Stumptown Coffee Roasters is known as a purveyor of some of the best coffee in the world and yet when I arrived at their roastery in Seattle last week they didn’t offer me coffee. They poured me kishr. Or qishr, depending on how you take your spelling of this byzantine beverage. It was amber and translucent, easily mistaken for an oolong tea, and tasted and smelled strangely reminiscent of an herbaceous and prune-y tisane though I couldn’t identify exactly what kind. And oh yes, it tasted a bit like coffee.
Only because I traveled with Aleco, Stumptown’s coffee buyer, in the hinterlands of Rwanda this summer and made it home alive did I trust accepting a cup from him before knowing what it was. Call it kishr, call it coffee-tea if you, like me, don’t really know how to pronounce much in Arabic: it’s the dried coffee husk steeped in water. Originating in Yemen circa 1100, I imagine it traveled the world on spice trading routes before falling out of fashion with a newly café-ed Western Europe for its deceitful simplicity. Kishr isn't hefty like coffee, and certainly wouldn’t stand up to milk. And it has a faint citrusy flavor that might be cooling on a thick Yemeni summer day and little out of place in a Viennese coffee shop. I joined the group of men wearing skinny pants in deeply inhaling kishr steam from little cups; huddled down the stairs from Stumptown’s main shop and plotting kishr’s comeback in hushed voices, I felt for a moment that I was on coffee's avant-garde.
What is old is new again… though exotica from the colonies always ran the risk of becoming bourgeois, didn’t it.
I had come to Stumptown to sample some El Salvadorian coffees and hear the grower of that coffee speak, but kishr stole the show. Our dried coffee husks were indeed from one of the coffee farms in Western El Salvador owned by Aida Batlle, a wonderful woman whom I wrote about in a post on the Civil Eats website today. With an experimental spirit, she left coffee cherries to dry on the trees before being harvested and then dried them again on clay patios for four days. Some of her nimble-fingered workers picked the husk off of the coffee bean. It’s the coffee equivalent of a late-harvest Riesling or Muscato and she bagged only 250 pounds of it this year. Pittance. If the Seattle underground doesn’t drink it all first, I think you can order it directly from Stumptown for $6 or $7 per pound, a downright 19th century price.
The best description I’ve found of kishr, as if dredged up from a sunken Indian Ocean trading ship, is from this article in The New York Times dated May 13, 1877. Right, 1877, and you can read it right here on the internet. They recommend adding “a few bruized cardamoms or a little dry cinnamon or ginger” and simmering for half an hour to yield a “most agreeable beverage.” Most agreeable, and also most caffeinated. The fruit of the coffee cherry (the coffee bean itself, as you probably know, is the seed of the fruit) retains more caffeine than the bean does; shocking that energy drink companies aren’t engineering coffee husk extractions (are they?). Coffee is brewed on the island of Zanzibar with nutmeg, clove and cardamom and I’ve been meaning to make a version of this concoction with kishr. There will have to be a kishr ceremony of course, like the Ethiopian coffee ceremony or a Japanese tea ritual; I’m open to suggestions of what this will entail. My most Mad Hatter of friends will be invited to the kishr ceremony and also a smattering of pirates, but only the ones who thieve fresh cinnamon in lieu of grenade launchers. I know, pirates are wrecking serious havoc these days and it's not funny business. But, by no small coincidence, they do their craftiest work just off the shores of Yemen.