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How One Man Fled The Yemeni War To Get His Coffee Beans To Seattle

Courtesy of Port of Mokha coffee
Mokhtar Alkhanshali with Yemeni coffee farmers and their red coffee berries.

This story originally aired on April 15, 2017.

28-year old Yemeni-American Mokhtar Alkhanshali loves coffee. In fact, he is the first Arab certified Q-grader, the coffee equivalent of a sommelier for wine.

Mokhtar grew up between the United States and Yemen. In his grandparents’ garden in Yemen, Mokhtar picked red coffee berries off the trees and laid them out on drying beds. His grandmother taught him when to harvest the berries, and later, how to brew coffee with spices like cardamom and cinnamon.

This early affinity with coffee stuck. Years later, as Mokhtar began college in California, he spent most of his time going to specialty coffee shops and taking coffee classes. As he immersed himself in California’s specialty coffee scene, he noticed there was a lack of Yemeni coffee representation. He began reading reports on Yemeni coffee production and supply chain plans, and in 2013 decided he had to see it for himself.

Mokhtar visited 32 different regions in Yemen, spoke with coffee farmers and took coffee samples from each location. After several months, he tested the quality of the samples and two received rare, high-quality marks.

He knew he had something to work with. Over the next year and a half, Mokhtar went back and forth between the United States and Yemen, training his coffee farmers to consistently harvest quality coffee.

On April 11, 2015, Mokhtar planned to debut his coffee at the Specialty Coffee Association of America’s (SCAA) annual conference in Seattle. Buyers from all over the country would be in attendance. This was Mokhtar’s chance to reintroduce the specialty coffee world to Yemeni coffee.

But on March 25, 2015, two days before Mokhtar planned to fly out from Sanaa, the capital of Yemen, air strikes rained down, forcing closure to civilian airports and ports.

Mokhtar was determined to make it to the SCAA conference in Seattle. Since planes were no longer an option, he grabbed 60 kilograms of coffee samples in two suitcases and drove seven hours to an old, vacant port – the port of Mokha.

Mokha was the first port in the world to trade coffee. He initially planned to take a large ship across to the closest next country’s working airport, but when he arrived in Mokha, he was informed the ship didn’t have enough diesel.

There was one other option: a small, fiberglass boat to Djibouti. The trip would take one day across the Red Sea. He paid the captain $900 and climbed into the boat.

“You're in this giant ocean, and these waves [are] crashing on you … and this guy has no GPS. You don't know if he knows where he's going. And he has one single motor engine. If it dies, you're done. Stuck.”

The trip was cold and wet. Mokhtar was numb for most it. But after 100 miles and a day’s journey, they arrived safely in Obock, a port in Djibouti. He was detained by authorities for a day and a half, released, and managed to fly out to Kenya. From there, Amsterdam, and finally on to his hometown of San Francisco. He stayed one night, and continued on to Seattle, with two days left to roast his coffee and prepare for the SCAA conference.

It was the most well attended event in the history of the SCAA. Mokhtar’s coffee, Port of Mokha coffee, performed extremely well in all blind tastings. Buyers were eagerly offering some of the highest prices for coffee. Blue Bottle, a coffee retailer, now sells Port of Mokha coffee for $16 a cup of black coffee.

Today, the Yemeni war continues to rage on, making it difficult to grow and export coffee. But Port of Mokha manages, and Mokhtar is able to pay his coffee farmers some of the highest wages during the war. And every cup of Port of Mokha coffee ordered comes with Mokhtar’s story, and the story of Yemen’s deep history in coffee.

Sound Effect contributor Hebah Fisher is the co-founder of Kerning Cultures, a podcast the tells stories from and about the Middle East. 

This story originally aired on April 15, 2017