Day 16: Port Mocha

To the modern world, Yemen is not known for many things.  It is a country stuck in time and largely forgotten with only brief echoes reaching our ears when there is a political revolution, or when the Saudis are bombing Yemen.  Sadly, we often only see the world through the lens of tragedy.  Historically, however, Yemen was a global shipping country and Ibn Battutah remarked on the presence of Yemeni sailors in virtually every port of call throughout his epic 75,000 mile journey.  One of the reasons for this fame was the geographic "break of bulk" point that Yemen made for East-West trade routes.  The other reason that put Yemen on the map was coffee. Yemen is one of the historic seats of coffee production and trade.  If you have ever had a Mocha, the drink takes its name from the port of Mocha in Yemen.

Minimalist decor, maximumist coffee.

Luminary Coffee and Tea

Houston had a Yemeni restaurant with an oven large enough to cook a whole goat, to accommodate some traditional dishes.  Sadly, this restaurant has closed.  We are fortunate, however, to have a direct connection through the coffee trade back to Yemen and we will explore these connections through several posts.

This week we are at Luminary Coffee and Tea to try some of their Yemeni Coffee.  Luminary owner and CRO (Chief Roasting Officer), Michael Cox, is part of a three-way partnership with some equally cra.... errr... enterprising friends to start a coffee mill in Yemen which would process and export coffee beans directly from farmers.

The Coffee

When you visit, check out the pictures from Yemen, and the "magic" floating shelf.

We sampled three of Michael's selection of Yemeni coffees and one "store" brand just for comparison.  The first coffee was Al-Ghayoul which is translated as "the springs" because of the trees constant supply of water. The second coffee was Dhab al-Yemen, which is translated as "The Gold of Yemen."  These beans are so named because of their natural yellowish color due to the soil where they are grown.  Finally, we tried  The Pearls of Yemen, which is a peaberry coffee.  Coffee beans start as a cherry-looking fruit on a small tree.  The outside is processed off and it is the "pit" that is roasted and brewed.  These beans have two halves, like a peanut.  Peaberry coffee is where one half of the bean "died" and was absorbed by the other half leaving one solitary, football shaped bean.  Due to the equipment that Rayyan Mill uses, this is the first time that Yemeni peaberry coffee has been sold abroad.

Coffee Cupping

For those who have never tried it, the coffee cupping experience will teach you more than you have ever known about coffee.  In fact, it will teach you that there is so much information about coffee that you didn't even know was knowable.  Cupping is typically employed to select coffees from farmers for the purpose of trade.  What we participated in was what Michael called "social cupping;" sounds like the makings of singles app for coffee lovers.  The cupping tightly controlled process of temperature and weight to produce consistent cups of coffee to be judged by sight, smell, taste, and feel.  There are four points along the process where these metrics are judged: 

Dry. Sight and smell: which one of these is not like the others?

1. Dry 

The first step is to measure out the coffee according to closely regulated standards.  Participants should notice the color of the grounds and the smell.  They all smell like coffee right?  Wrong.  When you smell coffees side by side, even if they are from the other side of a mountain, they can have a completely different smell.  Most store brands roast through these distinctive qualities which provides a consistent flavor for a brand (good) but that flavor might have "notes" of rubber inner tube (bad), which was the consensus on the odd coffee out in the picture.  For those of you who, like me, may not have the most sensitive nose, there is the SCAA approved flavor wheel which describes the 172 flavors and aromas of coffee.

The water is added and the steep time is started.

Emily, one of our budding foodies, takes her job seriously.

2. Wet 

Once the water is poured, the coffee extracts.  The speed at which it extracts is based on water temperature, how the bean was roasted, and even how the bean was ground (smaller = faster extraction; larger = slower extraction).  Once the grounds are wet, the smell changes.  Participants smell the cup again, and make additional notes.  Some odors mellow from the dry smell to the wet, while others become more pungent.  

Even though we are still waiting for coffee to steep, the note cards are filling up.

Matt pushes back the cap to capture that short burst of smell that is trapped at the top

3. Cap

As the coffee soaks up water, the grounds float to the top and form a cap (also called the bloom--it blooms like a flower).  In general, coffee that is roasted close to its processing date will have a larger cap while most store bought or frozen coffees will have a small to nonexistent bloom.  The cap traps the gasses from the beans at the top of the cup.  At the appointed time, tasters take the spoon and, with their nose close, push back the grounds to capture that burst.  It is short and when it is gone it is gone, so don't bump the cup or push back the cap before you are ready or this smell will be lost 

Copious notes.

The cap is now cleaned off so that the coffee can be tasted.

Everyone gets their first taste of the coffee.

4. Cup

With the cap cleaned off, the coffee is not ready to taste.  It is sipped heartily from a spoon, not the bowl.  By heartily, I mean that it is inhaled so powerfully that it vaporizes.  The purpose of this is to spread the coffee across the tongue.  If you recall from elementary school (and I will tell you in case you don't remember...), the taste buds spread across the tongue taste different flavors: bitter, sour, salty, sweet.  This evenly applied aerosolized coffee now hits all of your taste buds and you taste things that you might not otherwise when casually sipping from a cup.

Check out the gallery below to get a glimpse of our experience. 

Around the Shop

The Luminary shop reminds me of the Egyptian museum.  There are just so many cool artifacts lying around.  These artifacts should shake us out of our needs-based approach to coffee.  When you see a bucket of green beans and bags with Arabic script, it shakes you out of the "sip and forget" approach to coffee.  Coffee connects us to people all over the world.  Come in and try a bag of Yemeni coffee and ask Michael to tell you about some of the farmers they have met along the way.  Trust me, it is worth the time.


Not Just Foodies

Although I have nothing to do with all of the cool coffee connections to Yemen, I have been privileged to know these intrepid foodies, and have, at times, been able to augment their work in small ways.  In addition to being a cultural adventurer and foodie, I come from a long line of wood workers and have been able to build a number of pieces for my friends.  The magic floating shelf and the mesquite table are two of my pieces that you can find at the Luminary shop.  They were a pleasure to build and I enjoy seeing them every time I am in there.

P.S. Did you figure out what the fourth non-Yemeni coffee was?  Hint: it comes from Seattle...