March 17, 2020
15 years ago, I moved into a little apartment above a Yemeni grocery store in Oakland, California. The shop owner Saaid, who ran the place, was very chatty . If I wasn't careful he'd commandeer an hour of my day when my only intention was to run in for a stick of butter.
One day, he invited me in to try "the real Moka Java". He knew I worked in coffee and was eager to impress. I knew he was Yemeni and so of course my interest was piqued. As he proceeded to add instant coffee and chocolate syrup to a styrofoam cup filled with water, my confidence in the authenticity of the beverage I was about to be served understandably started to wane.
This miscommunication highlights how confusing terms like "java" (an island, coffee cultivar, or slang term for "coffee") and "Moka" can be (or mocha, Mokha, Makha, moka...you get the picture). I thought Saaid meant one of the oldest coffee blends in history, a mix of coffees from the Horn of Africa and Indonesia. But for him, he just wanted to make me a good old fashioned "mocha". And who wouldn't want to share a delicious chocolate-flavored coffee with their neighbor?
Coffee dries on the rooftops of this ancient Yemeni town
The blend name "Moka Java" as it's used today is also somewhat of a misnomer. It's probably the most widely produced blend, and with a long, storied history, is certainly the oldest. Oddly enough, you're unlikely to find coffee from Yemen or Java in contemporary versions of this classic.
The name can be traced back more than 500 years to two of the first shipping ports from which coffee was exported: the Port of Aden in Yemen ("al-Makha", the original name) and the port in Java. Trade ships would load up with coffees from these two locations en route to serve a growing population of European coffee drinkers. Whether by accident or intentional (or perhaps a little of both), the two beans were inevitably blended together and became the world's first coffee blend.
Though it is often postulated that these two coffees were blended for flavor - Yemeni supplying chocolate and sharp acidity, Java bringing the body - it's much more likely that they were mixed together out of necessity. One thing's for sure is the blend represented a mixture of coffees from two different cultures and economic systems derived through colonial rule. Yemeni coffee passed through the Port of Aden which was occupied by the British, and Javanese coffee through the colonial city of Batavia via the Dutch.
Coffee as a crop spread to other countries in the horn of Africa and throughout the Indonesian Archipelago. Soon, coffee from Ethiopia and Sumatra were being shipped through the two ports as well and the terms "Mokha" and "Java" were used interchangeably to market them. In The Book of Coffee and Tea, author David Schapira states that "as far back as 1712, when the first shipment (894 lbs.) of Java was sold in Amsterdam, it was understood that Javas were coffese originating somewhere in the Indonesian Archipelago." As more coffee from other origins became available, the ingredients of the blend changed.
Close-up of coffee drying during a 2007 visit to Yemen
You're still likely to find coffees from African and Indonesia at the core of most Moka Java blends. The Indonesian component is often wet-hulled, a process technique that flattens acidity and boosts body. For the African ingredient, dry process Ethiopian coffees have mostly replaced Yemeni, adding hefty fruit and chocolate flavors. They're a much lower price point than Yemen too, which makes them particularly attractive for some.
We constructed our own version of Moka Java what seems like forever ago, called Moka Kadir. It strays from the original blend in one very big way: it includes coffee from Brazil. Mainly a body/chocolate ingredient, Brazil in small amount toned down the fruited and earthy tones a bit. We stick to dry process for all three components, mostly for flavor, but also to help with roast consistency too.
Intensive hand sorting at the Frinsa mill in Java
The 2-bean, Moka Java blend is one of the easiest blends to construct, and right now we have an array of coffees available that will make great ingredient options. If you're a purist, try a 1:1 ratio of Yemen Moka Harasi and Java Sunda Frinsa Estate. Both coffees brim with deep chocolate roast flavors when roasted to Full City and beyond as well as nuanced highlights that will come through in an espresso shot.
I personally like the wild fruit flavors that come with using a dry process Ethiopian coffee. Our Organic DP Limu Kossa Farm will pair nicely with a wet-hulled Sumatra like Aceh Tenang Uken. We actually have decaf Limu Kossa Farm right now too so you could replicate a close approximation decaf version with either of our Indonesian decafs, Indonesia Nusantara or Flores Laga Lizu SWP.
Agitating the remaining fruit from the seed in long washing channels - Tome station, Uraga
If you'd like to try a brighter take on this classic, try substituting dry process Ethiopia with a washed Ethiopia instead. Ethiopia Guji Uraga Tome is no doubt at the top of the list for a blend of this nature, high caliber when it comes to acidity and floral notes, complex and bodied when taken to Full City roast level. Give it a whirl as an all-around, fully-washed blend with Flores Wolo Wio, or juxtapose with the rustic, dry process characteristics of either of our Yemeni coffee options.
Let's face it, there is no "real Moka Java" blend. I enjoy a tasteful vintage aesthetic myself, but it would be impossible to replicate a 500 year-old recipe, nor should we want to! Coffee has drastically changed in terms of how it is harvested, processed, stored, transported, etc, and not to mention, we have coffee from a lot more than 2 coffee origins available to us. Embrace the options and come up with your own version of the blend. Worse case scenario, if you don't like the final product you can always add a little chocolate syrup.