Meet Mokhtar, The Yemeni-American Whose Extraordinary Coffee 'Builds Bridges, Not Walls'

Ahmad Ibrahim, Mokhtar Al-Khanshali and Marlee Benefield. | Photos: Andy Bosselman/Hoodline

Andy Bosselman
Published on March 11, 2017

This is the third of a series highlighting Bay Area people with connections to the seven predominantly Muslim countries affected by President Trump’s immigration banFind the previous stories here: Eddie Baba of Iran and Qusai Bonie of Syria.

If you or someone you know is from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria or Yemen and would like to be profiled, email [email protected] or text (415) 200-3233. 

Mokhtar Al-Khanshali. 

“I didn't drink coffee four years ago,” said Mokhtar Al-Khanshali, a Yemeni-American who grew up in the Tenderloin district. “The only coffee I had had was this nasty diner coffee.” 

Today, he is the founder of Port of Mokha, an Oakland-based importer whose coffees are consistently rated among the best in the world. 

For centuries, Yemen’s exceptional varietals and growing conditions produced highly esteemed coffees. But today, after decades of political instability, war, and poverty, many farmers have stopped growing coffee. Al-Khanshali set out to change that. 

Yemen's high elevations, soil, and water scarcity make it ideal for coffee cultivation. | Photo: Mokhtar Al-Khanshali

The Cup That Changed His Life

In 2013, at the Blue Bottle cafe in Mint Plaza, Al-Khanshali tried his first specialty coffee: the Ethiopia Yirgacheffe Chelelektu. “This is not coffee,” he said to himself. “This is wonderful.” 

The experience brought up childhood memories of trips to Yemen when he picked coffee cherries with his grandmother, a time when he thought Yemenis should grow coffee, not khat, a drug widely used in Yemen. That first cup also kicked off an all-consuming journey of self-education. 

In fact, you may have heard about one of his trips to Yemen. In 2015, after civil war broke out, he told NPR about his risky escape. In a small boat, he fled from the Port of Mokha, the place that inspired his company’s name (map).  

Al-Khansali points out which coffee cherries are perfectly ripe.  | PHOTO: MOKHTAR AL-KHANSHALI

Experts: The Best Cup Of Coffee In My Life

As Al-Khanshali took an interest in coffee, he talked to roasters about their experiences with Yemeni coffees. Many warned him that the beans were expensive, difficult to obtain, and of inconsistent quality. Despite these problems, they always concluded with the same comment: the best cup of coffee they had ever had was of Yemeni origin.

“The oldest place to cultivate coffee in the world is my family's province,” he said of Ibb, a mountainous region in southwestern Yemen. “Our trees are stressed,” which gives them a higher concentration of flavor, acids, and sugars.

Al-Khanshali thought he could overcome the inconsistencies experts warned him about, but he faced a steep learning curve.

Al-Khanshali learned to identify 36 different coffee aromas.

An Education In Coffee

To learn about coffee, Al-Khanshali read, went to industry events, and worked at coffee shops for free. He also undertook an intense period of study to become coffee's version of a wine sommelier. After passing 22 tests, he became the first certified Q Grader of Arab origin.

But the ability to recognize a high-quality finished product is only part of the knowledge he needed. From understanding soil and seeds to pruning and picking, “I had to learn to be a farmer,” he said.

“It's funny, all my life growing up, my parents would tell me, ‘You have to do good in school or we're going to take you back to work on the farm,’” he said. “That was their threat. And that's what I do now.”

A Yemeni farmer collects coffee cherries. | Photo: Mokhtar Al-Khanshali

A Bridge Between Farmers And High-End Consumers

To unlock the potential of Yemeni coffees, Al-Khanshali's bi-cultural upbringing is unique and powerful advantage. 

Today when he travels through the coffee growing regions of Yemen, he speaks Arabic and wears traditional clothes. He passes for a local but his American sensibilities often pulse through his earbuds as he listens to hip-hop and R&B, including artists like Biggie Smalls, Tupac, and Erykah Badu. “One journalist called me a tribal Bedouin hipster,” he said.

While his American side allows him to understand coffee consumers, his Yemeni side allows him to employ local parables to share knowledge and respectfully persuade farmers to adopt fastidious new practices.

For example, at harvest, many farmers stripped plants of all cherries all at once. Instead, each plant needs to be visited multiple times, picking cherries only when perfectly ripe. Also, meticulous new drying methods are needed. Beans must be stored in clean facilities where smoking is prohibited, too.

He tells his farmers, “If we do it, I can pay more.” And his work is having extraordinary results: last month, one of his coffees, the Hayma Microlot, earned a score of 97, the highest rating to-date from Coffee Review.

What not to do: Yemeni coffee producers needed to change production methods, including banning smoking where coffee is processed. | Photo: Mokhtar Al-Khanshali

A Special Coffee Experience

Whether in San Francisco, Williamsburg, or Paris, coffee can be a wonderful experience that connects people, Al-Khanshali said. Last month, one of his coffees sold at Blue Bottle cafes for $16 a cup, making it an experience many reserved for special moments: the birth of a child, a milestone at work, or even a breakup.

“Two of my friends divorced and the last thing they did together was have a cup of coffee,” he said. The husband called it “the cup of closure.”

“Coffee is about what you build together,” Al-Khanshali continued. “It’s about journeys, it’s a miraculous adventure. It crosses cultures, boundaries, and messy politics to go from the producer’s hands all the way to us. And in this cup, it brings everyone together. It’s a way for us to build bridges, not walls.”

Last month, in response to President Trump’s executive order banning travel from seven predominantly Muslim countries, Al-Khanshali's company joined a coalition of coffee companies to raise funds for the ACLU. The effort raised half a million dollars. 

Al-Khanshali prepares samples of rare Yemeni coffee for a cupping. 

Where To Try It

To find Port of Mokha coffees, sign up for the company’s e-mail list. Because of small-scale production, it is not always available. In the coming months, watch for it at the following coffee shops.