Coffee is much more than just some brown beverage. What we drink in a normal day represents the last step in a long journey that spans great distances and entails enormous amounts of effort. Be it Brazil or Colombia, Kenya or Burundi—the trip from soil to cherry to bean to cup is an arduous one. This is especially true for the coffees of Yemen.
Enter Mokhtar Alkhanshali. His struggles to bring Yemeni coffee out of his war-torn country have become synonymous with this particularly intense iteration of the journey. Alkhanshali, a Yemeni-American coffee importer who grew up in the Bay Area, had been thrust into the public eye in March of 2015, when, after a series of bombings in Yemen, he escaped through the historic Port of Mocha on a 20-foot boat. And though his plight drew the attention of global media—inspiring our own deep dig into the history of coffee of Yemen—it was what Alkhanshali carried in two briefcases that brought him to the attention of Blue Bottle Coffee founder James Freeman: high-quality Yemeni coffee.
Yemen is historically famous for coffee production. It’s said that in the 1500s there were more than 3000 coffee shops in Cairo, all of them serving Yemeni coffee, and it’s speculated that the very first coffee beans to be served to the Western world were most likely of Yemeni descent. Specifically, Central Europe’s first coffeehouse, Zur Blauen Flasche (The Blue Bottle), was said to have been purveyors of Yemeni coffee, purchased from traveling Turkish troops in the 1680s. Some 330 years later, Alkhanshari’s Port of Mokha coffee company and Freeman’s Blue Bottle Coffee (named for the titular Viennese coffee shop) have come together to start selling Yemeni-grown, specialty-grade coffee to the public. The coffee—Yemen Hayma Hussein al-Haba—sells for $65 for six ounces online and in stores for $16 a cup, paired with an informational pamphlet and a sesame cardamom cookie inspired by one of Alkhanshari’s great-grandmother’s recipes.
I spoke with Freeman and Alkhanshari prior to the launch about what brought them together, the miracle of coffee export, and just how difficult it is to produce delicious coffee in today’s troubled Yemen.
How did you end up being drawn towards Yemeni coffee, James?
James Freeman: The first single-origin coffee I sold was actually from Yemen. It was a lot I purchased from Royal for a couple years, and it was really delicious. I’d read about the history of coffee before I started Blue Bottle and was familiar with Yemen’s history with coffee and its importance in the coffee world. Those early bags had this thick, beautiful fruit and I developed a lot of affection for Yemeni coffee.
How did you get into coffee, Mokhtar?
Mokhtar Alkhanshari: I love history. I loved learning about the Port of Mocca and the ancient Sufis who drank coffee there. I was born in the Bay Area and was exposed to specialty coffee the right way. I worked here as a community organizer and coffee was this amazing intersection of something that could fuel social impact, a delicious drink, and a way to do something that helped my family’s homeland. It was, for me, this wonderful thing that just came together.
What brought the two of you together?
MA: My very first interaction with specialty coffee, with what coffee was really supposed to be like, was at Mint Plaza. After that first cup, I started going to the coffee classes they held on Sundays. I really started to annoy [Sprudgie Award winner & former Blue Bottle green buyer] Stephen Vick. After escaping from Yemen and arriving in America, I took an Uber over to Webster for a cup of coffee. My Uber driver had heard my story on NPR, and she stopped and bought me flowers. And then I walked into the coffee shop and there was James. And there’s a picture of you, Stephen, and I and I’m holding those flowers.
JF: There was a big, long dry spell where our standards were getting higher and the coffees coming out of Yemen weren’t as interesting. And then Stephen Vick tells me, “I met this guy that’s making really great coffee from Yemen.” And I had to taste that coffee.
Explain a little bit about the difficulties of producing coffee in Yemen?
MA: A good example is getting GrainPro bags into the country. To do so I have to buy them in the Philippines, fly them to Ethiopia, and then fly them again to Djibouti. From Djibouti, they have to be smuggled on a boat to one of the ports of Yemen (if they’re open) and then driven from that boat on dangerous roads through airstrikes. All of this, just to bring GrainPro bags to our farmers. Recently, I wanted to bring new Shore 920 Moisture Analyzers into Yemen through the airports. But, of course, the militia that was controlling the airport at the time wanted to know what these Moisture Analyzers were. So, I just told them they were carrot juicers.
And then getting the coffee out of Yemen, what is that process like?
MA: The only way to get to Yemen, currently, is through a UN chartered flight from Jordan. The country is still in the midst of a war. It’s very difficult to go in and out. For a long time the ports in Yemen were closed, but because Yemen imports 90% of its goods, I knew that, eventually, the ports would have to open. They did, and the coffees got shipped out on the MSC Rebecca and finally, landed here. It’s a miracle that coffee from anywhere gets to us the way it does. My story is just a little bit more extreme.
JF: No coffee company has worked more hours per kilogram for a coffee.
How does selling Yemeni coffee help the people of Yemen? More so, how does it help the way we in the West understand Yemen as a country?
MA: 90% of the coffee in the world derives genetically from Yemen. Most people don’t know that. They see Yemen and they see ISIS and war, but ISIS doesn’t represent us. A cup of coffee helps to dispel the stereotypes because it shows something positive coming out of this country. Our farmers are wonderful people and in all the pamphlets they’re smiling. It is so powerful for people to see that. To see them smiling.
JF: What’s in the cup is so special and the story behind it is so special and the history is so special and the guy behind it all is so special—it’s just one thing after another really coming together.
MA: It’s so important to me to have these products out in the world. The farmers worked so hard on these coffees. We take a large risk in paying them what we pay, but we have to. I want two things to happen: one, for people to taste something unbelievably delicious and to have a new experience; and two, to actually do something important for a country currently in the midst of a war.
How do you convince customers that this cup of coffee is worth $16?
JF: Miracles aren’t cheap. And we want people to know how special and how expensive it is to get it into this country. We’re working on a cookie to go with the coffee, a sweet really, based on Mokhtar’s great-grandmother’s recipe. And we’ve designed this beautiful, information pamphlet. If someone wants to order their $16 cup of coffee to go, they can do that. But this is more than just coffee in a paper cup, it’s a real experience. There’s going to be, perhaps, people that think that this coffee should be cheap. We can’t control that. What we can do is present it in the most compelling way, knowing that ultimately it has to live up to that presentation and be remarkably delicious. One or two people who purchase this coffee might think it’s an outrage, but most of these people who spend $16 on Mokhtar’s coffee, they’ll be talking about it for months. They’ll be telling their friends that they had the most amazing cup of coffee and that it was from Yemen.
MA: Our farmers are working hard. In the fall, another shipment will come out. We’ll keep working to continue this project. I want to have a long-term effect on Yemen. And that’s our goal with James. People are excited. I tell my story of escaping Yemen on a boat with two briefcases of coffee and people always ask me, “Where can I get it?” And now I can say, “At Blue Bottle.”
JF: I see this as the beginning of a relationship. Helping Mokhtar build on this and to help people recognize it as high-quality coffee and to offer more and more of it and for it to get better and better, that’s my hope. I want this to just be the start of something.
MA: This time last year, there were no ports open. This year, there are two ports open and an airport. The war hasn’t ended yet, but I’m very stubborn. This goal with this coffee, well, failure isn’t an option. Would I have ever thought that I would escape Yemen on a boat, and then a year later see my coffee land in Oakland, or that Blue Bottle would be launching it the way they are? I’m just going to keep pushing and if people are interested and willing to pay this price, well, I think I can help to shed light on specialty coffee as a whole.
Noah Sanders (@sandersnoah) is a Sprudge.com staff writer based in San Francisco, and a contributor to SF Weekly, Side One Track One, and The Bold Italic. Read more Noah Sanders on Sprudge.
Photos courtesy of Nick Wolf.