I HAD MY FIRST CUP of specialty cofee in San
Francisco fve years ago and immediately
became intrigued. I did a lot of research on the
market, and I even bought a popcorn maker
so I could roast my own beans at home. When
I talked to cofee traders, they all said the best
cofee they ever had was from Yemen 15 years
ago—but now it was really rare, really expensive,
and often full of defects. So I thought, how could
I replicate that one perfect cup they had?
I realized I had to go and see these farms
in Yemen. But I’ll be honest: I did not have
a master plan. I knew I wanted somehow to
connect my family’s country with the U.S., and
I thought cofee could be a way to do that.
And I knew there was a growing demand in the
specialty cofee market. So in the summer of
2013, I dropped out of community college to go.
I fgured, best-case scenario, I’ll fnd amazing
farmers and start a supply chain. Worst case, I
would have a break for the summer. I didn’t
know what I was getting myself into.
For every farm in Yemen growing cofee,
there were seven growing khat. I thought that
if I could pay them a higher price, and fnd
the right buyers, I could help them replace this
drug. I went across the country for more than
four months visiting farmers. I got malaria and
tapeworms; I lost 40 pounds.
I brought back samples from 21 farms. Nineteen failed basic standards tests, but two were
rated by a cofee-quality expert, Willem Boot, as
very good specialty-grade beans. He said it was
cofee of potentially extraordinary quality. So
I went back to Yemen in mid-2014, to the two
areas where the cofee was rated highest, and
sent back more samples—but they were horrible because of the way they were picked and
sorted. I realized I had to slow down and put
into place more rigorous protocols. I also had
to have vertical integration so the quality would
be good. I spent nearly a year doing that.
Then, in March 2015, two days before
I was supposed to take my new samples to
a big international cofee conference, the
Saudi Arabian–led military coalition began
to bomb military targets in Yemen, to deter a
Houthi rebel takeover. There was a no-fy
zone declared. I had worked the whole year
to produce these cofees to bring them to
this conference, and I was stuck, along with
thousands of other Americans. The State
Department wasn’t helping us.
I decided to take matters into my own
hands. I went to the port city of Mokha, a very
old, very historic port. I hired a boat to take me
and my samples across the Red Sea to Djibouti.
I remember being in the middle of the ocean
on this little piece of wood, the waves tossing
us up and down, thinking, “Why did I do this?”
But I made it to the airport in Kenya.
When I landed in San Francisco, there was
a media frenzy. A legal aid organization I had
previously worked for had put out the word
about my journey, and I was interviewed by NPR
and the BBC. I made it to the conference—and
our cofee scored among the highest of all the
cofees around the world. Blue Bottle bought our
cofee and eventually sold it for $16 a cup.
I’m trying to go back to Yemen in a month,
to see the farmers. I spend a lot of time on
marketing and sales, but it’s important to stay
connected to the farmers as much as I can.
a new kind
she had to bring
that recipe to
used it to start
alert” when you
this serial entrepreneur. A trip
to Haiti inspired
him to make
so that he could
help the island’s
was the result.
• Tasting Room
Mokhtar Alkhanshali, founder and
CEO of Port of Mokha (far left in
the foreground), tastes cofee from
farmers in the Bani Ismail region of
Yemen in November 2014. A