When you hear the word mocha, you probably think of the type of coffee. Some people even picture a mochaccino coffee with chocolate added to it. In truth, it’s neither. Historically the word mocha has nothing to do with coffee. It is actually a port in the country of Yemen. You have been lied to this entire time! The coffee is a lie!
Africa is thought to have been the origin of humans. It is also the origin of coffee. Coffee forests occur naturally in the highlands of Ethiopia, mostly in the historical region of Kafa where there is rainfall year-round of about 60-100 inches (Koehler, 2017, p. 14). Coffee comes from the Coffea genus of the Rubiaceae family. These are small, flowering bushes or trees, and the coffee beans are the seeds inside the fruit. In reality, it is a stone fruit and therefore, coffee beans are not true beans, but seeds. Of the over 120 known species of Coffea, only two are widely cultivated for consumption. Coffea Arabica accounts for 60% or more of the grown coffee, and Coffea canephora (AKA Robusta) accounts for the rest. Arabica is generally milder, has higher acidity, and has a more fruity flavor. It is also more difficult to grow and fetches higher prices on the market (Koehler, 2017, p. 13-14).
Trade routes in Kafa likely began in medieval times and flourished in the 19th century. One of the trade routes traveled east, crossed the Great Rift Valley, and eventually reached the ports of Zeila and Berbera on the coast of Somalia. Apart from forest coffee, other products carried on this trade route included honey, cardamom pods, butter, ivory, gold, leopard skins, musk, and slaves (Koehler, 2017, p. 30 -31).
It is unknown when coffee made the jump from Africa into Arabia, but estimates vary widely with some as early as the mid-6th century. It is generally thought that coffee was being planted in the Arabian Peninsula before the 9th century (Koehler, 2017, p. 80).
Coffee Production in Yemen
By the 1500s coffee drinking was rapidly gaining popularity in the Middle East and Europe. The Ottomans gained control of Yemen around 1550. To keep up with demand, the Turks constructed irrigated terraces on the hills between Ta’iz and the town of Mocha. Additionally, coffee was grown in the wadis that flooded with seasonal rains. Within 50 years, Yemen had overtaken Ethiopia as a source of coffee. This was an impressive feat given that less than five percent of Yemen’s land is arable.
Farmers built the terraces with gravity-fed irrigation using wells that collected spring water and funneled it down to the lower levels. Once harvested, the coffee was collected in storehouses and then loaded onto camels to be transported to the port of Mocha where it was sorted, sold, and shipped out (Koehler, 2017, p. 77).
The Port of Mocha
Just inside the south entrance to the Red Sea on the west coast of Yemen is the port of Mocha. Founded in the 13th century, Mocha developed from a fishing village to a prosperous port after the Ottomans took over in the 1500s. In 1616, a merchant from the Dutch East India Company named Pieter Van den Broecke noted over 30 ships from places such as India and Persia in the port and a caravan of 1,000 camels (Koehler, 2017, p. 75). That being said, the port of Mocha is not very ideal for shipping given that it lacks any natural barriers and has shallow waters several hundred yards out to sea (Wild, 2012, p. 141).
The al-Qasimi dynasty ousted the Ottomans in 1635, but the port of Mocha continued to flourish and became a center for trade between the East and the West. Yemen commercialized coffee on a large scale as coffee drinking became widespread throughout Europe and the Middle East. Eventually, the port of Mocha became synonymous with coffee to the point where the coffee beans shipped out of the port came to be called mocha themselves.
The Coffee Trade & Empires
Coffee beans from Mocha traveled up the Red Sea and were offloaded at ports such as Jeddah and Suez where they traveled overland to Cairo and Alexandria to be loaded onto ships and sent around the Mediterranean.
Trade was not solely limited to local merchants and only expanded with the growth of the European trading empires. In 1618 the British East India Company established a “factory” (trading post) headed by a “factor” (commercial agent) in Mocha, Yemen from which they shipped coffee to Bandar Abbas, Persia, and Surat, India. Ironically, while the British East India Company focused their trade in the Indian Ocean, much of the coffee that fueled the rise of urban coffeehouses or “penny universities” in Britain in the 1650s came from Amsterdam via the Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie (VOC) or Dutch East India Company (Wild, 2012, p. 219). In 1696 the Dutch opened a factory from which they could send 600 bales of coffee a year duty-free. The French followed suit as well around the same time (Koehler, 2017, p. 76). While the demand for coffee increased in Europe, in reality, it only accounted for about 1/8th of the coffee exported out of Mocha. The majority of the coffee, which was sourced at the nearby city of Bait-al-Faqih, was shipped out of Mocha en route to the Ottoman Empire, Persia, and Mughal India.
Yemen authorities tried to ban exports of coffee plants, even spreading rumors that the beans were boiled to make them infertile. However, the Dutch successfully smuggled a plant out with their first consignment of coffee in 1616. Initial attempts to transplant the seedlings in Ceylon failed in 1657, but subsequent attempts in Malabar succeeded in creating the Indian coffee industry. Indians attribute the Muslim pilgrim Babu Budan to introducing coffee to India from Yemen after his pilgrimage to Mecca in 1600. Supposedly he smuggled out some seeds strapped to his belly and later planted them outside his cave, however, there is no documentation to support this and coffee was first reported in India in 1697 (Wild, 2012, p. 220).
Coffee plants from India were transplanted to Java by the Dutch with great success in 1698. By the 1730s, the Dutch were no longer exporting coffee from Mocha and by the late-18th century, much of the coffee being shipped to America came from Java where the name stuck. By 1820, 45% of the world’s coffee was coming out of Dutch Indonesia (Wild, 2012, p. 220).
The Compagnie française pour le commerce des Indes orientales or French East India Company exported plants from Mocha in 1715. French coffee plantations sprouted up in the Caribbean on the islands of Martinique and Hispaniola as well as in the Indian Ocean. By 1727, plantations on the island of La Réunion (then Île Bourbon) were producing 100,000 pounds of coffee. French coffee plantations were also started in western Africa but used robusta plants instead (Wild, 2012, p. 220).
The British found their Caribbean possessions to be equally suitable for coffee cultivation. Coffee was introduced to Jamaica from Martinique in 1730. Unlike sugar, coffee can grow in mountainous areas and therefore does not compete with sugar plantations for land.
Coffee was introduced to former Spanish colonies in Central and South America from Martinique in the mid-18th century due to growing demand in Spain. In 1752, coffee was introduced to the Portuguese colony of Brazil from French Guyana. As part of its “dark” history, coffee became a part of the triangular trade with African slaves working the plantations and allowing Brazil to produce massive amounts of coffee at low costs. Even without slaves, Brazil remains the largest producer of coffee today (Wild, 2012, p. 220).
The End of Mocha
In 1700, about 22,000 tons of coffee were being shipped out of Mocha (Wild, 2012, p. 220). Mocha’s control of the coffee trade peaked in 1720, and thereafter declined despite the Ottomans regaining control in the mid-1800s. With the British seizure of Aden in 1885, a more suitable trading port was established and coffee exports from Mocha virtually stopped with the town becoming a mere shadow of its former glory (Koehler, 2017, p. 76). The end of Mocha as a coffee exporter seems to be largely attributed to the growth of European colonies and trading empires. Better anchorages were located and larger plantations were built elsewhere.
At the end of the day, whether you associate the word mocha with a type of coffee bean or a mochaccino, remember that in the early days, it was merely a port on the coast of Yemen.
Koehler, J. (2017). Where the Wild Coffee Grows: The Untold Story of Coffee from the Cloud Forests of Ethiopia to Your Cup. New York, NY: Bloomsbury.
Wild, A. (2012). Coffee in the Age of Empire. In P. Parker (Eds.), The Great Trade Routes (pp. 219-221). Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press.
Wild, A. (2012). Coffee: The Mocha Trade in the Islamic World. In P. Parker (Eds.), The Great Trade Routes (pp. 140-141). Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press.