"It's rare for a cup of coffee to taste like its story," said Blue Bottle coffee buyer Charlie Habegger—and yet a story is exactly what Blue Bottle is selling with every cup of its new partnership with Port of Mokha. And considering that story costs $16 a pop, rest assured it's a damn good one.
The story behind the price tag is the story of Port of Mokha founder Mokhtar Alkhanshali, a Yemeni-American coffee exporter and social interventionist who grew up as the oldest of seven kids living in a small Tenderloin apartment. Alkhanshali fell in love with coffee after a sip of Yirgacheffe Glenea Abaya at Blue Bottle's Mint Plaza location.
"It was a cup of coffee that changed my life," said Alkhanshali, who began attending Blue Bottle cuppings twice a week and went on to become a licensed Q grader (coffee's equivalent of a sommelier). The first Arab to Q grade Arabic coffees, Alkhanshali steeped himself in coffee history. He spent months studying the coffee supply chains in Yemen, where he later worked with local farmers to develop a rigorous protocol for processing their coffee.
A taste of the Yirgacheffe Gelena Abaya at Blue Bottle Coffee's Mint Plaza catapulted him into the professional world of single origin coffees.(Image courtesy of Mokhtar Alkhanshali and Port of Mokha)
"My family thought I was crazy to go from law school to being a farmer," laughed Alkhanshali.
His focus for Port of Mokha was two-fold: Not only was Yemen the alleged birthplace of coffee itself, it was also the homeland of Alkhanshali's family and a war-torn country in need of commerce. Coffee is a luxury product—albeit one of the most affordable—and can garner a high price when the quality is premium.
Many of the farmers Alkhanshali works with (three-fourths of which are women) had previously been taken advantage of by loan sharks. Alkhanshali offered them micro-loans, which they paid for in coffee cherries.
"We're getting rid of cycles of debt and trying to get a country to regain its self-confidence," said Alkhanshali. "We funded six weddings last year."
Getting the necessary supplies to process coffee into Yemen had been a challenge. Getting coffee back to the US—where Alkhanshali had promised his farmers he would find a market—turned out to be a matter of life and death. After a Saudi-led coalition bombed Yemen and heightened conflict shut down air travel last spring, Alkhanshali and his suitcases of coffee escaped on a dinghy across the Red Sea.
"It's a miracle this coffee got here the way it did," said Alkhanshali.
Mokhtar returned to the Arabian Peninsula, the world's first coffee region. There, he visited all 32 Yemeni coffee regions and lived with farmers for over a year, helping them improve their practices and processes.(Image courtesy of Mokhtar Alkhanshali and Port of Mokha)
Eventually, he arrived safely in the US, where he was featured on NPR just prior to a blind Blue Bottle cupping at which Alkhanshali was presenting Port of Mokha coffee alongside steep and exquisite competition.
"I still remember where it was on the table," said Blue Bottle CEO James Freeman. "It wasn't a thinker's coffee. It was accessible and extraordinary; an obvious coffee."
Freeman had come across Yemen coffees earlier in his career, but it had been years since he'd found one that met his standards. This was an exception, even better than the first Yemen he sold at Blue Bottle.
"I'm not buying narrative," said Freeman. "I'm buying pleasure. The coffee has to taste so good that [the consumer] remembers it long after. It's brown liquid in a cup. How do you make that worthwhile?"
The answer, arguably, is through story, and Port of Mokha coffees can be traced back to the exact farmer in the Arabian Peninsula who harvested the bean.
Starting Thursday, June 9th, Blue Bottle will be selling Huessein al-Haba, which features notes of dried strawberry, coffee blossom and crystalline, by the cup at all of its retail locations. Each cup of coffee comes with a Yemeni-inspired cardamom sesame cookie and a booklet that traces the coffee's journey from hand-picked cherry to steaming cup. You can also buy the limited release coffee in bulk at $65 for six ounces.
Though narrative may not be how Port of Mokha found its way into Blue Bottle, it could very well be the reason it finds its way to you. As Alkhanshali puts it, "The shortest distance between two people is a cup of coffee." // Available at all U.S. Blue Bottle locations, bluebottlecoffee.com/portofmokha