Barista Magazine

DEC 2017-JAN 2018

Serving People Serving Coffee Since 2005

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out more than anything, however, is his commitment to ensuring the well-being of coffee farmers in Yemen. Coffees from his importing company, Port of Mokha, whose stateside operation is based in Oak- land, Calif., sell regularly for almost double the price most importers fetch for even their best lots, and that money goes directly back to farmers. Not only is Mokhtar selling some of the most exceptional coffee you've ever tasted, but he's making sure the people who grew it are paid what it's worth. I was lucky enough to sit with, chat, and cup with Mokhtar, and learn more about his life and what drives him to be an innovator and coffee leader in the San Francisco Bay Area. Ashley Rodriguez: Let's start with some personal history. Where did you grow up? Mokhtar Alkhanshali: I grew up between Brooklyn [N.Y], the Ten- derloin [in San Francisco], and the green mountain terraces of Yemen. Growing up in the inner city had its challenges: poverty, drugs, and violence. But there was also a thriving cultural scene. I was into hip- hop, social justice, and the fast-growing specialty-food scene. My family took me back and forth to Yemen, and we stayed up to a year at a time. They wanted me to understand my homeland. It was a truly transformative experience for me, seeing people in poverty that were somehow happier and more content. I also was moved by the way they lived in balance with nature—how they took care of the land and how the land took care of them. AR: What was your fi rst transformative coffee experience? MA: My fi rst experience with coffee was picking cherries with my grandmother in our home province of Ibb. The oldest coffee trees are found there, and it's the oldest place in the world to intentionally cultivate coffee, some 500 years ago. These feelings I had for coffee were always there, but they were dormant until I walked into a Blue Bottle Coffee shop and had a cup of natural-processed Yirgacheffe. That was the cup that changed my life. I remember the lingering blueberry aftertaste, the silky tea-like body, and how sweet it was. I didn't know coffee could taste like that. AR: What drove you to explore Yemen for coffee? When did you decide to go? MA: I kept talking to seasoned green buyers like Stephen Vick, Craig Holt, Bob Fulmer, and they would all say the same thing: "Yemen coffee is hard to get, no traceability, can have funky defects, is super expensive..." And somehow each of them ended with the same thing: "…but one of the best cups of coffee I had was from Yemen." So my idea was, how could I replace that one unforgettable cup experience? And the only way to do that was to go to Yemen and begin my journey. This was at the end of 2013. AR: What was it like being in Yemen and seeing coffee grow? What did you expect and how was that different from what you found? MA: It was truly something out of a fi ctional fantasy novel: lush moun- tain terraces, villages on the tops of mountains kissing the clouds, the most hospitable and gracious people. The villagers were so warm: They would have one person from each household get into a line and do a lottery system to see [who would get] to host me. AR: Tell us about leaving war-torn Yemen that fateful day in 2015. MA: I was working in coffee for two years when the war broke out in 2015. In that time I had experienced a lot of violence and instability in the lead-up. In coffee there's a political reality that a lot of people don't want to speak about. These beans go on a miraculous journey that crosses borders, cultures, and often political hardships. David Roche from the Coffee Quality Institute (CQI) was working with USAID in Yemen, and when I met him at the African Fine Coffee Association conference in Nairobi (in 2015), we talked about doing something for Yemen at the next [Specialty Coffee Association of America] Symposium. This resulted in us organizing a special cupping event to showcase Yemen coffee. I was days away from leaving to attend the [SCAA] conference when I woke up at 3 a.m. on March 25 to loud explosions all around me. I went outside and saw what I thought were laser beams being shot at the sky—they were antiaircraft machine guns that were shoot- ing at Saudi fi ghter jets who were dropping bombs. It was a diffi cult reality, to not know if I would live to see the morn- ing. When morning fi nally did come, I tried to catch the next fl ight out but both civilian airports were bombed, and we were stuck. As Warsan Shire said, "You only run for the border when you see the whole city running as well." In the end, I took a big risk and went to the port city of Mokha, where the story of coffee fi rst began. It was the fi rst place in the world to commercialize coffee. I took a small fi shing boat and, with my coffee samples, crossed the Red Sea to Djibouti. It was the scariest thing I'd ever done in my life. When I landed at the San Francisco International Airport, there was a crazy press conference for me. I had never seen so many TV reporters in one place. It looked like the movies. I was on NPR, Democracy Now, BBC, as well as all the local stations. I remember the second day landing in Seattle and taking an Uber to the SCAA show, and hearing myself on the radio. The Uber driver said, "What this guy's doing for these coffee farmers is amazing, but he's crazy!" I replied, "Yeah, he's nuts." It was all so surreal, but it was short-lived. I had my 15 minutes of fame as they say. After all the cameras were gone, I still had huge issues. Bombs were being dropped, the ports were still closed, there was no electric- ity, and I had to fi nd a way to get our coffee transported, milled, hand sorted, bagged in GrainPro, and get them on the water to Oakland. That took eight long months. AR: You started Port of Mokha after that. What is the company's mission? MA: Our model is a quality- and social-intervention model that we call "The Mokha Method." On the quality side, we build raised drying bed systems, give moisture analysis, and implement strict harvesting, drying, and processing protocols. On the social-impact side, we make sure there's gender equity. Seventy-fi ve percent of farmers in Yemen are women, so we are man- dating that half of the board members of the cooperatives are women. We pay our farmers $6 per kilo for dried cherries, which is the highest in the world. The biggest social impact we've had is with microloans. We learned that farmers were being taken advantage of by loan sharks who give out predatory loans ahead of harvest. We now give interest-free micro- loans [so producers have options besides] predatory loans. Our micro- fi nancing has paid for weddings, medical surgeries, college tuitions, and has helped people be freed from vicious cycles of debt and poverty. AR: What makes the Yemeni coffee different? MA: There are three things that make Yemeni coffees special: Number one: The World Coffee Research program found that there's less than 1.2 percent genetic diversity in all the world's coffee. 100 barista magazine

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