Historical Oddities: Why is a Mocha a Mocha?

Everybody knows the standard coffee terms. Latte, Americano, java, mocha, etc. But the origins of the words are less known. Some are fairly well known and obvious; café latte and café au lait, for instance, are Italian and French for ‘coffee with milk’. Java is less known, but still fairly obvious for the geography savvy. Java is the island in Indonesia where the capital city, Jakarta, is. However, the origin of the word mocha is much more obscure and enveloped in the history of the coffee trade.

The origin of the term comes from the Yemeni port city of Mocha on the southwest coast of the Arabian Peninsula. The city was founded in the 14th century. Its original success is commonly attributed to Shiekh Abdul Hassan Shadhili, a Sufi scholar who is supposedly the person who introduced coffee drinking to Arabia. As coffee consumption spread throughout the Muslim world, Mocha became one of the chief ports for exporting the beans. Its proximity across the Red Sea from Ethiopia and the cultivation of coffee trees in Yemen made Mocha a prime port for the goods’ export. From Mocha, coffee spread north and east to India, Egypt, and Turkey. In the 16th century, the Jesuit missionary Pedro Paez became the first European to taste Mocha’s coffee. By the 17th century, coffee was Mocha’s main trade good and the port prospered under Ottoman control, though Yemen regained the port in 1636. England, the Netherlands, Denmark, and France all established trading posts in Mocha to gain access to coffee in the 1600s.

In the 1700s, Mocha’s importance started its decline. The development of Dutch coffee plantations in the East Indies and the rise of the South American coffee industry removed the dominance over the coffee trade that Mocha once commanded. Ottoman conflict with Yemen and increasingly with European powers hurt the trade through the Red Sea, further leading to the port’s decline. In 1839, the British moved their base of operations in Yemen from Mocha to the port of Aden in southern Yemen. They were soon followed by other European powers. As Aden grew, the port of Mocha dwindled, and further trade was diverted from Mocha to the more northern port of Al-Hudaydah. By the 1930s, the once bustling population of Mocha had decreased to below a thousand people. Now, the population has rebounded to 16,000 but much of the older parts of the city are reduced to ruins and the port has long been silted up.

Besides the name, the port of Mocha has little to do with the term now used for the combination of coffee and chocolate, which is an entirely European invention. However, there is another use of mocha that refers to the specific beans from the port. Mocha beans tend to be smaller and rounder than other Arabica bean varieties. It is also believed that Marco Polo bought a bag of mocha beans during his travels, when he was forced to stop in Tyre (now Sur, Lebanon) and purchased beans from a Yemeni merchant from Mocha. Whatever the term it is used now, mocha is a fond reminder of what was once the major distribution point of coffee around the world.

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One Response to Historical Oddities: Why is a Mocha a Mocha?

  1. Audrey Wilcox says:

    Yum!

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