When Yemen is in the news these days, it’s an update on the brutal civil war that has ravaged the country since 2015, leading to what the U.N. has termed the “worst humanitarian crisis in the world.”
There’s another story happening though, and it ties the rural mountains of western Yemen to high-end coffee shops in Brooklyn and San Francisco.
In the mid-1900’s, a Yemeni man named Hamoud lived a childhood of hardship and was disparaged by his family. Eventually, he came to the U.S. and made a solid living owning convenience stores. He went back to Yemen and built a big house, becoming a respected man. While Hamoud’s grandson, Mokhtar Alkhanshali, was growing up in the U.S, he saw Hamoud as his idol – he wanted to have respect, money and status.
He struggled to do so, ending up working as a doorman at a hotel in San Francisco. One day, he came across a statue of a Yemeni man holding a cup of coffee outside a shop near his job. The 100-year old statue was the symbol of Hills Brothers’ Coffee company. Alkhanshali turned to Google for answers.
His research taught him that coffee, although first discovered in the highlands of Ethiopia in the 9th century, was first cultivated and brewed into real coffee in Yemen, specifically the region of Ibb. Alkhanshali’s family hails from Ibb. The connection was too serendipitous to ignore.
Alkhanshali was shocked at the news because, even though the drink originated in Yemen, Yemeni coffee was impossible to find. Coffee cultivation in Yemen had declined over the centuries until it only produced cheap, bulk beans. In the past few decades, acres of coffee trees have been ripped out and replaced with the more profitable qat, a plant whose mildly narcotic leaves are chewed across the MENA region, and particularly in Yemen. At that moment, Alkhanshali became determined to revive Yemeni coffee.
The problem, however, was that he was not a coffee drinker. Nor did he know much at all about the coffee industry, nor had he ever run his own business. So he read, went to coffee tasting classes and made connections. He found his entry point into Yemeni coffee in Willem Boot, a coffee expert with the Coffee Quality Institute. Boot agreed to bring Alkhanshali along to a coffee-collecting trip to Yemen as long as the novice learned what good coffee was.
Before long, the two arrived in Yemen. Boot, however, only stayed one day. When they arrived, troubles were brewing between Iran-backed Houthi rebels and the Yemeni government and the visitors were encouraged to leave. Alkhanshali, however, was determined to finish what he came to do. Alone, and lacking legitimate credentials, he fudged it. He bought a leather-bound notebook, a shiny watch and geometric eyeglasses and headed into mountains. Masquerading as a coffee expert, he visited with rural coffee-growing communities. At that time, he didn’t even know what a coffee tree looked like.
Nevertheless, he was from America and he looked the part, so he was treated with respect. The farmers trusted him and hoped that he would find better markets for their beans and help lift them out of poverty. The longer he spent visiting farmers, the more he realized how morally suspect his façade might be. Although the old coffee varieties might still be there, the ancient art of cultivating them – and even brewing coffee itself – had faded out of memory. Farmers were harvesting coffee berries en masse, regardless of ripeness. This eroded its potential. The coffee they did make was more like muddy tea. If Alkhanshali would be able to live up to his word and give the farmers what they wanted, things would need to change.
Luckily, in one village, he found the beans he needed, all perfectly ripe, grown by an elderly, expert farmer named Malik. When Alkhanshali brought Malik’s beans back the U.S., they, and those of several other villages, received exemplary ratings. Encouraged and backed by investors, he returned to Yemen to educate the farmers about best farming practices and establish an export business.
Here’s where things started to get rough. The night after he met Malik again, the old man passed away. Then the Houthis seized the capital, Sana’a, where Alkhanshali had set up his coffee mill. Regardless, life went on, other than the steadily amplifying tremors of war. He awoke one morning to the sound of bombs, dropped on the city by a pro-government coalition force led by Saudi Arabia and the U.S. The proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran had begun in full. Although he faced death daily, Alkhanshali had blinders on. He stayed.
The Saudi coalition tore holes in the country, destroying or shutting down essentially all ports of entry or exit. But the coffee needed to get out for a coffee conference in Seattle. The U.S., which manufactured many of the bombs, provided no real support for citizens stuck in Yemen. Alkhanshali resorted to hitching a ride on a small fiberglass boat across the Red Sea to Djibouti, his suitcase of beans in tow. He made it to the coffee conference. And his coffee beat some of the world’s reigning champions.
To get to Djibouti, he left from the city of Mokha. It’s the storied home of the Monk of Mokha, a kind of Sufi Johnny Coffee-seed said to be responsible for spreading coffee around the Arab world. Since Alkhanshali’s journey, he founded his company, Port of Mokha, in homage. It sells single-origin Yemeni coffee to high-end markets in the U.S. On the Internet, $28 buys you a monthly subscription of 5 oz. of coffee from Al-Jabal village (about 12 cups), held in slick, minimalist packaging. Or, $158 will get you three 4 oz. boxes of coffee from three villages (around $6 per cup).
The high price is justified by history and geography. Port of Mokha’s website explains that, “for 150 years, starting in the 16th century, Yemen was the exclusive coffee supplier to the entire world … Yemen’s unique microclimate and high elevation where coffee grew produced drought-resistant plants that yielded complex coffees with sweet, chocolatey flavors … Though 90% of the world’s coffee can be genetically traced back to Yemen.”
Port of Mokha, which says it is “based in Oakland and Yemen,” persists, even through the midst of the worst humanitarian crisis in the world. Alkhanshali sees this business as a unique, empowering player in an industry that tends to exploit and repress its producers. Indeed, they do reportedly pay farmers a premium for their beans and run aid programs for their communities. According to their website, their mission is “to use coffee as a vehicle to improve quality of life and move the people of Yemen from humanitarian aid to economic empowerment.” Their initiatives include “interest free loans, solving the water problem, disrupting the refugee crisis, and replacing drug farms with coffee farms.” Transitioning back to coffee from qat is an environmental issue too; nearly half of Yemen’s water is used for qat production, and that water supply is only diminishing.
The company’s work is admirable, important and innovative. In many ways, its success is driven by a kind of intense reverence for the character of Mokhtar Alkhanshali. The heroic mythos of his epic journey is built into the structure of the company. Its logo is the little fiberglass dinghy that carried him and his first shipment of coffee across the Red Sea. He is portrayed as almost a savior. Port of Mokha’s website describes his journey as a “miracle.” Renowned author Dave Eggers wrote a 350-page book about Alkhanshali’s story. His efforts have indeed been laudable and his journey sensational.
A recent development sours the narrative. In May, Alkhanshali’s former business partners filed a lawsuit against him, accusing him of (according to Daily Coffee News), “widespread racketeering, including fraud, conspiracy, money laundering, extortion and embezzlement.” The lawsuit has yet to be picked up by major news sources, largely only receiving coverage in foodie blogs for now.
In 2014, Alkhanshali and three investors founded Mocha Mill, each with a quarter stake in the company. The three others invested over $500,000 in Alkhanshali’s project. The accusations are plentiful and involve an alleged scheme of shady computer companies used to move money and coffee under the table. The crux of the lawsuit is that Alkhanshali exploited and defrauded his investors out of money and coffee beans to start his own company, Port of Mokha. The suit claims that “Port of Mokha stole all of Mocha Mill’s farmer and distributor relationships, cutting Mocha Mill at the knees.”
Mocha Mill also accuses Alkhanshali of manipulating Eggers to erase Mocha Mill from his story. The major coffee company, Blue Bottle, one of Alkhanshali’s first buyers, is included in the suit. This type of lawsuit is usually reserved for organized criminal groups like the mafia.
Whether he is a humble, courageous hero or a deceptive opportunist, Alkhanshali’s exploits have revived Yemen as a coffee hub and brought new life to some farmers in the country’s western mountains.