Coffee enthusiasts will attest to the immeasurable power of coffee. A cup doesn’t just wake us up; it can veritably take anyone through a difficult day, make things better, and even change our lives.
Just ask Mokhtar Alkhanshali.
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The founder and chief executive officer (CEO) of coffee company Port of Mokha is known worldwide for escaping war-torn Yemen with but coffee samples in hand. The former doorman of a high-rise in San Francisco, California began a journey to bring Yemeni coffee to the world—discovering many truths about life in the process.
Mokhtar’s family emigrated from Yemen to the United States and encountered life’s hardships in what he called “the worst neighborhood” in the city. The eldest of seven children never thought he could get out, like some friends who had lost their way. Mokhtar credits his parents for exposing him to the struggles of life of people in Yemen—thus lighting a fire in him to work harder.
As a young man, he dreamed through books and magical characters like Harry Potter. Now, Alkhanshali has a bestselling book written about him – penned by noted author Dave Eggers. The tome The Monk of Mokha is now part of academic curriculums.
Six years ago, Mokhtar didn’t even like coffee. Now, he travels to tell its story and inspire young people to look at coffee as something “exciting” that “they can pursue.” He is educating farmers about coffee cultivation and wants to build strong appreciation for the craft.
ANCX sat down with the coffee innovator during his recent visit to Manila upon the invitation of World Barista Championship finalist Michael Harris Conlin of coffee company Henry & Sons and Grand Hyatt Manila.
It’s surreal, he says, to look back and recall how hopeless he once felt in poverty, doing jobs he did not like, and fearing for his life after a civil war erupted overnight. He thought he would not make it out alive. From writing goodbye e-mails to his parents then, Mokhtar is now exchanging WhatsApp messages with Yemeni coffee farmers who send him photos of what they are able to provide to their families through their joint venture.
Your story tackles global challenges and issues like food and security, and fair trade. What do these mean to you?
I understand a lot of people only want to hear the nice stories. But I feel it would be dishonest. The reality is difficult and so they should appreciate coffee even more so. I think that there are a lot of problems in the world and we just need to have huge government programs or big initiatives by big corporations. But really, I think that millions of people do little things every day. That’s when change happens. And with coffee, you can either help people or exploit them. Maybe they will never go to Yemen or meet Yemeni farmers. But if you can go to a café that serves our coffee and buy a cup for your family or friends, that can have an impact. I just try to be enough.
What should we be aware of about the welfare of coffee farmers?
Historically, coffee was not cheap. It was very special, and people would know where it came from. Then it became commercialized. Big companies became greedy and started paying coffee farmers less and they taught us that coffee is cheap. They made very nasty, very bitter coffee that we have to put cream and sugar and different things to make it drinkable. Once you learn about coffee, you understand that it’s not just a very cheap commodity.
When you try to go cheap on something, someone’s going to pay a consequence to that. Everything we consume, we have a responsibility to understand where it comes from. And a lot of times, coffee farmers do not get a paid a lot. There’s fast food, fast fashion, and there’s fast coffee. You can go and get cheap coffee anywhere. On top of that, the farmer was likely exploited. Our coffee just tastes amazing. I don’t have to make people guilty after buying this coffee. This is just really a wonderful drink and, guess what, you’re also helping somebody.
How would you describe Yemeni beans to curious coffee drinkers?
They’re very rare and they have a high amount of diversity. The elevation in Yemen is so high. It takes very slowly for real coffee to grow. There’s not much water, so the coffee trees are under stress. The beans are so super small, very dense. When you roast them 10 seconds too long, you burn them; 10 seconds too short, they’re underdeveloped. There’s a lot of pressure when you make coffee, but that’s the beauty of our craft.
In Yemen, most coffee is grown far from cities. But it’s in the capital and big cities where things are being processed and centralized. It’s hard. There has not been electricity for four years now. We have to use diesel generators and it costs so much money to power those. There are active air strikes. For us, every time the coffee reaches the water to be shipped, then we can breathe. Before that, we don’t know how it’s going to last, what’s going to happen. It makes it difficult, but my belief is that our project is going to outlast these bombs. When that happens, we can lay the foundation to do this work much better.
What do you want us to know about success?
It’s easy when someone comes to you and tells you that you can make it, be successful, follow your dreams. No one believes that stuff. When you went through the same experience, had hardships at home, had financial issues, and you actually lived a very difficult life, then the young people listen to you. Someone told me that the mayor of Manila was homeless before—that’s probably one of the things that makes him resonate.
I know what it feels like to go hungry. I know what it feels like to feel stuck, it’s different. I worked as a doorman in a high-rise and I felt really low. I felt stuck in life. Find out what you like to do and do that. People like my story because of this idea of “fake it ‘til you make it.” How do I go from not drinking coffee six years ago to teaching courses now on coffee genetics, and doing historical analysis of coffee strains in Yale University, UC Berkeley? You can always reinvent yourself. Grit is important. It’s about keeping at it, not giving up and about believing yourself.
Coffee is not?
Favorite coffee drink?
A naturally processed iced coffee.
Your thoughts on decaf?
I think it’s fine for some people who have heart issues. But I also think that caffeine is the whole point of coffee. It's a magical thing that, if you allow it to go into your bloodstream, It will change your life.
Favorite comfort food?
My family’s hometown Ibb. It looks like a shire. Outside of Yemen, San Francisco is an amazing place.
When I was in high school, I liked speech and debate. It’s a weird sport. I was really good in that. I also play soccer; I’m a really good goalie.
Favorite music or musician?
Motown music, Bill Withers (“Lean on Me,” “Ain’t No Sunshine”). I grew up listening to a lot of hip-hop—old-school hip hop is my favorite. And a lot of R&B music: Erykah Badu, Aaliyah.
I like Professor X because he could read minds.
When I travel, I like to experience culture through food. If I can, I’ll eat different types of food and learn about different dishes. There’s history connected to it, and I love history. If I go to Mindanao, they’ll probably have a dish that’s connected to Malaysian history, and a lot of Yemeni are involved in trade with Indonesia and Malaysia.
Favorite Filipino drink?