Once upon a time, a coffee seed was smuggled from Mocha port out into the world, and for more than a century the direct descendants of this seed were scattered throughout many farmlands around Europe and Asia. But all failed to compete with the taste of Yemeni coffee. Coffee requires warmer climates in relatively high places where the sun shines intensely, and so Yemen’s climate offers ideal conditions for coffee to thrive. For a time the rest of the world found it difficult to grow coffee, but after a long journey – spanning a century – heirs of that seed reached the hills of Rio de Janeiro, where the climate is optimum for coffee cultivation.
The birth of coffee
According to legends, Oromo people, an ethnic group inhabiting Ethiopia, discovered the effects of coffee at around the 6th century. However, there is no evidence suggesting that they consumed it as a beverage, and instead it is more likely that they chewed the beans like qat. An old Ethiopian legend describes how coffee was discovered after a shepherd noticed the peculiar effects it had on one of his sheep after it grazed on the plant. Scientists say that coffee originated on the southwestern cliffs of the Ethiopian Rift Valley.
A study conducted by Kenneth Mason (1887–1976), a geographer, and Mary Bailey (1850-1944), an economist, entitled ‘West of The Arabian Peninsula and Red Sea’ concluded that the coffee plant came to Yemen from Ethiopia sometime during the periplasmic era. Yemenis dried the beans and roasted them to create the now world famous beverage. Coffee growing spread all over Yemen on agricultural terraces, carving the country’s cliffs; camel caravans carrying coffee beans spent a day traveling to markets in Bait Alfakih, a major city in the Tihamah plain. In this market, various strains of coffee were showcased to all the merchants coming from Mocha. The beans were kept in warehouses on the outskirts of the city to be shipped on camel caravans to Mocha after deals were made.
For anyone found guilty of attempting to smuggle coffee seeds, the legal penalty was death. Before farmers were allowed to sell the bean, government officials would oversee the process of boiling beans in hot water, which rendered them sterile. This strict policy proved effective, maintaining the monopoly Yemen had from the 16th to 18th century. The country witnessed a long period of stability, which was rare in Yemen’s history. Economic stability also raised the quality of life, increasing the number of middle class citizens who worked as merchants and farmers; and so famine, which had devastated thousands of Yemenis at a time, became a rare occurrence.
Coffee merchants on their way to the coast with their produce of their coffee plantations, artwork year (1850), the Holton Archive. Artist unknown.
The coffee monopoly was not only beneficial for monarchs, coffee retailers, and feudalists but also for regular farmers, who enjoyed financial stability. Coffee farmers often sought more workers, which decreased the overall unemployment rate. Because the international demand was incredibly high, coffee farms spread all over Yemen – in isolated locations, around mountains and valleys on the country’s western, central, and southern highlands, covering heights of between 700–2,400 meters above sea level and annual rain fall levels of 400–700ml. Top quality beans came from places where water was easily available – like Haraz, Utma, al-Udain, Sharab, Yafe’e, Bani Matar, al-Haymatain, Bani Hamad, and Anes.
The Dutch were the most keen on smuggling the seed, unlike the Ottomans who ruled Yemen for a hundred years but maintained a no-smuggling policy, although they could have easily grown the plant in Turkey. Finally in 1699, a Dutch agent managed to smuggle seeds in a piece of linen through customs; but the monopoly wasn’t broken then, because the seeds had just started a very dangerous journey that would end a century later.
The Dutch stolen seeds
The Dutch started growing coffee in their eastern colonies, starting in Sumatra, Bali, and Timor then on to Sri Lanka and Java. They also built many factories for drying and grinding coffee, and in 1711 they sent the first shipment of non-Yemeni coffee to Europe, weighing over 450kg. By the end of the 18th century they had shipped approximately 60,000kg of Indonesian coffee. Although the climate is unsuitable, they were able to cultivate coffee in Amsterdam in 1713, using greenhouses to grow the first coffee plant in Europe. In 1714, the Mayor of Amsterdam presented King Louis XIV of France with beans cultivated in Amsterdam as a gift. However, the Dutch forgot a very crucial piece of information: Yemenis maintained their monopoly because they boiled the beans before selling them to foreigners. Inadvertently, the Dutch lost their monopoly of this black gold to the French, who played a major part in expediting the seeds journey to South America.
The French take coffee to Latin America
Yemeni Postage Stamp from the year 1946
The French had tried to establish a foothold in the coffee trade in Mocha, without success; but the generous gift of the Dutch now allowed the French to become front runners in the race. They planted the first coffee plant in Jardin Royal de Plantes Paris, and named it Nobel; it was personally cared for by the king himself. From there, coffee started appearing in French Caribbean colonies around 1723; a French naval officer, Gabriel de Clieu, is credited with introducing coffee to the region. Clieu was the commander of a French infantry company in Martinique, and on one of his personal trips to Paris, he heard about the Nobel tree. Knowing how lucrative the coffee business was, he decided to establish a coffee farm in Martinique – but the only obstacle was acquiring the coffee seeds. An infantry commander didn’t have enough social status to ask the monarch for anything, let alone an item from the king’s personal treasure. Even so, the most unlikely events took place: Clieu befriended a noblewoman who was in a relationship with the king’s doctor. He asked the doctor to present his proposal to the king, who held him in high regard. Hence, the king accepted Clieu’s proposal and granted him several seedlings covered in glass pots for safekeeping during the trip. In 1723, the ambitious infantry commander left the port of Nantes with the ancestor of all coffee trees in South America.
When Clieu arrived in Martinique, he immediately planted the first coffee tree. Eventually the locals started growing coffee instead of cacao, because the island was tornado prone and coffee trees are slightly smaller and less likely to be destroyed. The trade was booming, and soon after arriving Clieu sent coffee plants to the neighboring islands. In 1726, the Portuguese also took coffee seeds and introduced them to farmers in northern Brazil. It took until 1800 for coffee to reach the hills of Sao Paolo and Rio de Janeiro, where the climate is the best in the world for coffee to thrive. In 1825, the Americans took coffee plants from Martinique to grow in Hawaii – the only suitable climate in the United States to cultivate the tree.
The slow death of coffee in Yemen
Although Mocha lost the coffee monopoly, its port remained the biggest exporter of coffee until the end of the 19th century. Brazilian coffee then swept the worldwide coffee market, while Mocha witnessed a rapid downfall. Brazil became the biggest exporter of coffee, with farmlands covering an area of 19,177 km2, approximately the size of Slovenia, producing 65 million bags annually. Regardless of these facts, Yemen’s suspension of coffee growing is mainly due to political and economic factors. The political gridlock and armed conflicts, coupled with the Ottoman Empire’s occupation in the mid-19th century, caused great famines, hampering farmers’ ability to produce coffee. Simultaneously, the dire need for money drove farmers to grow qat instead, since it was more lucrative and required less care and effort to cultivate. Until the mid-20th century, all coffee farms around the world could trace their ancestry to Yemen. In the end, coffee was inevitably going to spread around the globe, to offer people different tastes and lower prices. What is sad is the end of Yemen’s mass coffee cultivation; it remains part of past glories, only spoken about, with no anticipation of a future comeback.
A translated version of this piece is Available in: العربية (Arabic)