Yemen’s epic coffee revival: From war to hipster New York cafes

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Brooklyn, United States – Five years ago, Mokhtar Alkhanshali was a grassroots activist with a law career mapped out, and worked as a doorman in San Francisco to pay the bills.

But his life changed when he saw a statue outside a cafe of an Arab man holding a cup of coffee.

After researching coffee’s links to his ancestral homeland, he set off to find the perfect beans and resurrect coffee cultivation in the poor Arab country.

It was 2013, two years before the start of the Yemen war.

He spent years finding some of the world’s best tasting beans, travelling across more than 30 of Yemen’s coffee plantations and helped train farmers.

It was not an easy journey; coffee cultivation – which had been a key trade – had declined over the centuries as Yemeni farmers switched to growing khat, a more profitable flowering plant containing an addictive stimulant.

But in late March, 2015, on the day before his flight back to the US, things were about to get worse.

Civil war had broken out.

He had been preparing to sell the coffee beans he had worked so hard towards collecting at the Specialty Coffee Association of America conference in Seattle.

Instead, with two suitcases packed with 90 kilos of Yemeni Arabica, he was trapped as air strikes shuttered airports and ports.

Certain coffees evoke nostalgic memories. There’s an olfactory gland in your brain where our memories are stored.

Mokhtar Alkhanshali, Port of Mokha founder

The American embassy was unable to evacuate him and Alkhanshali couldn’t find an alternative way out.

He tried to leave by boat but was kidnapped after being mistaken as a Houthi rebel, and thrown in prison.

In jail, he overheard guards saying the port of Mokha was partially open.

When he was released a few days later, desperate to make it to the conference on time, he travelled seven hours by car to the port, enlisted the help of a local fisherman, and sailed across the Red Sea to Djibouti in a dinghy, his coffee-packed suitcases on board.

The samples were eventually met with rapturous praise.

He soon founded Port of Mokha, which produces some of the most expensive and critically acclaimed coffee in America.

A single cup of Port of Mokha coffee can cost up to $16 – Alkhanshali says he pays the Yemeni farmers well.

Convincing Yemeni farmers to grow coffee was not an easy journey. Coffee cultivation had declined over the centuries as khat production was more profitable [Courtesy of Port of Mokha]

“There’s a chocolate fruit flavour in a lot of the Yemeni coffees in Indonesia and Colombia. They wanted to imitate that flavour, so when they made coffee, they put chocolate in the drink to make it taste like the coffee that came from al Mokha, that’s where the name ‘mocha’ came from,” the San Francisco native says, in an interview with Al Jazeera at a Brooklyn coffee shop.

In the 1400s, Al Mokha was the port from where Yemeni coffee beans first travelled to the rest of the world.

“Certain coffees evoke nostalgic memories. There’s an olfactory gland in your brain where our memories are stored,” says Alkhanshali. “It’s also where our sensory for taste and smell comes from. A lot of people don’t realise that when we eat things, we taste about five different flavours, but we can smell about a trillion different things. A lot of people, when they eat and drink things, it evokes certain feelings.”

Coffee was developed in the Muslim world, not even the Muslim world, it was developed by Sufis.

Abdul-Rehman Malik, journalist

Port of Mokha coffee is usually served with a note explaining its origins and a a date-filled biscuit, made to Alkhanshali’s mother’s recipe.

“It helps to activate the flavour,” he says.

His triumphant story caught the attention of the American novelist Dave Eggers. In January 2018, “The Monk of Mokha” was published and became New York Times bestseller.

“Coffee was developed in the Muslim world, not even the Muslim world, it was developed by Sufis,” says Abdul-Rehman Malik, a journalist who made a BBC documentary in 2016 – “The Muhammadan Bean: The Secret History of Islam and Coffee”.

“Its initial emergence is in direct connection to spiritual practice,” Malik continues. “Coffee historians speak about the gatherings of the Sufis where coffee would be brewed by one of the members of the order, and then passed from the sheikh in one cup around the circles. 

“One would imbibe praising God and praising the Prophet Muhammad. The purposefulness, the conversation and meaningful interaction coffee invoked goes right back to the Yemen, to the Sufi orders who first popularised it. 

“It became a means among Sufi orders to stay awake for nightly devotions, to stay alert while one was praying remembering God.”

Yemen’s Arabica coffee beans are now sold at a high price in the United States – around $250 per pound [Courtesy of Port of Mokha]

Around 1554, the first coffee house in Istanbul opened its doors. “Yemen is where coffee found its soul, but Constantinople under the Ottoman Empire is where coffee became an art”, says Malik.

Coffee drinking became ritualised in the Ottoman palaces of the sultan. It was not uncommon for coffee to be ground, cooked and presented in gold, silver and diamond encrusted utensils marked with the sultan’s crest. It was in this era, that the role of chief coffee maker also materialised.

Coffee drinking soon became all the rage among London merchants, where it attracted the interest of medical and scientific researchers, as well as satirists.

Markman Ellis, author of The Coffee House: A Cultural History

Decades later, however, coffee was being condemned.

In 1511, the governor of Makkah in Saudi Arabia, Khair-Beg, issued the first fatwa banning coffee houses because satirical depictions of him had emerged from these meeting places.

When it debuted in Europe, in 1600, Pope Clement VIII called coffee the “devil’s brew”. 

In 1675, Charles II banned coffee houses in England in a futile attempt to stem political dissent and whispers of revolution spilling from coffee houses.

How had coffee arrived in London?

Immersed in the drinking culture of port cities such as Smyrna, Istanbul, and Aleppo, coffee eventually found its way to the English capital along Mediterranean trade routes that London merchants had established with the Ottoman empire. 

Pasqua Rosee, a servant to Daniel Edwards, a merchant, opened London’s first coffee house in 1652 in St Michael’s alley of Cornhill.

“Coffee drinking soon became all the rage among London merchants, where it attracted the interest of medical and scientific researchers, as well as satirists. Within 10 years, there were more than 80 coffee-houses in the city alone, and more than 550 by 1700,” says Professor Markman Ellis, author of “The Coffee House: A Cultural History”.

Alkhanshali visited more than 30 plantations to find Yemen’s best coffee [Courtesy of Port of Mokha]

Coffee competed with the consumption of ale to the ire of alehouses, becoming the sobering wine of the intellectuals. 

From Baghdad to London coffee was linked to “hospitality, good conversation, learning and erudition that [preferred] art, culture, music and reading”, says Malik, the journalist.

“The idea of a public space where people would gather was in its birth and development very much a Muslim institution. The coffee house itself becomes an institution of social rupture, the centre of social interaction, an extension of one’s living room where rich and poor, scholar and saint, businessman and ruffian can gather.”

Alkhanshali, from San Francisco, has revived Yemen’s coffee industry and now sells the prized beans to American customers [Courtesy of Port of Mokha]

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