Mokhtar Alkhanshali was a doorman in San Francisco when he saw a statue that changed his life. The statue was of an Arab man holding a cup of coffee, and it led Mokhtar to learn about the origins of coffee, in Yemen, where his family is from. While coffee’s roots in Yemen run deep, Mokhtar learned that present-day Yemeni coffee was hard to source, and the quality was inconsistent. But when it was good, some experts said it was the best they had ever tasted. Mokhtar saw an opportunity to start his own coffee company, and help Yemeni farmers in the process. But just as he was getting started, war broke out in Yemen, and Mokhtar found himself stranded there.
The Sporkful production team includes Dan Pashman, Emma Morgenstern, Andres O'Hara, Tracey Samuelson, and Jared O'Connell. Editing help this week from Devon DiComo.
Interstitial music in this episode by Black Label Music:
- "Nice Kitty" by Black Label Productions
- "Hot Night Instrumental" by Calvin" Dashielle
- "Desplat" by Paul Fonfara
- "Lost and Found" by Casey Hjelmberg
- "Twenty 99" by Erick Anderson
- "Morning Blues" by JT Bates
- "Lawless" by Lance Conrad
- "Talk To Me Now" by Hayley Briasco and Kenneth J. Brahmstedt
- "Loud" by Bira
- "Like Fire" by Jacob Gossel
Photo courtesy of Jeremy Stern.
Mokhtar Alkanshali: I’ll start with our fears. Our biggest fear is that we sell the coffees at a lower price than what farmers can sell in Yemen. And what's a bigger fear than that is people have given us much of their hope. And for them to give hope in a country like Yemen, that’s going through so much difficulty, it’s a difficult burden to carry.
Dan Pashman: This is Mokhtar Alkanshali. He runs a non-profit that works with Yemeni coffee farmers.
Dan Pashman: He recorded this voice memo for us about a month ago, the night before Yemen’s first ever national coffee auction. He created this auction to let the country’s top farmers sell directly to buyers, cutting out the middlemen, so that farmers keep more of the profits. Mokhtar’s been planning this for two years, in the midst of Yemen’s civil war. His hope for the auction?
Mokhtar Alkanshali: We sell these coffees at ridiculous prices, prices that farmers in Yemen never thought they could reach, and this becomes a spark that can really ignite more work in the coffee sector.
Dan Pashman: But there’s never been an auction like this in Yemen. So Mokhtar doesn’t know what's gonna happen.
Mokhtar Alkanshali: We can’t fail because if we fail for this, it means that people will feel that trying something new isn’t going to work.
Dan Pashman: This is The Sporkful, it's not for foodies, it's for eaters. I'm Dan Pashman. Each week on our show, we obsess about food to learn more about people.
Dan Pashman: Mokhtar Alkhanshani is the founder of the coffee company Port of Mokha, which exports some of the highest rated coffees in the world, all from Yemen. He’s also the founder of The Mokha Institute, the nonprofit I mentioned that’s setting up this national coffee auction. We’ll get back to that auction a little later, and we’ll hear the story of how Mokhtar got to this point, which involves twists, turns, and more than one near death experience.
Dan Pashman: But first, when he came into the studio, before we got to all that, we had to drink some coffee …
Dan Pashman: So what do you got here? Walk me through the equipment that you've brought.
Mokhtar Alkanshali: So I feel like a traveling salesman here. This is my hand grinder. I like grinding coffee with my hand because you just kind of feel the — and you can travel with it. It's very small. And then I have just a normal V 60 here. And then I have —
Dan Pashman: V60?
Mokhtar Alkanshali: Yeah. It's a —
Dan Pashman: What’s that?
Mokhtar Alkanshali: The V60 is a, is a pour over. And you basically — you see people when they take those weird looking swan neck kettles and they —
Dan Pashman: Right. They pour the hot water in a sort of circular motion over the ground coffee.
Mokhtar Alkanshali: Yeah. The more, it seems like you're gonna get hypnotized the better. [LAUGHS]
Dan Pashman: Right, right. This is the kind of thing you see at these like upscale coffee shops where like all the baristas look like they're in Mumford and Sons.
Mokhtar Alkanshali: Yeah, "hipster" and it's ... it is, and what it ...
Dan Pashman: Right. A lot of of mustache wax in these places.
Mokhtar Alkanshali: Mustache wax, sometimes man buns, but ...
Dan Pashman: [LAUGHS]
Mokhtar Alkanshali: [LAUGHS] I took mine off today, but, um, for this is actually, if you have ...
Dan Pashman: Mokhtar was ready to show me how he makes his morning cup of coffee. He lined up all his gear, brewed a cup, and then remembered one other important piece of equipment he forgot to take out, something used by professionals to rake coffee.
Mokhtar Alkanshali: I might have a spoon here. I usually carry one ...
Dan Pashman: He carries a spoon. Oh, my gosh.
Mokhtar Alkanshali: Very special tasting in spoons and it's just like a normal spoon, but it has like a little bit of a dip.
Dan Pashman: Like, it's like ... It's the size of a spoon, but it's the shape of a ladle.
Mokhtar Alkanshali: And the spoon, basically, you slurp the coffee very aggressively, [LAUGHS] and then they spit it. And the slurp and they spit and they write down their notes. And it sounds ... this is how it sounds usually. [AGGRESSIVE SLURP]
Dan Pashman: Whoa! Whoa.
Mokhtar Alkanshali: I've heard people sound like birds chirping. Another person literally sounds like an F-18, just like taking off.
Dan Pashman: [LAUGHS] And then afterwards they start describing what they taste. So one person was like, you know, I taste a hint of baby carrots. The next person, she goes, no, I taste this one has the hints of like, um …
Dan Pashman: Adult carrots?
Mokhtar Alkanshali: She said pink Starburst.
Dan Pashman: Oh wow.
Mokhtar Alkanshali: And the one that really lost me ... [LAUGHS] He looked me in my eyes. He goes, this coffee is just too passive aggressive for me.
Mokhtar Alkanshali: I looked at him. I was like, yeah, yeah, totally bro. It's totally passive aggressive.
Dan Pashman: Yeah. [LAUGHS]
Dan Pashman: I tried the coffee the old fashioned way — from a cup. At first I didn’t know what to make of it because it was so mild and smooth. Not strong, or bitter, like the coffee I’m used to. It’s like when you first drink straight liquor and you feel that burn in your throat, but then hopefully at some point you try really good liquor and it doesn’t burn. You’re almost like, “Something’s missing, where’s the burn?” That’s how it felt drinking Mokhtar’s coffee, like the first time I ever tasted a really smooth tequila.
Dan Pashman: I would have guessed that this coffee was weaker because it doesn’t have that super bitter.
Mokhtar Alkanshali: It’s more tea-like.
Dan Pashman: Right, it is. It’s almost like a coffee-tea hybrid, but it’s much more floral and lighter without sacrificing the caffeine.
Mokhtar Alkanshali: Well, this one actually has half the caffeine. So caffeine is a chemical that plants make to kill insects, and so the higher the coffee is grown the harsher and colder it is and there’s less insects. So these coffees reach over 7,000 feet, which is ridiculous in Yemen, and we have half the caffeine but double the natural sugars, because caffeine tends to be a lot — very bitter.
Dan Pashman: Properly caffeinated, but not too caffeinated, it was time to talk. Mokhtar’s parents were born and raised in Yemen. Mokhtar grew up in Brooklyn. Then when he was nine, the family moved to San Francisco. Mokhtar struggled with the transition to the Bay Area. By seventh grade, he was getting in trouble at home and school.
Mokhtar Alkanshali: And my family were just stressed out. and They didn't know what to do with me, cause I was going down the wrong path in life. And so when I was a teenager, their last resort was okay, let's just take him to Yemen, to his grandfather and let him live there and just see what — if he can be a better person. [LAUGHS]
Dan Pashman: So at age 12, Mokhtar was sent to live with his grandfather, Hamood, who was a successful local businessman.
Mokhtar Alkanshali: He really put me through it. He took me in, this kind of like arrogant, stubborn kid. And he put me through his educational program, you might say.
Dan Pashman: [LAUGHS]
Mokhtar Alkanshali: For example, he didn't put us in some fancy private school in Yemen. He put us in this normal public school, and we had to walk 45 minutes each way in the dirt and gravel to school. He made sure that we had this normal lifestyle there and that was really important for me.
Dan Pashman: Hamood also put Mokhtar to work running errands, like cashing checks … big checks.
Mokhtar Alkanshali: so when someone gives you like a, you know, a $10,000 check to go cash, in Yemen, the currency, when you convert $10,000, you literally get a freaking like ... [LAUGHS] a sack full of money.
Dan Pashman: Right. [LAUGHS]
Dan Pashman: Another errand Mokhtar was sent on — buy some stones for a house Hamood was building for himself. That meant taking a trip to the rock quarry. Hamood told him:
Mokhtar Alkanshali: Here's like $20,000, go get these stones and make sure they come from — and this type of rock from this kind of space. And I had to like find out the different scammers and what kind of — what's the — what are the fake rocks and what are those? And believe me, I got scammed quite a bit. And yeah, I would go and I would come back with these three truckloads of stones. [LAUGHS] And I felt like an amazing person. And a 12-year-old kid doing that. And no one had given me that kind of responsibility and that kind of trust growing up. And for someone to do that, it made me feel like ... it made me feel that, wow, this person really thinks highly of me. I don't wanna lose that or betray that trust.
Dan Pashman: It was in Yemen at his grandparent’s family farm, that Mokhtar first encountered a coffee tree. The fruit on the tree is called the cherry, and it does look like a cherry. The coffee bean is actually the seed inside the cherry.
Mokhtar Alkanshali: And I would pick coffee cherries with my grandmother. But the thing is I didn't know those were coffee trees. [LAUGHS] And for me, I assume coffee was like this thing in Starbucks where you press the button and it just came out somehow.
Dan Pashman: While Mokhtar didn’t make the connection between the cherries he was picking and the beverage he knew as coffee, the experience did plant itself in his memory. He lived in Yemen for a year with his grandparents, went back home to San Francisco, and returned to high school.
Mokhtar Alkanshali: And then at some point, I decided I wanted to become a lawyer. My parents obviously love that idea. [LAUGHS] When you're a child of an immigrant, you really have limited options in career paths. And so it's either you become an engineer, a doctor, or lawyer.
Dan Pashman: Right.
Mokhtar Alkanshali: That's pretty much — like a friend of mine, he told his dad he wanted to be an actor. His told him, "It's pronounced doctor."
Mokhtar Alkanshali: And so I lived in this like lawyer — I, you know, joined the speech and debate team. I was a paralegal and so I started being this kind of translator, groups like the ACLU would come to like Muslim community centers and spaces and I would just translate. We would do legal rights workshops and legal clinics. And I liked this space I was in as a bridger.
Dan Pashman: Despite this interest in law, Mokhtar never finished college, never went to law school. In his early 20’s, he knew he wanted to do something that served a higher purpose. He worked short stints at a non-profit serving inner-city kids, and did policy work at the mayor’s office. But he didn’t have a clear direction or career path. He was living with his parents and working odd jobs to pay the bills, like as a doorman at a fancy building in San Francisco.Then one day in 2013, while he was working at that building, he got a text from a friend.
Mokhtar Alkanshali: And so she texted me about the statue of a weird Yemeni man in front of my work that's drinking coffee. This beautiful masculine, handsome Arab man with a turban holding a cup of coffee to the sky. The building across from us, it's the old Hills Brother coffee building. This district near the Ferry Building was called the coffee district. So the Folger’s family was there. The Hills Brothers were there and all these very important coffee dynasties started there because San Francisco was the most important port for coffee in the U.S. I walk into the lobby of this building, and in the lobby, they have pictures and these signs that said, "Arabian coffee best in the world".
Dan Pashman: That night, Mokhtar told his mother about the statue, about learning that coffee came from the Arab world. She laughed and said, “Didn't you know that your grandparents have coffee trees at their house? Didn't you know we've been growing coffee in our family for hundreds of years? Didn't you know that Yemen basically invented coffee?”
Dan Pashman: Mokhtar did not know any of this. So he went down a rabbit hole and found out that, according to legend, coffee was discovered in Ethiopia, where people chewed the beans and steeped them into a tea. It was in Yemen that coffee was first brewed, at the Port of Mokha. Sufi monks prepared it as part of their religious ceremonies. Sufis were traveling monks, and wherever they went, they brought their coffee, and brewing technique with them. Over time, coffee spread across the Arab world.
Dan Pashman: By the 14th century, coffee was grown in many areas of Yemen, and it was all brought to the Port of Mokha for processing and shipping. That port was the hub of the global coffee trade. Back then Yemen’s coffee plants were closely guarded and not for sale. But a worker for the Dutch East India Company stole seedlings. That set off a coffee boom among European powers, who raced to plant it in their colonies around the world.
Dan Pashman: Learning all this led Mokhtar to the world of specialty coffee today — higher end companies that buy top quality coffee directly from farmers. One company that kept coming up was Blue Bottle. They had a shop near where he worked. So he walked in and looked at the menu.
Mokhtar Alkanshali: There was a cup of coffee. It was $5, which I thought was really expensive for this Ethiopian coffee. And so I got this cup of coffee and I had my first sip and I remember tasting very pronounced flavors of blueberry. And I was like, wow. I went to the barista. I'm like, "Hey, what kind of syrup ... like, what did you add in here?" He goes, "No, no. There's nothing in here." I'm like, "No, no. I'm tasting blueberries." He goes, "No, this is coffee when it's done the right way." And he begins to tell me about their relationship, this community in Ethiopia. And they pay the farmers more money and in exchange the farmers can work on better quality and they roast it a certain way and they brew it a certain way. He explained to me this whole thing, I'm like, wow, this is awesome. This is like a — I hit this trifecta of something that tastes delicious, there's a social impact around it, and it's something that connects me to my family's roots.
Dan Pashman: But Mokhtar couldn’t find any specialty coffee coming from Yemen.
Mokhtar Alkanshali: And I would ask seasoned coffee buyers and roasters, "Where can I get Yemen coffee?", or "What do you think about Yemen coffee?". And they would say things like, it's just really hard to get. We don't know where it comes from, cause we don't — we can't go to that country. It's very expensive and it has a lot of defects, but the best cup of coffee that I had was like a Yemen coffee, 10 years ago or 20 years ago. And I remember one of my friends, Craig Holt, and he said, "You know, Mokhtar, Yemen coffee, it's like the uncle Rodney of coffee." I was like, "What does that mean?" It's like, "You know, that one uncle that comes through holidays, sometimes he is cool and normal and sometimes he's just too drunk." Like you don't know which uncle you're gonna get.
Dan Pashman: Today, most of the coffee that Yemen exports is commodity coffee, not specialty coffee. With commodity coffee, the price is set by global markets. Farmers are incentivized to produce as much as possible, as cheaply as possible, with very little regard for quality — and they barely make enough to get by. Saudi Arabia buys most of Yemen’s commodity coffee.
Dan Pashman: Now in Yemen, and around the world, most coffee farms are still small, family owned plots. To get their product to a major export market, they have to send it through a lot of middlemen. And each one takes a cut. Specialty coffee buyers, they don't buy the commodity stuff. They seek out high quality coffee and either buy direct from the farmer, or through smaller cooperatives and they pay a much higher price.
Dan Pashman: But very little direct buying was happening in Yemen. As you heard, the quality was inconsistent. And getting to the coffee and getting it out, was too hard for specialty companies. The coffee regions were mountainous and remote. There were tribal leaders and militias to deal with, and political instability there was growing. In 2011, the U.S. State Department warned against traveling to Yemen, and ordered non-essential diplomats to leave the country, because of terrorist activity and civil unrest.
Dan Pashman: Mohktar looked at all of these obstacles and saw an opportunity. Like when he worked with the ACLU, he could be a bridge, connecting coffee farmers in Yemen to specialty buyers in the U.S. He could help these farmers and Yemen’s economy, and create a business for himself in the process. But at that point, those vague goals were all he had. Forget a business plan, he had never even been to a commercial coffee farm.
Dan Pashman: But he dove into the world of specialty coffee anyway, looking for anyone with a connection to Yemen. That led him to Willem Boot, who runs a specialty coffee company, and who had just written a report on the state of coffee in Yemen. Willem agreed to work with Mokhtar as a consultant. He would teach Mokhtar about the coffee business, and how to source coffee in Yemen.
Mokhtar Alkanshali: He goes, "If you're gonna do this first, you're gonna become a coffee Q grader," which is our version of sommelier. I'm like, sure, "Then you're gonna go to , the specialty coffee association, world conference that happens, you know, once a year. It's kind of our coffee Olympics." And I'm like, okay, "And then you're gonna go with me to Yemen, cause I'm gonna go to Yemen this summer on this project." And I'm like, "Holy crap. oh sure," and I'm like, "Let's ... okay, I'm in." No idea how I was gonna fund this consultation project. No idea how it was make this work. But I can be — it's hard to explain this while I'm abroad, but here in the U.S., we have this, this art called fake it until you make it. [LAUGHS]
Dan Pashman: Coming up, Mokhtar tries to fake it in Yemen. He searches for the best coffee in the country, and makes some progress. But things get a lot harder and a lot more dangerous than he expected. Stick around.
Dan Pashman: Welcome back to The Sporkful, I’m Dan Pashman. On last week’s show, I head to Palm Desert to join a group of seniors for their weekly Shabbat dinner at a Wendy’s. Now, a Friday night Baconator isn’t strictly traditional eating for the Jewish sabbath, but this group isn’t beholden to the old rules.
CLIP (BEA): Having been raised in an Orthodox family, I had so many restrictions that I resented.
CLIP (DAN PASHMAN): What would your parents think if they saw you here?
CLIP (BEA): They’d turn over.
CLIP (BEA): You know, whatever the reason my parents were old fashioned people. And I had more don’ts than dos, and I have evolved, because you have to live in this world, in this century, and you have to roll with the punches.
CLIP (DAN PASHMAN): You’re a modern woman, Bea.
CLIP (BEA): Yes, I am.
Dan Pashman: I talk to the Wendy’s Shabbat crew about why this ritual is so important, how it’s evolving, and the best way to order fries at a Wendy’s. That episode is out now, check it out.
Dan Pashman: Okay, back to the story of Mokhtar Alkhanshali. After connecting with coffee expert Willem Boot, Mokhtar started training to be a Q grader, like a coffee sommelier, so he could learn to taste the difference between good coffee and great coffee. Meanwhile, there was a coffee conference in Yemen that Willem was attending, so Mokhar bought his ticket.
Dan Pashman: In May of 2014, he flew to Yemen. The first stop he made was at his grandfather’s house. And when he explained his big plans, his grandfather had some advice:
Mokhtar Alkanshali: Don’t tell people you’re a businessperson, don’t tell people you have any money, just tell people you’re a college student.
Dan Pashman: Why wouldn't you tell anyone you have a business or have any money?
Mokhtar Alkanshali: For many reasons. One, it’s just never a good idea to let people know you have money, especially when you really don’t have money.
Mokhtar Alkanshali: So that was ... And also, you don't want to give people hope, and you don’t want to lose your word with people.
Dan Pashman: So Mokhtar would use a cover story. He was doing a report for college about Yemen’s coffee industry. The plan was to meet Willem Boot in the capital city of Sa'ana, attend the coffee conference, then tour coffee farms together, giving Mokhtar a chance to learn and make connections. But very quickly, things went wrong.
Mokhtar Alkanshali: Willem he came with me to Yemen for two days. He had to go back. The U.S. government forced him to go back because of the violence. Like the day we arrived a French engineer worker was shot in the head and things were very, very just dicey and he had to leave, and so I was left alone.
Dan Pashman: Around this time, Al Qaeda had gained power in parts of Yemen. The group was blamed for a number of attacks against Westerners in the country, including the murder of that French contractor. Willem came to Yemen as a guest of USAID , a branch of the U.S. Government. As violence increased, the U.S. said it could no longer guarantee his safety, and he had to leave. The State Department, meanwhile, was urging all Americans to leave, but Mokhtar decided to stay.
Dan Pashman: He was alone in Yemen, with violence on the rise, and without the coffee expert who was supposed to guide him. But he wasn’t at a total loss. He spoke the language, and had experience making his way on his own in the country, as he had when his grandfather sent him on missions as a teenager. He was able to connect with local coffee growers at the University of Sana'a, and took his first trip to a coffee collective in Yemen.
Mokhtar Alkanshali: I didn't know anything about nature. Like, all I knew about nature was probably avatar.
Dan Pashman: [LAUGHS]
Mokhtar Alkanshali: And so I went to this tree, this coffee tree, and I'm looking at it. And I'm like, wow, like I'm having this moment. I'm like, wow, I'm in this village and Like a few months ago, I was on my couch on YouTube looking at these, these trees. And now I'm, I'm here. I'm having this — I'm holding the leaves. And this farmer comes up to me. He goes, "Mokhtar, I'm sorry to bar you." He goes, "That's not a coffee tree. The coffee tree's actually over there.", and he like points somewhere else.
Dan Pashman: [LAUGHS] What was the state of a lot of those coffee beans?
Mokhtar Alkanshali: They were just horrible, like the way they stored it, you're — they would keep the coffee cherries for sometimes years in these like storage rooms. And they would use it like kind of a currency. On the rooftops, you see these coffees being dried, which looks pretty, but like there's dirt and gravel, chickens poop.
Dan Pashman: Mokhtar still had a lot to learn, but he knew there shouldn’t be chicken poop in the coffee. He also knew from picking cherries with his grandmother that the good ones were bright red. But these farmers were picking cherries in big bunches all at once, no matter their color.
Mokhtar Alkanshali: So the coffee cherries, when they grow, they start off green and then yellow. And then when they become ripe, they become red. It's sort of like a green banana. If you ever tried a green banana, it's unripe. It doesn't taste sweet. But when you have a ripe banana with those dots on it, how sweet it could be. And so to just pick the ripe cherries, it's a lot more work to selectively pick.
Dan Pashman: There was no incentive for the farmers to do that extra work — they weren’t paid enough. After searching and searching, Mokhtar found a few older farmers who did take that much care with their cherries, only picking them when they were perfectly ripe, even if it didn’t make financial sense. These farmers had coffee that looked beautiful. But the problem was, the way the industry worked, their stuff would end up getting mixed into a gigantic batch with coffee from dozens of other farmers who didn’t have nearly the same quality.
Mokhtar Alkanshali: All these beautiful gems get lost away. And that was just what was heartbreaking. As I — every step along the route, I saw things that really were — just made the coffee taste like crap. So I told this farmer, I told her, "Hey, if I paid you more money, could you just pick these ripe cherries?", and she looked at me and said, "If you paid me more money, I could pick rainbow colored cherries for you."
Mokhtar Alkanshali: But Mokhtar didn’t have more money to pay Yemeni farmers. To get it, he first needed to prove to specialty buyers that Yemeni coffee was worth it. They weren’t going to pay top dollar for Uncle Rodney. He spent three months visiting every one of the 32 coffee regions in Yemen. He collected coffee samples from across the country, and brought them back to Willem Boot in California.
Mokhtar Alkanshali: Willem organized a tasting, where he and other experts gathered around a room to taste each coffee with a spoon, just like the one Mokhtar showed me when he brewed me coffee. They slurped up each one, making those loud screeching sounds like we heard Mokhtar make. There were 21 samples. Mokhtar hadn’t tasted them himself yet, so he didn’t know how it would go. The tasters began …
Mokhtar Alkanshali: One taste like armpit.
Mokhtar Alkanshali: One had like wood taste.
Mokhtar Alkanshali: Weird rubber. It was just disgusting. And I'm like, every cup? Like, oh no. And these coffees, there were some that Willem called D.O.A., death on arrival. [LAUGHS] They were horrible. And out of the 21 samples, I brought back 19 failed basic standards. They were just horrible. And we went around the table, we're tasting these coffees, and you're supposed to have poker face. You're not supposed to influence the person next to you.
Dan Pashman: After all those D.O.A.'s, Willem picked up his next sample, and something changed …
Mokhtar Alkanshali: I looked at Willem, he had this kind of Mona Lisa smile. [LAUGHS]
Dan Pashman: Like a very subtle smirk.
Mokhtar Alkanshali: I was like, "Was that a smile? I don't know. Maybe is it good? Is it bad? I don't know. It was so different."
Dan Pashman: Mokhtar tried the same coffee that made Willem smile.
Mokhtar Alkanshali: And I tasted passion fruit. I'll never forget — passion fruit and papaya and banana, which, I had never really had that kind of coffee before. And I was like, wow, this is different. So it's out of a hundred points. Anything above 80 is considered specialty. You know, you'll find that at Starbucks, at Pete's, 85, 86, 87. You'll find that higher end specialty coffee shops. 88, 89 is really rare coffee. And 90 + is like these unicorn coffees you'll find once in a lifetime.
Dan Pashman: Willem issued his verdict:
Mokhtar Alkanshali: He gave it a 90 + score, which is - he said, "This is one of the best coffee I ever tasted."
Dan Pashman: In that moment, what were you feeling?
Mokhtar Alkanshali: I was excited because I was like, wow, this is not just me being you know, proud of my culture or my family's homeland, this is objectively real good coffee. And maybe this could actually work.
Dan Pashman: Two of Mokhtar’s coffees scored above a 90. All those experts who had told him stories about a legendary cup of Yemeni coffee they had decades ago — this was what they were talking about. This was proof that thanks to Yemen’s elevation, unique micro climates, and rare coffee varietals, the country has some of the best coffee in the world — it just has to be handled with care. Based on those results, Moktar was able to raise funds from investors to start a coffee operation in Yemen.
Dan Pashman: In the fall of 2014, he returned to Yemen, once more, against the advice of the U.S. State Department. He spent the next few months talking to the coffee farmers at the coffee collective, getting ready for the harvest season, making sure they were only picking the ripest red cherries, and promising to buy them all at a big premium. He also set up a sorting and processing facility there.
Dan Pashman: His goal was to get enough of an operation going that he could bring samples to the big Specialty Coffee Expo in Seattle, in the spring. It’s the largest coffee trade show in North America, the Super Bowl of specialty coffee. This is where he would show everyone how great Yemeni coffee is, and hopefully line up his first sale. But as the coffee expo approached, Yemen’s civil war was intensifying.
Mokhtar Alkanshali: And to be honest, I had these, like, my therapist would call peculiar blind spots, [LAUGHS] that we all have in life. We create these kind of this cognitive dissonance around certain things that we don't wanna deal with. I didn't wanna see all the issues that were happening around me. Like there was a lot of violence, a lot of instability. And I just had this mission, vision, and I kept doing it until one day, eventually, you know, that — I had a rude awakening.
Dan Pashman: What was the rude awakening?
Mokhtar Alkanshali: March 25th, 2015. I woke up at two in the morning, almost three in the morning. And I heard — I thought it was like a wedding going on. Sometimes in weddings, in Yemen, they'll like, you know, have fireworks or even even like shoot guns in the air. But this was very loud, like I could feel like the earth shaking. And I went outside I saw what looked like laser beams being shot in the sky. And those were anti-aircraft machine guns being shot at fighter jets.
Dan Pashman: Over the previous few months, the Houthis, a rebel group backed by Iran, had been gaining power, eventually taking over Yemen’s capital. Saudi Arabia is an adversary of Iran, and didn’t want the Houthis in power. So the Saudis began a bombing campaign, to try push the Houthis out. Mokhtar was caught in the crossfire.
Mokhtar Alkanshali: So in my head, I kept trying to think, "How am I going to go to this coffee conference in Seattle?". I mean, it's been now almost a year and a half, almost two years of my life. I've taken money from investors. I've given hope to farmers now. I have employees now, like this whole thing now. This whole operation I've done and I needed to figure out how to make this work. And so I reached out to the U.S. government, cause there were other countries taking their citizens out, Russia and China, Pakistan, India. And I remember reaching out to the U.S. State Department and their response was, "I'm sorry, we can't help you right now. We can relay your messages to your loved ones via our website." [LAUGHS]
Dan Pashman: Mokhtar was one of hundreds of Americans stuck in Yemen. The U.S. State Department said it gave citizens multiple warnings about leaving, and now it was too dangerous to evacuate them. Meanwhile, the U.S. was allied with Saudi Arabia in this fight against the Houthis. Later that year, the Obama Administration sold $1.3 billion dollars worth of weapons to the Saudis. The war in Yemen is still ongoing, and it’s considered one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world.
Mokhtar Alkanshali: And that was really — it really hurt, you know, because I knew like, especially in this conflict, those bombs were made here in the U.S., you know, and they were being supported by the U.S government.
Dan Pashman: Mokhtar tried to leave from the airport in Sana'a but the Saudis had bombed the runway. He knew another Yemeni-American, Summer Nasser, who was also stuck in Yemen. She told him about a Greek ship leaving from Aden, an 8-hour drive south. Mokhtar was hearing that Aden was an active war zone, with intense fighting on the ground. Towns along the way had been destroyed. But he thought it was his only way out.
Mokhtar Alkanshali: And all I had with me are my coffee samples. And I had $5,000 that I hid in my underwear and colt 45 handgun.
Dan Pashman: He hired a driver and bodyguard, and they left for Aden. When they got there, they were stopped by an armed group of resistance fighters. These were local men who suspected that Mokhtar's driver and bodyguard were Houthis, fighting for the other side. All three of them were blindfolded and taken to a local jail.
Mokhtar Alkanshali: And it was a very difficult moment that I really can't speak a lot about but I ended up — you know, it was — I mean, at one point I was — I had my hands tied up behind my back and be was blindfolded and someone told me they were gonna kill me today.
Dan Pashman: Next week, in the second and final part of our story, Mokhtar tries to keep himself, and his dreams of a Yemeni coffee company alive in the middle of a civil war.
Dan Pashman: Quick note before we wrap up, please make sure you connect to our show in the podcasting app of your choice. Just click follow, or plus, or heart, or favorite, or subscribe, whatever that button is on our show page in your app, please press it. You can do it right now. Thanks.