When you order a mocha at a coffee house, you are asking for an espresso combined with steamed milk and chocolate. This is sometimes called a chocolate mocha, or a Café mocha. White chocolate mochas are also possible.
What is Mocha?
Generally, the term mocha refers to any coffee with chocolate flavoring, including a simple mix of hot chocolate and coffee. What does the term mocha have to do with chocolate and coffee mixed together?
Origin of the Term Mocha
The fact is that the word mocha did not originally have anything to do with chocolate or a combination of chocolate and coffee. The term actually originated as early as 1773 and referred to a variety of coffee. In the late 1700’s, one variety of coffee beans became extremely popular in Europe, and these are still among the best type of beans that nature has to offer: Mochas. The Mocha coffee beans were named for the port of Mocha (Al Mokha) in Yemeni (or Yemen), where the beans were shipped from. This makes mocha, perhaps, an inaccurate name of such coffees, as it would be less confusing, and more accurate, to called them Yemen coffee beans. These beans were the now commonly referenced Arabica beans.
The original port of Mocha, today, sadly bears no resemblance to the historical site, and it mostly an uninviting ruin, long unused and replaced by the Suez canal.
It was the Ottoman Turks, who began occupying Yemen in 1536, who originally began exporting the beans through the port of Mocha, which involved a complicated trade route to Suez and then by camel to Alexandria, and then onward by French or Venetian merchants. There is, of course, a lot more to the story than this, which you can read about in Uncommon Grounds: The History of coffee and How it Transformed Our World. Although the Turks tried their best to keep those Arabica beans from being planted elsewhere, they eventually began to be cultivated in various other parts. Africa, by the way, is the true birthplace of coffee.
rue Mocha (or Yemen) beans like Al Mokha Coffee Beans are grown in the central mountains of Yemen, on the Arabian Peninsula. They are rare and quite expensive. One thing to remember about coffee is that the characteristics of any official variety of coffee have everything to do with the conditions of the specific locations in which they are grown, especially the composition of the soil. So, while there are coffees that have similar fruity and winey flavor characteristics to mocha coffee, the only true mocha comes from Yemen. It is also spelled Moka, Moca, or Mocca. There was a time when the word mocha was almost synonymous with coffee, and the term appeared often on everything to do with coffee, even if having nothing to do with Yemen coffee at all. This is much like the words coffee and café themselves, which derive from the Ethiopian Kingdom of Kaffa, often seen as the birthplace of the coffee bean inside Ethiopia.
Some similar coffees come from Ethiopia. One is from the Harrar region of Ethiopia, which is considered to have a Mocha taste, or part of the mocha flavor family. Sometimes, the term Mocha Harrar is used for this coffee. Another Ethiopian coffee that is considered similar to mocha is Djimmah Mocha.
How Did Mocha Start Being Used to Mean Coffee and Chocolate?
It is difficult to know exactly how the term mocha came to be used for coffee and chocolate, but it is often said that the beans had a distinct chocolate taste. Certainly, the marriage of coffee and chocolate is nothing new. As chocolate was introduced to Europe, it did not take long for people to figure out this was a match made in heaven. In 16th century Venice and Turin, where some of the earliest coffee houses were opened, chocolate was mixed with coffee and called bavareisa. Also, in Italy, bicerin was served, which was a little clear glass of espresso and chocolate, served with visible layers. The modern Café mocha grew out of the ubiquitous Café latte, when a shot of chocolate syrup, or powder, was added. Legend has it that the original Mocha beans had distinct chocolatey flavor characteristics, as mentioned above, and so is the origin of this name for the modern beverage.
However, although the café latte (and cappuccino) clearly came from Italian coffee traditions, and really just means coffee and milk, being similar to the French café au lait, the terms mocha latte and café mocha do not have such concrete origins, and it is unclear that they are connected with Italy, although, of course, there were coffee and chocolate drinks served there, and what we know as the mocha was probably inspired by the bicerin or similar traditions. But the term itself may well have been of American origin, and it seems to denote the commercial and institutionalized beverage. Many sources call it an “American invented” drink, but since, at it’s most basic, it is simply coffee with milk and chocolate, which Americans certainly hold no patent on, it is silly to claim we invented the practice. It does seem that the name was invented in America, however.
Café mocha image © JJAVA