Wednesday, September 28, 2011

National Coffee Day! Let's celebrate with Yemen Mokha

Happy International Coffee Day (1 day belated...). I'm sure it's no surprise that coffee has its own day- after all, ranking amongst beer, tea and water as one of the most widely consumed beverages in the world, the little bean has quite a bit to be proud of.

Coffee has an appeal, versatility and history that goes far beyond its caffeine content.
Throughout history, it has been a sacrament (sometimes figuratively, sometimes literally) shared by a diverse group of people. One of the seminal starting points of coffee culture, however, is now one of great social strife and upheaval- Yemen.

Yemen has been especially significant today, with the death of Anwar Al-Awlaki. This Yemeni cleric achieved notoriety in his alleged role in encouraging several failed terrorist attacks in recent years. He is perhaps most famous for being born in the US and speaking fluent English, which greatly widened his audience. Al-Qaeda has a strong presence in Yemen, which only complicates matters as Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh faces continuing protests over corruption and unemployment.

Yemen has had many governmental changes over the centuries, thanks to it's central location and proximity to both Africa and the Middle East. Yemen was the first area of coffee consumption outside of coffee's native Ethiopia. In its early days, coffee was actually used primarily in religious rituals by the Sufi Muslims of Yemen. As the beverage gained popularity, it became a widely traded item, and the Red Sea port of Mokha became the hub of this booming coffee trade.

Eventually, Europeans began to develop a taste for coffee. A Jesuit missionary first tasted Yemen's coffee in 1595. As European appreciation for coffee increased, some noted flavor resemblances of the Mokha coffee bean to chocolate, leading eventually to today's common chocolate-latte coffee shop beverage of the same name.

Here's a quick video (my first original flash movie made for DA!) of Yemen's coffee. You can see the coffee beans around the highland areas near the capital Sana'a, along with the location of the port city of Mokha.

While its beginnings may have been religious in nature, one of the most enduring legacies of coffee is the coffee house. As coffee gained popularity in Yemen and throughout the Middle East, coffee houses grew up everywhere. Alcohol is forbidden in Islam, and so coffee consumption came to serve similar purposes to sharing a few pints. Coffee drinkers discussed politics, philosophy, and religion. This phenomenon also took root in Europe, and like the Middle East, coffee houses became centers of political change and philosophy. Even now, coffee shops continue to be important meeting places. Interest in responsibly grown and traded coffee is on the rise, as well, putting coffee houses on the front lines of developing a more global understanding of some of our most fundamental daily foods.

Another great way to get in touch with the magic of coffee is to examine coffee roasting. Check back soon for part 2 of this post- a look at some simple coffee roasting of today's star coffee- Yemen Mokha!

What about you, readers? Is your local coffee shop a meeting place for people and ideas? And speaking of people and ideas, what'll become of countries like Yemen as protests continue? Leave a comment!

Sunday, September 11, 2011

The Neptune-Mercury opposition (and thoughts on a brutal Mercury Retrograde)

Our most recent period of Mercury retrograde occurred from August 2 to the 26th. Thinking back to August, did you run into any of the usual snafus and technological or transportation-based setbacks that challenge us during this time? The general realm of Mercury, the messenger god, remains in the day-to-day functioning of our lives and thoughts. When he goes retrograde, he forces us to reconsider our actions, to take our thoughts and communication in an introspective direction. If we aren't careful, problems arise, and often we have to do things multiple times to be successful.

Some of you may have had even greater difficulties this time, however. I know I did. Mercury is also a bit of a trickster; with a smirking grin no doubt, this past retrograde period he went beyond the usual realm of daily troubles. Many people I've spoken with have had incredibly profound difficulties on a grand scale- everything from work, to family, to home. This past retrograde period, it was as if Mercury not only forced us to reexamine our daily actions, but also our values and ideals. It was almost a tidal wave of difficulty.

When we start talking about waves and ideals, you can be sure there's another culprit in this mess: Neptune. Neptune, as you may have read in previous posts, has recently ingressed into its home sign of Pisces. The boundaries of our imagination and reality are thinner, opening up both the possibility for profound creativity and tremendous confusion. Sure enough, when Mercury turned backwards for its last retrograde period, it was opposing Neptune. A difficult aspect, the opposition represents tension and the need for balance. While Mercury going retrograde forces us to reconsider our daily actions, Neptune pulls us into the realm of our ideals, beyond the physical world.

This combination facilitates a much more profound 3 weeks of trouble than usual. With Neptune, emotions run deeper, simple snafus become more profound. Losing your car keys as a reminder to keep better track of your stuff can become losing your car as a reminder to not be attached to your possessions. Maybe not that bad, but it's different for everyone.

An aspect such as this is a potent example of the influence the slow-moving generational planets have on the swift-moving interior planets. The slow, grinding gears driving the long-term changes on our planet connect to the daily functions of our lives, and in a difficult aspect like this past one it can pack a wallop.

The mists of Neptune are hard to grasp, but the challenges individuals and the world at large have been facing have some positive lessons to teach. When the boundaries around us are dissolving, we can look to what gives us strength within ourselves. We can tap into our creativity, or into our spiritual side. We can search for healing, for ourselves and for others.

We can also drink beer. Neptune, ruler of intoxicating beverages, might hit us with tidal waves of change, but at the very least he'll let us have a few pints now and again.

Readers: how was your August? And all you Geminis, Virgos and Pisces out there: did you have a particularly hard time? Leave a comment!