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Retracing the Historic Route of Coffee

A story about love, coffee, and Yemen

"This is what angels singing tastes like." – James Freeman

When we first tried the coffee that Mokhtar Alkhanshali brought us from Yemen, it stopped Blue Bottle Coffee founder James Freeman in his tracks. He remembers exactly where it was on the cupping table—it’s hard to forget a transcendent encounter like that—and we’ve been counting the days until we could share this veritable coffee miracle from Yemen with our guests.

Unfortunately, when you hear about Yemen today, you may think first about warfare, poverty, political strife.

Rarely discussed is the other Yemen: A stunningly beautiful country. A historic center of Islamic learning. The crucial link in early trade. And, the country responsible for bringing coffee to the world.

Yemen, after all, is where coffee was first commercially cultivated. The Port of Mokha on the Red Sea was the exit point for its renowned beans, which were revered by Sufi mystics and patrons in coffee houses from Cairo to Istanbul as far back as the sixteenth century.

The European continent soon caught on. Zur blauen Flasche (The Blue Bottle), Central Europe’s first coffeehouse, opened in Vienna in 1683. According to legend, it began with the discovery of a mysterious bag of beans left behind by the retreating Turkish army. Given the trade routes at that time, the galvanizing cup that won over Western devotees was likely of Yemeni origin. It is of course from this story that Blue Bottle Coffee, founded three centuries later, acquired its name.

Today, Mokhtar Alkhanshali is bringing our attention to this other Yemen.

As the founder of the company Port of Mokha, he’s working to restore the country’s coffee reputation, supporting farmers who produce exceptional coffee despite intense drought and conflict. As much a social entrepreneur as a coffee interventionist, Mokhtar has traveled the highlands of Yemen to find the same coffee that first entranced people centuries ago.

Now, Port of Mokha is collaborating with us to debut some of the best coffee we’ve ever had. Given Mokhtar’s dramatic story and the rarity of the beans he has brought home, we are thrilled to be the first cafe to offer his coffees in wide public release, and the only company to offer two special lots from Hayma, Yemen, from farmers Hussein al-Haba and Mohamed Quleep.

None of this has been easy. As Mokhtar himself has exclaimed, “It’s a miracle that this coffee is here.”

We couldn’t agree more.

Coffee Is a Centuries-Old Love Story

“Love, coffee, Yemen. Those are my three words,” Mokhtar Alkhanshali said when he met with Blue Bottle Coffee this spring to share his story.

And, indeed, his story of coffee begins with love, which is how all stories about coffee should begin.

As a young boy, Mokhtar would visit his grandmother in Ibb, Yemen, helping her to pick coffee cherry. His family traveled often from their home in the Bay Area to visit the birthplace of his parents. Mokhtar learned from an early age that coffee was much more than a morning pick-me-up. It was a tree that left indelible signs of cultivation in Yemen’s terraced highlands; a drink that inspired Muslim mystics to write poetry; and a crop that gave so many in Yemen (including his own relatives) a chance at a modest livelihood.

Yemen’s geography, with staggeringly high mountains and a wide swath of coastline, made it suitable for cultivation and trade. While Ethiopia is often credited as the birthplace of coffee, it was on the Arabian Peninsula where coffee was first cultivated for commercial purposes. As soon as Yemen began planting Coffea arabica, people were seduced across the region. Coffee merchants forbade selling seedlings in an attempt to monopolize coffee. Only when a handful of seeds were smuggled out could coffee growing in the rest of the world begin.

Mokhtar often emphasizes that all coffee cultivated today can trace its roots back to Yemen. The very word "mocha," which we’ve come to understand as a mixture of coffee and chocolate, derives from the Arabic word Mokha or Al Makha (as in the Port). Mocha-Java was likely the world’s first commercial blend, where Yemeni beans found balance with coffee from Dutch-controlled Java in the South Pacific. Our association of “chocolatey” with mocha has to do with the flavor profile of some Yemeni coffees, not with the addition of actual cocoa.

Decades later, in another famous port, Mokhtar walked into San Francisco’s Blue Bottle Coffee at Mint Plaza where a cup of coffee changed the course of his life.

He remembers it vividly: an Ethiopia Yirgacheffe Gelena Abaya that smacked of the fruit from which it came. Inspired, he started to learn everything there was to know about coffee, eventually becoming the first Arab Q-Grader. Mokhtar’s mentor at the time was working with Yemeni producers, but had never traveled there. Mokhtar realized that his unique position as a Yemeni-American could help bridge the gap between growers and buyers. In an era when Yemen is in the headlines for all the wrong reasons, Mokhtar wanted to shift the narrative back to the very thing for which Yemen was once renowned.

Two Suitcases, a Dinghy, and the Red Sea

In spring 2015, Mokhtar was preparing to leave Yemen with 32 coffee samples from independent farmers, which he would share at the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA) conference. Mokhtar had spent months earning the farmers’ trust, who were at first leery to open up to him.

Desperate for money to feed their families, coffee farming families in Yemen often fall victim to loan sharks, becoming indebted even before a harvest occurs. Mokhtar himself faced his share of threats and aggressions from suspicious community members and resentful predatory lenders. Already, it was a feat that Mokhtar had collected so much coffee with such great potential. In just a couple of weeks, he and a colleague were set to arrive at the conference, where the coffee could be tasted by the industry’s most-renowned palates. But overnight, the tenuous political situation in Yemen turned into an outright proxy war.

On March 26, 2015, Mokhtar awoke in the middle of the night to the tumult of bombs. Saudi Arabian–led airstrikes pummeled the capital Sana’a in a violent attempt to sway Yemen’s ongoing civil war. All airports and major ports immediately shut down, either because of damage or imminent danger.

Mokhtar, desperate to find a way out, heard of a Greek ship that still had the ability to leave. En route to his escape, he was mistaken as a member of the Houthi rebel party and kidnapped—his captors believed his U.S. passport to be a fake.

After several harrowing days, and due to the work of an American in Yemen who knew the right people, Mokhtar was released from prison. Mokhtar recalled a conversation he’d overheard between prison guards mentioning that the Port of Mokha was partially open. He imagined how miraculous it would be to retrace the historic route of coffee with beans from farmers he had been living among for over a year.

Mokhtar and another American colleague left Sana’a in the evening and made the night's journey to the Red Sea. They found few options that could get them to the SCAA in time, and missing the event would prove disastrous for their nascent business. Their only option was to hire a fisherman to ferry them in a tiny fiberglass dinghy across the Red Sea to Djibouti.

As they left shore, Mokhtar looked back—airstrikes flamed overhead, while beneath his feet were 60 kilos of coffee tucked into two suitcases. They were the only belongings he managed to grab and the first coffee to leave this historic port in nearly a century.

Without navigational tools and on the lookout for the very real threat of Somali pirates, they crossed Bab Al-Mandab (or, the Strait of Grief), and made it safely to Djibouti’s shore. After a long flight home, Mokhtar arrived at the SCAA conference in Seattle where he fulfilled his promise to Yemeni farmers to share their coffee with the rest of the world.

Coffee Interventionists, Coffee Dreamers

Yemen’s situation has not improved since Mokhtar’s dramatic exit, but Mokhtar and his team at Port of Mokha are more committed than ever to creating viable futures for Yemeni coffee growers.

The only way to do this is to bring exceptional specialty coffee to the market. Despite Yemen’s coffee prestige, quality has declined in recent years because of low yields, inconsistent quality, and indiscriminate processing. While coffee farmers have traditionally earned a decent price per pound, yields are so meager that the total sum is inadequate. The coffee that is sold most often goes to the Saudi Arabian market, where quality isn’t emphasized, as coffee is served heavily spiced with cardamom, saffron, and sugar. Many farmers have turned from growing staple crops and coffee to qat—a stimulant illegal in many countries, but legal in Yemen and widely consumed. Qat consumes 30% of Yemen’s total water supply. In a country where food insecurity affects most people and water is projected to run out in 2017, this cash crop is wreaking havoc. But farmers need a livelihood, and for now, this is where there is profit.

How can a country so lacking in water even grow coffee? The indigenous coffees have become hearty and drought-resistant through centuries of adaptation. They still endure stress because of the country’s elevations (some coffee grows as high as 6,000 feet) and lack of water. But like wine grapes growing in adverse conditions, the right dose of stress forces plants to prioritize fruit production over foliage. The plants make sweeter coffee cherry and more of it.

Among the 32 samples of coffee that Mokhtar brought to the SCAA, many were outright duds (his team joked that they were DOA, or “dead on arrival”). But a few were revelatory—garnering scores equal to coffees at the top of the specialty range.

Port of Mokha has since instituted several initiatives to ensure consistency and improve the quality at crucial points all along the coffee “value chain”—a term Mokhtar uses to encourage a shift away from the mere “supply” typically prioritized in coffee. His “value chain” model encourages quality through education and relationships at every point of the process.

Farmers are reconnecting to their own traditions, picking cherry when it is “like a ruby in a tree.” Growers use moisture analyzers and Yemen’s first modern drying racks. Port of Mokha gives microloans so that farmers do not have to pre-sell their lots out of desperation. And in a country where women do over 75 percent of agricultural work, Port of Mokha employs all-women sorting teams to ensure impeccable quality control. The results are astounding—coffees that use no water in the processing with an unprecedented range of flavors—and farmers who are earning premium prices. Last year, their income increased 33 percent. One farmer boasted that Port of Mokha has paid for three weddings in his village.

Unlike in other coffee-growing countries where infrastructure exists to support microlots and there’s a system in place to offset failed crops, weather events, and state-of-the-art processing equipment, Port of Mokha is building this infrastructure from the ground up, and doing it in the context of violence and war. The team’s struggle and expertise is reflected in the price of the coffee and our support of the project will have lasting implications for the future of Yemeni coffee. As Blue Bottle Green Coffee Buyer Charlie Habegger has said: “we’re paying for a social intervention.”

Before There Were “Waves,” There Was Simply Coffee

Last year, Mokhtar brought a few of his best coffees to Blue Bottle. He wanted to return to the place where he first had that spellbinding cup. At a blind cupping where some of the world’s most-revered coffees were on the table, our founder James Freeman stopped in his tracks upon tasting Mokhtar’s.

James recalls:

"I remember quite vividly tasting it for the first time. My sense memory can be geographical, so I have a precise memory of where the bowl was on the table. I was making the first, quick pass around the table and one coffee rooted me to the floor. It absolutely sparkled and I thought, “this is what angels singing tastes like.” I had no idea what the coffee was, but when I found out it was from Yemen, I was overjoyed. The first single origin I sold at Blue Bottle was from Yemen, but since that time the quality of the available lots has diminished greatly. The fact that this coffee heralded a re-invigorated industry in Yemen made me very happy. The fact that we get to roast and serve these lots is making me even happier.”

Too often, history repeats itself in the worst of ways. But on that afternoon in our quality lab, a Yemeni coffee re-asserted its powers in a modern Blue Bottle.

When James founded the company in 2002, he had a desire to escape trends in coffee—sometimes called “waves.” He just wanted to make each and every cup, from wherever in the world it came, as delicious as possible. He has since referred to the concept of “no wave” coffee—one that harkens to the time of the first Blue Bottle—where a roaster’s predilections were superseded by the individual nuances of different green coffees. Five hundred years ago, in a cafe in Egypt or Yemen or Turkey, coffee was just coffee. By that we mean, it was Yemeni coffee. And it was exceptionally good. It transformed public life and the way we begin each and every day. In partnership with Port of Mokha, we want to share this venerable drink—from its oldest source—with you.

Our limited release Port of Mokha coffee is available in our web shop. Subscribe to Blue Bottle At Home for a never-ending supply of delicious coffee that appears at your door.

Images courtesy of Mokhtar Alkhanshali. Drawing of Mokhtar’s route from Yemen to Seattle by Michelle Ott.


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By Blue Bottle Staff

Published Jun. 6, 2016

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