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November 2011 No. 1 - Queen of Sheba and Yemeni Coffee

J. Martinez & Company - Coffee Merchants
November - Yemen and Coffee

Company Newsletter
November 7, 2011

Did the Queen of Sheba Drink Coffee?

Yemen is in the news frequently these days, but not for the reasons we think it should be. It produces some of the best coffee in the world, despite very difficult conditions, and it has been doing so for hundreds of years. Our current crop of Yemen Mattari is pretty fabulous so if you have not tried it lately, you should. As a primary component of our Mocha Java, it also means our proprietary blend is better than ever.

So what do we know about this interesting corner of the world, which sits across a narrow strait from Africa, at the the Bab el Mandeb, the "Gate of Grief" which connects the Indian Ocean to the Red Sea? Some believe that Yemen and Ethiopia were once part of the Kingdom of Sheba, of the Queen of Sheba fame. It may be that she was from Yemen itself, since many believe that the kingdom's capital was located there. But our interest is in Yemeni agriculture, and in particular, its coffee.

Queen of Sheba Only 3% of Yemen's land is considered arable, and just under a quarter of that is dedicated to coffee production. Coffee is second to qat as a cash crop. (qat is a popular mild stimulant, whose leaves are chewed). Coffee is produced on approximately 99,000 small family holdings, which means the average plot of coffee is grown on just under three fourths of an acre. That acreage is often very steep as most coffee is grown in the mountains on terraces carved out of the precipitous hillsides.

Yields are low. The small size of the farms, scarcity of water and poor cultivation techniques hamper production. Many of the coffee farms are cultivated by tenant farmers, deterring investment as well in terracing, water conservation, and other improvements. The various cultivars of coffea arabica grown in the mountains are some of the oldest known, and most are known only in Yemen.

Yemen Coffee Terraces Coffee from Yemen has been prized for centuries. It was once one of the top producers in the world, and its coffee, exported from the old Yemeni port of Mocha, is the original Mocha in Mocha Java, when traders blended Middle Eastern coffee with the Dutch coffee from Southeast Asia. Yemeni coffee is scarce in contrast with other coffee producing nations; Yemen consumes almost three quarters of its production at home, and 55% of what it does export goes to its wealthy neighbor to the north, Saudi Arabia.

There is something a little wild about the flavor of our Yemen Mattari. It starts with a hint of dark chocolate in the aroma, which shows up again in the taste. The coffee is rich with medium acidity, just the right brightness, but there is something that tastes almost green or herbal that adds, perhaps, a taste of the steep mountain terraces it is grown on. It is an excellent coffee and we hope you enjoy it.

Oh, and finally, it is very unlikely that the Queen of Sheba drank coffee as it appears to have been discovered in Ethiopia around 900 AD, about two thousand years after her era.