Coffee & Conversation: Mokhtar Alkhanshali

Port of Mokha's founder talks coffee, Yemen, and generosity

Mokhtar Alkhanshali

Back in 2013, when Mokhtar Alkhanshali had his first sip of a Yirgacheffe natural at our Mint Plaza cafe, he did not consider himself a serious coffee drinker. But the vivid taste of blueberry, and the fact that farmers in faraway places could earn more through direct trade rather than costly middlemen, inspired Mokhtar to go deeper into the specialty world. As he studied to become a Licensed Q-grader, he couldn't help but connect his own background as a Yemeni American to coffee’s past: Yemen was the world’s first commercial origin.

Later that same year, unable to reconcile the Yemen he knew as a boy on visits to his grandparents' home with the Yemen that was once coffee's most alluring source, Mokhtar decided to travel there to meet farmers firsthand. Upon his return, after spending months in the remote villages of Yemen's highlands, Mokhtar founded Port of Mokha, an export company whose mission is to reconnect coffee drinkers everywhere with the peerless coffee for which the country was once known.

Despite its worldwide monopoly on coffee production for nearly two centuries, Yemen's recent history has largely been defined by political upheaval, brought about by external imperial forces and civil strife. A recent New Yorker article by journalist Nicolas Niarchos explains that “[i]n the past three decades, Yemen has had nine wars, two insurgencies, and a revolution.” The country’s current war—technically the seventh since 2005—began when a Saudi-led coalition began airstrikes on Houthi rebels, an insurgent group from the north. Today, the country has entered a catastrophic humanitarian crisis, with the largest cholera outbreak in recent history and malnutrition threatening millions of lives.

For the coffee economy, Saudi Arabia has become Yemen’s main market. Because the style in Saudi Arabia is to drink coffee that's heavily spiced, quality is not a priority. Many farmers in Yemen own only a small number of coffee trees and therefore make a negligible profit. To make ends meet, they've had to turn to the water-intensive crop, qat, a legal stimulant that taxes the country’s already-diminished water table.

To add to the obstacles that farmers face, Mokhtar himself has literally risked his own life to create a company that's seeking to reinvigorate a market during a time of war. When Mokhtar says, “It’s a miracle this coffee is here,” he is not exaggerating. We’re honored to serve Port of Mokha’s coffee for the second year in a row, an occasion that coincides with the publication of Dave Eggers’ newest book, The Monk of Mokha. We sat down with Mokhtar in our Old Oakland cafe a couple of weeks ago to learn more.

We understand you come from a long line of coffee growers. Was coffee an important part of your life growing up?

As a child, anytime I’d go back to Yemen, I’d pick coffee cherry with my grandmother. But I was never a serious drinker, and no one in my family thought of it as a commercial enterprise. It was just a part of life—trees that we grew in addition to other crops, like wheat or barley or fruit. 

When I was in middle school, a common threat I heard from my family was, “If you don’t do good in school, we’re going to take you back to Yemen to farm.” Years later, I was working as a doorman, trying to find my way in life, when a friend texted me to say that there was a statue of a weird Yemeni man drinking coffee next door. When I went outside and saw this beautiful Yemeni man drinking coffee—he was the statue for Hills Bros. Coffee—I started to realize Yemen’s role in coffee, and I wanted to know more.

That was just a few years ago. How did you go from fascination to running your own coffee export company? 

I started asking people in the coffee industry about Yemen. I kept hearing how coffee from there was so hard to get, and when you could find it, its quality was inconsistent. But, I also heard so many people saying that the best coffee they’d ever had was from Yemen—five, ten, or twenty years ago. 

A series of coincidences, including a natural Yirgacheffe that I had at Blue Bottle, brought me to the point of realizing that this is how I want to spend my time.

You founded Port of Mokha in a tumultuous moment of Yemen’s history. When you are asked to explain the war, how do you describe it in the simplest of terms? 

There are more than two sides of this issue, and unfortunately, Yemenis are stuck in the middle of these external forces.

In March 2015, you were caught in the first wave of Saudi-led airstrikes just as you were ready to leave Yemen with coffee samples to share at the SCA conference. The situation has only worsened. Why continue work that’s so harrowing?

Ten countries are bombing this little country, the poorest in the Middle East. These global powers—who am I to do something against them? 

I can tell you that when I escaped on the boat, it was the greatest moment of my life. It was like, I can do something against these powers. When I was in Yemen the first time, and since, I have come to know these farmers well. I’ve committed myself to them, looked into their eyes. These are real people who need our support. After seeing all of this, what else would I do with my life?

And then, on a personal level, I see how with every cup of coffee, you have a choice. You are either going to uplift somebody, or you’re going to exploit them. Coffee is a delicious way to actually have a huge impact on people thousands of miles away from where you are in your own neighborhood.

What are a few of the challenges and costs that you did not anticipate? 

Because of the war, there is no electricity. We’ve had to pay for diesel to run generators for three years. We also have to ship coffee every month to test for quality control. But to do that, given the broken infrastructure, the coffee first travels to Aden [at the southern tip of Yemen], and then is shipped to Saudi Arabia before being shipped again to the U.S. We do that every month to ensure quality. If you looked at the real costs, this coffee would be much more expensive. 

Like coffee, the stimulant qat has a long history in Yemen. Though it can be profitable, it uses significant amount of water—and Yemen’s water table is nearly depleted. Are farmers open to transitioning from qat to coffee? 

The farmers we’ve been working with chose to remove it on their own. But because coffee takes a bit of time to establish—four to five years before a tree is producing—we want to establish a nursery. That’s why we’re starting The Mokha Foundation, a nonprofit that’s going to enable us to support basic infrastructure and make sure that farmers are economically empowered. 

When we look at what we already do, the microloans that we already give through Port of Mokha have the biggest impact on farmers. A couple of hundred dollars can literally change their lives. It allows them to get out of cycles of debt. Often, a few months before harvest, farmers are forced to go to loan sharks. As a company, we are limited in what we can do. But The Mokha Foundation will expand these microloans and use coffee as a tool: To subsidize farmers, to sanitize water to prevent cholera, to build a nursery, and to create a cross-cultural bridge. 

You often talk about coffee as a bridge. What do you mean by that? 

The shortest distance between two people is a cup of coffee. We live in a very divided world. To have moments around coffee allows us to make time and slow down and be present.  

Can you tell us how Port of Mokha selected the coffees for this year’s lots

Oftentimes, farmers’ trees are scattered. Maybe they have three terraces here, and one across the hill. In the past, we isolated lots based on individual farmers, but this year, we built lots based on location. The difference in quality shows—the coffees are even cleaner and more articulate this year.

After farmers pick their coffee, there’s nothing that we can do to improve upon it. We can only maintain its quality. And that’s what we’re trying to do by having a more centralized processing system. All of the farmers did their own thing before we started working with them. But, when you’re blending different farmers’ coffees together, the smallest differences during cultivation can make the biggest differences in the finished quality. 

You experimented with processing techniques for different lots this year. What did you learn?

We’ve learned a lot from farmers in other origin countries. So, for one coffee—Lot #3, our smallest—we dried the cherry over a longer period because the embryo in the cherry has more time to convert starch to sugars. It ends up being really sweet and having a long shelf life. There’s a sweet spot, though. Too long a drying period and the coffee tastes overly fermented. Definitely, some lots didn’t work out. But every time something works, we discover something that we can use.

This year’s coffees come from the remote village of Al-Jabal in northwestern Yemen. You’ve said that the culture there is exceptionally hospitable. What do you mean?

When you enter the villages in Al-Jabal, the villagers greet you with a zamil—a traditional welcoming poem. Villagers come out and sing these poems that are personalized, saying our names as part of the poem. I meet people for the first time and feel like I’ve known them all of my life. 

Do the farmers drink their own coffee? 

For the most part, people drink tea made from the husk of the coffee cherry. It’s called qishr in Yemen. Only fifteen percent of the coffee grown in Yemen is drunk there. It takes money to process and roast it. Qishr is everywhere, though, and it’s delicious with spices like cardamom and saffron. 

You’ve done all of this work in Yemen to bring amazing coffee to roasters like us. What about the last few steps? The roasting, the brewing, and service? 

Our coffees are very hard to roast. Seconds off can ruin the coffee. Too much water or too little can make it taste off, too. The coffee beans are small and dense because of the high elevation and little rainfall. So they take a deft hand. The baristas have a special place in my heart—they are the last step in bringing these special coffees to the world. They are the ones who brew the actual coffee and share the story.

When you talk to the farmers in Al-Jabal, what do they hope for most? 

It’s pretty simple: for the war to end and to have a functioning government. They dream of someday creating a coffee tourism economy and having people visit them.

We are so far away. And Port of Mokha is not just about coffee, it’s about people in crisis. How can we help?

People need to be aware, to learn about what’s going on in this country and spread the word. And drink this coffee. Create the bridge.