Making Mokha

One of the most expensive cups of coffee in the world comes stateside after a long journey through war-torn regions.

Making Mokha

Yemen is known to coffee growers as the birthplace of the blessed brown stuff, but it wasn’t until San Francisco native Mokhtar Al-Khanshali visited his parents’ homeland and braved war and cultural displacement that coffee drinkers in the US were given a taste of the old-school brew. Al-Khanshali’s career as a budding coffee expert and entrepreneur got an extra jolt when bestselling author Dave Eggers told his story in last year’s gripping book The Monk of Mokha. With Yemeni coffee experiencing a resurgence through Al-Khanshali’s subscription-based Port of Mokha purveyor, and at high-end retailers for $13 a cup, we talk with the young empresario and philanthropist about his two homelands, his passions, and the drink that makes the world go round.

Horizons: When was your first trip to Yemen?

Al-Khanshali: I had gone when I was in middle school, after eighth grade. I grew up in an area of San Francisco called the Tenderloin, and there ain’t nothing tender about that place. It’s a rough neighborhood, so growing up there, my parents were really worried that I was going down the wrong path in life and so they took me to Yemen when was I was a teenager—I was 13—for a year. And that was my first real experience in Yemen. With a lot of sons and daughters of immigrants, you sometimes find yourself in between two worlds. Sometimes, you don’t fit in in any. So when I went back to Yemen the first time, in my mind, I thought, “Okay, you know, now I’m going back home, to my family’s home where I belong.” And I got there and I just felt really awkward. I didn’t speak the right way, the right Arabic. I didn’t walk the walk. It took a long time to do that. But ultimately, going to Yemen the first time, and the second time with my grandparents, helped me years later, because when I did go back with the coffee project, it was much easier for me to assimilate into Yemeni culture and fit in, quote-unquote. So I went in middle school, then I went after high school for a year.

Khanshali With Yemeni Coffee Farmers

Mokhtar Al-Khanshali with Yemeni coffee farmers.

Coffee came into the picture…growing up in the Bay Area, it’s hard not to meet somebody who cares about social impact and somebody who’s a foodie. There’s an incredible food culture here, so even though I was poor, I was still around food. I would eat in incredible restaurants, and a lot of my friends were foodies, and part of the environment that I grew up in was this incredibly emerging single origin coffee scene, with roasters like Blue Bottle and Four Barrel and lots of other companies, so I fell in love with coffee through that, and that’s when I first found something that connected to my family homeland and my American homeland.

Did you ever envision yourself as an entrepreneur?

No, I didn’t. Very early on, when I was younger, maybe I had an idea of being a businessman or something like that, but as I grew up, I really got more into civil rights and I was going to become a lawyer. That was the plan. My parents loved that idea, of course. So I was a paralegal for a nonprofit and I got to work with organizations like the ACLU, and I was going to become a lawyer. Coffee was the detour that I never came back from.

What was the catalyst for you to start importing Yemeni coffee, particularly, to the United States?

Al Khanshali Escapes Yemen

Al-Khanshali, escapes war-torn Yemen via boat, with a batch of beans as bombers fly overhead.

You know, I wish everyone had the opportunity for someone to write a book about them, because it’s funny, but it’s really incredible: I got to learn a lot about myself through this book and seeing the patterns of my life. Everything happens for a reason and we are a product of our times, of our experiences, the people we meet, and so there were all these little things that helped guide me on my path and literally being in the Bay Area was a big deal. My aha moment, you could say, was when a friend of mine told me about this statue of this Yemeni man drinking coffee. I was working at the time as a doorman—they called us lobby ambassadors to make us feel better—and the statue was across the street at an old coffee company called Hills Brothers­—they were really famous back in the day—and their main headquarters was right in front of the Embarcadero. San Francisco was a very big port for coffee, all the coffee that came through the Panama Canal, from Colombia, from Brazil, everywhere. There were really some powerful coffee dynasties, like the Folgers family, based in San Francisco, and so I went to look at the statue—it’s still there—of a big Arab man holding a cup of coffee to the sky, and I began just researching and learning the incredible history that Yemen played. I ended up visiting the actual port called Mokha, which is in Yemen and where the word mocha comes from, and I learned the history of coffeehouses and how they changed the world. In coffeehouses, people spend time there converging ideas and philosophies, social movements, so I really love the history and the social impact part of it. I think coffee is an incredible way to get us to slow down and have these intimate moments with one another, especially in times when we’re being divided. And the farmers in Yemen, if they’re taught how to produce something better and process certain techniques better, they can net much higher prices and make a better living for themselves. There were always these things that I really wanted to do, but I didn’t have the idea to create a company until much later. I feel like this is more of a calling than a career.

The trip with your biographer, Dave Eggers, was not your first time to Yemen as someone working in the coffee business, correct?

Coffee Plant From Yemeni Farm

Coffee plant from a Yemeni farm.

Dave came on in 2015, actually towards the end of it. I started in 2013, so I had already worked a couple years on this project and when I met Dave. One of the biggest parts of it was becoming certified in coffee tasting, called a Q Grader, which is similar to becoming a sommelier and requires a two-part exam. In one exam, you have to identify 36 different aromas of coffee, so I’d already started the journey when Dave came on towards the end. When he did come on, the coffee was still in Yemen and there was a war going on. The book didn’t even have a happy ending at first. It took us almost a year. You know, it started as a kid who had a dream and the dream got deferred indefinitely. But then, if you follow the journey, you see in the book, the end is pretty remarkable and the coffee client gets his first shipment.

But all great stories have their ups and downs. I didn’t expect to wake up one day and hear all these explosions and shooting and not knowing if you’re going to see your mother again. You know, having to message my parents not knowing if I’m sending them the last message; that happened a couple times. It was very difficult living through a war, and all I knew about war was what I saw on TV and in books. Like, being kidnapped and taking a small boat across the Red Sea to Djibouti. These things make for a great story, but I feel like I’m lucky enough to be alive and I don’t think I’ve really earned all that extra credit. But it’s a journey a lot of people take to get to this country. I’m not trying to do anything other than build bridges and make an impact on both sides.

Particularly as consumers, we can always be more conscious of where we buy our things, how we consume our things. With coffee, it’s really, really an incredible journey. It crosses borders and cultures and political hardships to make its way to our cup. From farm to cup, our coffee has been touched by 20 men, and each person has a story. And we look at it and see it as a simple product that pops out of a machine at Starbucks. My story talks about that journey and why we need to be more aware it.

Aside from what you’ve done up to now, what else would you do to make that story a bit more known?

I got really lucky with Dave, I would say. For a while, I didn’t want to do this book; I didn’t know what he’d write about. To be able to tour around the world and go and give talks about the story of coffee; You know, the seed that comes out of this tree and has cherries…most people don’t even know there’s beans and a cherry. No one knows that it’s handpicked. So I’d just go around the world and kind of talk about that journey more. I’ve also talked to a number of people who are trying to find their way in life. Society keeps telling them that whoever has the most money, whoever has the most toys, wins. I try to tell people that you should find what fulfills you, find something that you think would benefit the world. The money will come eventually. To be honest, if money were the main factor, I would not have lasted a single day. You have to have passion.

What are your hopes for Yemen?

I believe that my project will outlast these bombs and this war. If you look at a place like Rwanda, how coffee, post-genocide, really helped rebuild the country. I believe that social entrepreneurship contributes to renewing these societies. In the case of Yemen, I’ve been helping start a project to help more farmers and to serve more people. So that’s my hope moving forward, is for this to continue.

If you could do anything differently, would you?

I’d say I wouldn’t change anything. I think in life, you grow up with different obstacles and moments that define you and give you character. Everyone has their ups and downs. My dad was a bus driver. We grew up with seven children in a small, one-bedroom apartment. And that helps me appreciate, much more, the privilege I have.

What advice would you give the you that was living in that one-bedroom apartment?

I think, in my late teens and early 20s, there was a period when I tried to grow up, just finish college and get a job and work in the corporate hierarchy. I would tell that version of myself to be a kid again. I think passion and creativity are very powerful, and I think those are the things we lose when we try to grow up too fast.

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