Going through the Mocha Trail with Mokhtar Alkhanshali of Mocha Mill

by Bushra on January 12, 2015

Before I discovered that with the right beans, black coffee can taste really good, a mocha was my coffee drink of choice. I never gave much thought to the origins of the word “mocha” since for me, it meant espresso + chocolate + steamed milk. However, I discovered that “Mocha” is actually the name of the port city in Yemen where coffee cultivation and commercialization began.

I only realized this after I started looking into the company called “Mocha Mill,” which was founded in Oakland by Mokhtar Alkhanshali, a Yemeni-American whose family has been growing coffee for at least nine generations in Yemen. According to his company’s website, “Mocha Mill is a company built to place Yemeni coffee back at the forefront of the global coffee trade by empowering coffee farmers in Yemen with the knowledge and tools to bring positive changes in the quality of their coffees and lives.”

I recently talked with Mokhtar before he left on his trip to Yemen for a trip of 4-6 months, in time for coffee harvest season. He has what a lot of people in the coffee industry do not: access to Yemen. His family actually lives in Ibb in central Yemen which, Mokhtar mentioned, happens to be the area where the oldest varietal of coffee is located.

Mokthar spent his last trip in Yemen researching the country’s coffee and investigating the practices of the coffee farmers, providing workshops to help them cultivate their coffee in a manner that will really help the quality of the beans and get them into the specialty coffee market. As a certified Q-Grader, Mokhtar is qualified to test coffee to discern the quality of beans and to also distinguish the specific notes for the beans, skills that have been helping him to maximize the full potential to bring Yemeni farmers and their coffee back into the forefront of the coffee specialty market.

When I spoke to Mokhtar about his work with Mocha Mill, it didn’t take too long into our conversation for me to realize that Mokhtar’s passion and knowledge of coffee runs deep. Read on!

On your site, it says that nine generations of your family have been in the coffee industry in Yemen. Did you always see yourself working in coffee?

I always liked the history of coffee. Growing up as Yemeni American and Muslim, you always want to find something about your culture or identity you’re proud of. And I knew about the Port of Mocha, I knew about the history of coffee – not to the extent I know now – but I was always proud of it.

It’s hard for me to pinpoint just how long my family has been growing coffee. For generations, my family and the people of central Yemen have been growing their own supply of coffee. Coffee cultivation has been around for over 500 years in Yemen and the oldest area to grow coffee is my family’s home province of Ibb in central Yemen. Coffee and Yemeni culture go hand in hand, it’s so intertwined. When I went back to Yemen to research coffee, I remember going to a bookstore and I asked the owner, “I’m interested in looking for a book on coffee, the history of coffee, types of coffee in Yemen…” he said “Okay, hold on one second.” So then he starts helping out other customers and I’m waiting there impatiently and I go back after 5 minutes. “Do you know where the book is?” and he says “Oh, you, come here.” We go outside and he says “Listen, you see all these houses? You see all those coffee trees in front of their houses? You don’t need to buy a book and waste money, just go ask someone about the coffee.” So yeah it’s just part of Yemeni culture.

On my website, I word it very carefully. I said Mocha or Yemen is the birthplace of coffee cultivation and commercialization of coffee. I didn’t say it was the birthplace of the coffee plant. There’s a dispute as to where it comes from. There’s no ends-all evidence for Ethiopia and Yemen. I’m probably the only Yemeni that will say that it comes from Ethiopia just because outside of Ethiopia, there are 30 varietals of coffee and inside Ethiopia there are 6,500 documented coffee varietals and maybe a total of 10,000. There’s just so much that’s grown wildly. In Ethiopia, in the beginning they didn’t brew it as a coffee – they just chewed on the berries with animal fat. Some chewed it before going to war.

The first to take it, intentionally cultivate, harvest, dry, roast, grind, and to make a brew out of it are Yemenis, actually, Sufi monks from the port city of Mocha. One monk in particular Omar Al-Shadhili wrote the first book on coffee, another from Yemen wrote a historical document on coffee called “The People of Purification are the People of Coffee.” A group of traveling seafarers stopped by – one was sick – and he hosted them. And he gave them this drink and [the sick one] automatically felt well. The story goes that’s how coffee trade in Mocha started, from this interaction with a seafarer.

Back to your question if I ever saw myself in coffee – I always saw myself as part of coffee culture but I really didn’t see myself doing anything with coffee. It was something that was in the back of my head. I knew my family grew coffee. My grandmother – I would go and pick coffee cherries with her and dry them with her as a young kid. She would take it to the mill. They would mill it, hull it, sort it, roast it, and grind it.

I didn’t know “qahwa” was coffee. I thought “qahwa” was a Yemeni tea and so when I found that out, I had already started on this journey so it kind of brought everything back to home. I’m just going right back to where I started. I know I might have learned a lot about the science of coffee and cupping, but my grandmother knows more about coffee. My mom too.

As you have done your work over here, do you find people surprised by the name of your company, Mocha Mill, that “mocha”, this name they associate with chocolate and espresso is actually the name of a port in Yemen?

It took me a long time to figure out what to name my company. I wanted to reclaim “Mocha.” I wanted to reappropriate it for my people. I wanted people to know that there is a place called “Mocha,” it’s not a coffee drink, and it’s an important place because it changed the world. Coffee right now is the second most traded commodity after oil, the second drunk thing after water. Before coffee came to Europe, before Mocha allowed the world to experience coffee, the drink of choice was alcohol. When coffee entered the European continent, in these coffee houses, it was the first time people were being intellectually stimulated and the free flow of ideas was happening. We owe something to the people of Mocha. So I wanted to reclaim Mocha.

And the “Mill.” The mill is one of the most important stops for transit for coffee. The mill is where the quality goes up or goes down. In Yemen, unfortunately right now, coffee goes down severely because of the mill.

When I went to Yemen, I did an in-depth study of the supply chain. I visited 16 different stops along the supply chain from the nursery, farmer, local collector, regional collector, broker, miller, exporter all the way to the importer here in the U.S. to see what happens for coffee, and why did the quality in coffee decrease so much. When I first got into coffee, I came here to Blue Bottle and I spoke to Stephen Vick, their Green Buyer. He told me Yemeni coffee it’s just very low quality, it’s inconsistent, it’s hard to get, and no one wants to go to Yemen.

USAID and the Coffee Quality Institute (CQI) did extensive work on Yemen and they published a report about the supply chian. I looked at those reports. One of the people that co-authored the report, Willem Boot (who would later be my consultant and mentor), helped me understand what the people on this side of the world have issues with.

In the U.S. and Europe some of the descriptions they give to Yemeni coffee is that it’s very spicy, exotic, has a very cardamom taste to it and tobacco flavored taste. I found out that the mills where they process coffee, are also used to process spices. That taste of cardamom – that’s actual cardamom. It’s leftover residue of cardamom and so there were a lot of problems I saw along the supply chain in Yemen and that was one of them.

On your website, you have a list of goals you want to associate with Mocha Mill, empower the farmers in Yemen, help them with techniques that would increase the quality and accomplishing the mission of bringing the coffee of Yemen back to the mainstream. So how far along on that process do you think you are? What is on the road ahead?

The first step was going to Yemen and find out what’s happening there. That was my turning point. When I got there with my consultant [Willem Boot], it was so bad. We got there and it was the start of the U.S. and Yemeni offensive against Al Qaeda. When we went there, 66 people were killed by U.S. drones, predominantly civilians. It was chaos, it was post-revolution and the government was in a transitional period. The US government made Willem leave after two days. I was left there alone and I had to figure out what to do so I decided I’m going to continue with my plans and do an in-depth study of the supply chain and visit as many coffee producing areas as I could. What I had to use was old Arabic books on coffee and US Aid/United Nations reports on coffee in Yemen. So I started on the Mocha Road. I started in the port city of Mocha and worked my way up. I would go to cities I heard about in these books. Sometimes I would go to the city and ask “Do you have coffee here” [and get a response] “We had coffee here about a hundred years ago, 80 years ago. You’re a little late.” At the same time, I found incredible locations.

For me, [Yemen] was an incredible journey. It wasn’t easy. We went through shoot-outs, we went through tribal ambushes, we had to go hike up days, sometime a week to go to certain places but everywhere I went, I got a piece of the puzzle. I would write down elevation, soil type, harvest patterns, varietals and more importantly, I got to talk to farmers, hear what their stories are, their proverbs about coffee, the history, and what their issues with coffee are.

Mokhtar in Yemen

And so, this was my work, going to the farmers, meeting with the farmers, hearing from them, and also not coming to them arrogantly and saying “Hey, you guys are doing it all wrong, this is how you’re supposed to do it” because the older farmers understand more about coffee growing then I will probably ever know, it’s just that a lot of this knowledge wasn’t passed down to the younger generation.

One of the biggest issues is red cherry picking. When coffee starts out, it’s green, and as it matures, it becomes yellow, then orange, then finally becomes red. In specialty coffee, red cherry picking is crucial. This has the highest content of sugar in it. It’s like a green banana vs a nice ripe, yellow banana. And so in Yemen, the farmers, I noticed, took all the colors – the sour, the green, the yellow. I asked them “Why don’t you just pick the red?”

Mokhtar talking about beans

To just pick the red would require extra work. They would have to go by every tree 3-10 days. And the problem for them is that their main market is Saudi Arabia. 60-70% of Yemen’s coffee, according to the USAID report goes to Saudi Arabia and they have no quality standards. The more wild, the better. And so, the farmers asked me “Why am I going to work an extra three months to get this red cherry when I’m going to sell this red cherry and green cherry at the same price?” So the first thing I want them to understand is that there’s a new market and we’ll give you a higher price if you collect these red cherries.

I brought 21 samples from 21 different areas to the U.S., which has never really been done before. Many of these particular samples have never been brought there. When I did this some Green Buyers told me “You’re wasting your time, Yemeni coffee can’t be civilized,” “It’s the way it is.” Sometimes when people can’t do something, they tell you you can’t do it. If I didn’t have my family, my tribe, I wouldn’t have been able to go to where I went to. So, I brought these coffees back and thought “Maybe they’re right, the tobacco flavor of the guy smoking cigarettes over the coffee while he’s sorting it or the cardamom infused in it, makes it bitter.” But I have to try it out. If you’re telling me in Kenya, Panama, Indonesia, if I do this and this, this would be the result: good coffee, why is that different from Yemeni coffees?

What do you think are the specific notes of Yemeni coffee?

Every coffee in the area is different. There’s not one uniform taste. I will tell you that some Yemeni coffee really does have a chocolatey taste to it. Before 100 or so years ago, they used to put chocolate in some coffee to make it taste like Yemeni coffee – mocha. That’s where “mocha” (the drink name) comes from. So there is a flavor characteristic – chocolatey, mocha taste.

I brought the coffee with me. We cupped them all. With specialty coffee, it’s out of 100 points. Anything above 80 points is considered specialty coffee. 85 is really good. 90+ is rare and very expensive. So my goal was to get the farmers to raise their quality to 80 points. I was really hoping to get a 65/70/75 and then go back to those areas and try to help them change the way they harvest and the way they dry to get the coffee to that level of quality.

When we cupped the coffee, 8 of them were 80+, 5 of them were 85+, and two of them were 88-90+ and so those three became some of the most rare and most expensive coffee in the world. I literally could not believe it. And hearing my consultant and his team… they were amazed.

We had a cupping event and we invited some of the biggest importers and roasters. When I was giving the presentation, some of them were very skeptical and after I finished, they tasted my coffee. When you taste coffee, you are supposed to have a poker face. You aren’t supposed to affect someone’s judgment next to you. So we finished and when I heard the reactions of some of the people, especially what they said about my coffee, the top 5 coffee, they were blown away. One of them said to me, “I can’t believe this is dry processed,” and they were just very excited about it.

We had three events in total. The last one we had, we had roasters from six different countries and of them told me “I would sell this coffee more than my Blue Mountain Jamaican.” He told me this coffee is rare, it tastes really good, and has an incredible story behind it.

We picked three locations in Yemen where we began our work. We have these coffee collection centers so the farmers give us our coffee. Within the same day picked, they give us the red cherries. My goal is to give them the highest recorded prices for coffee farmers in Yemen. There really needs to be 10-15 of me doing this work in Yemen, making a difference, but I’m one person.

I want the farmers to understand I want to sell their coffee in their name. So when I sell the coffee, I don’t want to call it “Arabain Mocha Sanani,” I want to give the name of the location, the name of the area, even the name of the farmer – where it’s from. When I tell farmers this, they look at me, they’re like “I never thought about that idea.”

Part of my journey outwardly is to help these farmers make money but inwardly, I want a country to believe in themselves and their heritage and regain that confidence and feel good about something they produce.

The way I see Mocha Mill is that I’m a tool to help these farmers access these [specialty] markets. These collection centers, eventually within a year or so, I want the farmer cooperative to own it. [And I] would move to other areas. It’s just helping them make more money. They need to be supported; they need to feel like someone is supporting them for there to be real change in coffee production in Yemen.

Yemen - taken by Mokhtar

Are you still going to have a base here in the Bay Area or is it going to be all oversees now?

Well, my farmers are in Yemen so I’m in Yemen but half of my work is there and half of my work is here. My goal is to go back and forth really. Going there, working with them, and training them before the harvest begins. I have tens and tens of workshops to do – teaching the farmers how to pick coffee so when the harvest comes, how to pick it. Then after that, the labor task of collection, drying, milling, packing, sending it over here. It takes over a month and half sometimes to get over here. And then from here, send the samples out, going over to more cuppings and events, educating people on Yemeni coffee, what it is, and selling their coffee.

Will we have a coffee shop? I would like to have a coffee shop one day. It’s something that I look forward to. Right now I’m focused on the ground and finish this phase because of the work. I would love to create an incredible “farm to cup” experience and finish that supply chain, help one to understand the whole story.

But really my goal is to get Yemeni coffee to different people. Yes, I have some coffee that scored really high and are very expensive, some of the most expensive in the world, but I want to offer different price points for different types of coffee so whether it’s a mom and pop store in a small suburb or small town or it’s a high-end coffee shop in a big city, I want different people to be able to afford Yemeni coffee and more importantly, I want farmers from Yemen to sell their coffee to different people. I see myself as a bridge, between two worlds, helping one side with the opportunity to taste these amazing beans and helping the other side to uplift their economic and social conditions by teaching them the demands of a new market. In general, that’s an overview of my work.

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Mokhtar Alkhanshali is currently in Yemen through the coffee harvest. Follow him on Twitter at @MochaMillCoffee or on Facebook.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Antonio Fernandez January 12, 2015 at 6:34 pm

That is quite an interview. Thank you for sharing. Best of luck to Mokhtar and his life journey. Sounds like you should be helping him write his autobiography. It might be a best-seller. Thanks for sharing as always.

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Bushra January 12, 2015 at 9:54 pm

Thanks for reading Tony!

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Anees January 17, 2015 at 12:42 am

Another great interview Sis Bushra!! Was really insightful. I’m going to share this with my old Islamic school teacher/current president of the Islamic academy here in Portland, as he is from Yemen. :)

Thanks and great job as always.

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Bushra January 19, 2015 at 7:11 am

Thanks for reading Anees! Also, thank you for sharing the post!

Speaking of Portland, going back there for work. Going to try to fit in as much coffee as possible around the conference I have to attend :)

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