flavors in Roast 2 were lovely. Who needs first crack anyway?
This week I was able to muscle my way into the construction zone also known as The Crown and roast on the Probatino. Fortunately I was able to squirrel away in the corner, but I only had a limited amount of time and just enough for one roast of coffee. Being my sixth roast of the day, I wanted to use a lower charge temperature for our naturally processed Yemen coffee because of its small size, low moisture, and low density.
At the 2 minute mark I increased the heat by half of what I normally do and the coffee responded quickly. Well after yellowing I turned the heat to 3 gas for just a minute then reduced it by a quarter tick. Learning from my Ikawa roasts, I knew that I wanted to increase the length of this roast for uniformity in flavor and color. This coffee really wanted to race through the roast and it was quite difficult to manage the heat so that I could reach my time and temperature targets. At first crack, I made a slight reduction in heat and then thought better of it and reduced my heat to the lowest setting for the duration of the roast.
On the cupping table this coffee was so sweet and creamy. Notes of cotton candy, vanilla, and shortbread were complemented by the bright citrus of strawberry and blueberry. A very clean and delightful coffee indeed.
This week, I brewed our two Colombian offerings (CJ 1253 and 1254) to I longer brew ratio than I’ve been favoring; both benefited from the extra brew water, pulling out a lot of crisp clean sweetness and creating a juicy, elegant cup. This tiny bean from Bura’a was a different story: packed with intense sweetness and a lot of complexity, this coffee can benefit from being reigned in a bit. Using a shorter ratio, I hoped to maximize the crazy sweetness at the front of the cup while making the making the many disparate flavors this coffee has to offer work together in harmony.
Sure enough, at a 1:15 ratio ground at 8.5 on the EK 43, the cup bursting with red grape, strawberry, cotton candy, and kool-aid. These were met by notes of cedar, toffee, walnut, and chocolate. It had a thick, but not overwhelming body, and the finish was distinctly sweet and peachy. This is a very dynamic coffee, and different recipes will highlight different flavor; keep a tight dial but most importantly have fun!