February 07, 2019

Meet Mokhtar Al-Khanshali: The Monk of Mokha

I first met Mokhtar Al-Khanshali in 2014 while attending my Q Certification exam at Boot Coffee in Mill Valley, California. Mokhtar, a Yemeni-American raised in the Tenderloin district of San Francisco, was working as a lab assistant while preparing for his own Q exam. He had only recently begun working for coffee legend Willem Boot, and thus was brand new to coffee and newer still to the hair-splitting world of modern Specialty Coffee.

Many are unfamiliar with what a Q Grader is, as it’s a fairly new program, scarcely recognized outside the somewhat insular circles of Specialty Coffee. Briefly, The Q is an internationally recognized certification in Specialty Coffee analysis. Passing the Q means that you passed 22 separate exams. 21 of the 22 exams are sensory-based, so your senses are essential to passing. The test is famous for its failure rate (I’ve read as high as 85%) and Q Graders are considered some of the most knowledgeable folks in Specialty Coffee, akin to a wine sommelier. As I write this, there are only 4,000 Q Graders in the entire world.

Each member of my small Q cohort had their own reasons for undergoing such a masochistic exercise. Some needed it for job security. Others to pursue a general interest in coffee. My personal and professional reason for attempting the Q was to solidify Metropolis’ ability to methodically and systematically source and evaluate raw and roasted Specialty Coffee, communicate with producers using a universal language, and to increase my own knowledge from those considered to be the best in the business. By the time I took my Q, I had been involved in Specialty Coffee for close to two decades. When Mokhtar first took his Q, he had been involved in Specialty Coffee for only a few months.

Long before the Q, Mokhtar worked as a doorman in downtown San Francisco. Not far from his building was San Francisco’s famous Ferry Building, adorned in front by a 12′ statue, erected by the Hills Brothers Coffee Company. The statue, Mokhtar came to realize, is a representation of a Yemeni man holding a cup of coffee. Curious, Mokhtar came to learn that his ancestral home of Yemen had once been the epicenter of coffee in the world. In fact, his own family had been involved in coffee cultivation for generations! That said, yield and quality of Yemeni coffee had fallen sharply over the years.

Hundreds of years ago, Yemen’s Port of Mokha had served as the primary port of origin in East Africa for coffee eventually consumed throughout the world. Though wild coffee was first discovered in Ethiopia, Yemen cultivated the coffee tree, and the seeds of the fruit of the coffee trees in Yemen and Ethiopia fueled the first cafes in Europe and the Middle East.

Unfortunately, for a multitude of reasons, production of coffee in Yemen fell dramatically over the centuries until it became something of a cottage industry. Because growing coffee is difficult and expensive, many farmers had long before switched their coffee trees to another plant called Khat, which is an amphetamine-like stimulant that is a controlled substance in most of the Western world. Khat farming proved much more profitable than coffee farming and required significantly less patience and labor, so land that had been coffee farms for centuries was transformed to Khat farms.

What little coffee was produced was considered to be inconsistent and of low quality. Poor protocols in picking, production errors, lack of attention in milling and sorting and quality control in general had fallen so sharply that coffee from Yemen had become extremely undesirable for most of the Specialty Coffee community. Through hard work, education, money, and a lot of luck, Mokhtar hoped to change that.

Staring at that statue, day after day, Mokhtar hatched what seemed, at the time, to be a ludicrous and quixotic plan. He decided somewhat impulsively that he would travel to Yemen, convince farmers to grow and process coffee using modern methods, and, Inshallah, eventually restore Yemen’s rightful place as one of the world’s most important origins for quality coffee. If he succeeded, he would rewrite history.

Mokhtar knew that it would take years of dedication, bravery, and extensive knowledge in order to achieve his dream. He badly needed to learn Specialty Coffee inside and out so that he could discern between good coffee and bad. He also needed the credentials in order to be taken seriously by farmers and eventual investors.

Etched into my memory for life is the moment that I stood next to the first Yemeni Q Grader while our entire cohort of Q Grader students erupted in applause. Mokhtar’s story had transformed us all, and we had been rooting for him like crazy. With our victory cupping spoons in hand, Mokhtar and I spent hours in the garden, talking about the world, family, coffee, and how they all come together. We were joined together by a common outlook on the role of coffee: that great coffee is truly a human endeavor, and that it is the people, more so than the beans themselves, that give life to the brew. We became close friends over the week of the Q, and we have remained close ever since.

The Monk of Mokha is Dave Eggers’ extraordinary account of Mokhtar’s thrilling and, at times, harrowing travels through Yemen to achieve his dream. The coffee that we are releasing in tandem with this book is among the best in the world, and Metropolis is donating 100% of the proceeds from this lot to The Mokha Foundation, Mokhtar’s own organization that, among other initiatives, partners with Doctors Without Borders to provide immediate medical relief in Yemen. 

I am endlessly proud of my friend Mokhtar, and am so excited to share this incredibly unique coffee, and Mokhtar’s story, with you.