When most people think of what specialty coffee is, the most common things I hear include something along the lines of “Oh wow! I can actually enjoy this drink black.” or “Why is this coffee priced at a higher rate than the common counterpart coffee company that is seen everywhere?” (Name not included for respectable purposes, but you get where I’m going with it). Then there’s the other spectrum of consumers who love paying a higher price for coffee because of the basic understanding that with more expensive coffee comes a business model that not only goes full circle, but also truly benefits everyone involved in the process. This business model includes paying living wages to farmers who are meticulous with producing and harvesting all the way to providing enthusiasts with coffee that tantalizes and wonders the palate.
"This business model includes paying living wages to farmers who are meticulous with producing and harvesting all the way to providing enthusiasts with coffee that tantalizes and wonders the palate."
When I had the opportunity to sit down with Mokhtar Alkhanshali, founder of the Port of Mokha, I was given much more clarity and perspective as to how arduous the process of getting crop to seed all the way to the cup truly is. Alkhanshali was raised in San Francisco, while having majority of his family members still living in Yemen. While working as a community organizer, Alkhanshali wanted to make a positive impact in the community. Since trying a cup of the Ethiopia Gelena Abaya for the first time at Blue Bottle Coffee, he found that getting into specialty coffee could be the perfect pairing of spurring a social movement and helping his homeland.
Mokhtar Alkhanshali’s story exemplifies the grit and obstacles it took to get Yemeni coffee here. Once deciding to pursue this journey, Alkhanshali went ahead to get certified as a Q grader (in 2013, there were only 108 Q graders). As one hurdle was jumped through, what was ahead is a story that certainly inspires us all.
In March of 2015, Saudi airstrikes flooded Yemen, with multiple series of bombs dropped into the country. “I honestly did not know at some points whether I was going to see the sun rise the next day. People lost everything in the span of a day. Doctors losing their practices, some even losing their lives.” In that same year, Mokhtar and two of his friends made the journey and escaped on a small dinghy out of the Port of Mocha to transport two suitcases of Yemeni harvested coffee across the Red Sea.
Finally making it to the United States, Alkhanshali’s coffee made it onto a blind cupping session at Blue Bottle Coffee. The coffees were placed with other world famous single origin coffees including multiple of the Gesha variety. Completely astounded by the taste and remembering exactly where Mokhtar’s coffee was on the cupping table, founder of Blue Bottle Coffee, James Freeman agreed to a partnership in selling these coffees.
Through the partnership of Port of Mokha and Blue Bottle Coffee, Mokhtar is able to make a large impact in his country, seeking to restore Yemen’s economy. In turn, for us as customers, yes, a cup of the Yemen Hayma Mohamed Quleep sold through Blue Bottle costs $16, or $65 for an online order of a 6-ounce bag of whole beans. But what it means for the farmers in Yemen is education for their children, a future, and ultimately, hope. For enjoyment purposes on the consumer end, this coffee is complex and wildly unique when it comes to its taste profiles. Plum wine, rose water, and layers of florality and fruitiness, it is certainly a $16 cup to be cherished and talked about for years to come.
"In turn, for us as customers, yes, a cup of the Yemen Hayma Mohamed Quleep sold through Blue Bottle costs $16, or $65 for an online order of a 6-ounce bag of whole beans. But what it means for the farmers in Yemen is education for their children, a future, and ultimately, hope."
“It’s a miracle that this coffee is here,” says Alkhanshali. This is more than just coffee. It is the understanding and appreciation for coffee that is harvested by people who truly care to share a story of a beautiful struggle; that through a war-torn country, something so meaningful can still be built in the midst of a mess. It is investing in the benefit of others around the world in a country that is rebuilding its overall infrastructure. This is a social intervention. This is what coffee is all about.