The Current

How a search for the world's best coffee led to Yemen in the midst of civil war

What lengths would you go to for the perfect cup of coffee? For Mokhtar Alkhanshali his quest took him to Yemen where the daunting hikes up the highland mountains were the least of his challenges during the civil war.

Mokhtar Alkhanshali's journey is the subject of Dave Eggers' book The Monk of Mokha

Coffee beans are seeds found inside coffee cherries. 'When it's fully ripe, it's a really beautiful ruby red, and it's so much more sweet,' says Mokhtar Alkhanshali. (Chaider Mahyuddin/AFP/Getty Images)

Originally published May 16, 2018.

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Mokhtar Alkhanshali would die for a great cup of coffee — and he almost did.

In 2013, the 20-something son of Yemeni immigrants was working as a "lobby ambassador" in a residential building in San Francisco, rushing to open the front door for tenants before they had to do it themselves. He was living in the tough Tenderloin district, where violence and drug addiction were a daily part of the street scene.

Then, with a single text message, he got a clue to where his future lay: Yemeni coffee.

"That was on October 1, 2013 at 12:02 pm," he told The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti, when a friend text him "about this statue of a weird Yemeni man ... drinking coffee."

The statue used to stand outside the old Hills Brothers coffee company, whose logo was an Arab man holding a cup of coffee to the sky. When Alkhanshali saw it, it inspired him to build his coffee business. The extraordinary journey of how he sought the perfect beans, in the middle of Yemen's civil war, is told in Dave Eggers new book The Monk of Mokha.

Yemeni tribesmen gather at the town of Mukeiras, in the Federation of South Arabia, to sell their coffee beans on Sept. 30, 1963. (Central Press/Getty Images)

Alkhanshali borrowed enough money to travel to Yemen, where coffee was first brewed by Yemeni Sufi monks, in search of the perfect coffee bean. He zig-zagged across the country visiting dozens of coffee farms, climbing mountains and driving hundreds of kilometres. He suffered malaria and picked up tapeworms. By the end of that summer he had lost 18 kilograms as a result of his illnesses. But the hardship was worth it when he first laid his eyes on the perfect coffee beans.

When he returned to the U.S. to get them rated, they scored in the 90s, making them among the best-tasting beans in the world.

"They had this incredible tropical flavour, like papaya with mangosteen. It had this sweet aftertaste — silky smooth, like something you wouldn't taste in coffee," he said.

They had this incredible tropical flavour, like papaya with  mangosteen . It had this sweet aftertaste — silky smooth, like something you wouldn't taste in coffee.- Mokhtar   Alkhanshali

"We're used to drinking coffee that tastes like burnt popcorn, where you have to put in loads of cream and sugar just to make it drinkable, and so it was just a very unique coffee."

Alkhanshali returned to Yemen to hire workers for his business. But after he arrived, it looked like his dream had turned into a nightmare. An uprising by an Iranian-backed militia had overthrown the Yemeni president. Across the border, the Saudi military was gearing up for war.

"I woke up around 2:00 am and I heard really loud explosions. So I went outside and I saw what looked like laser beams in the sky. Those were anti-aircraft machine guns being shot at Saudi fighter jets. And I found out overnight that the country had gone into all-out war," he said.

"It was just a very scary night. I had to send messages to my mom and dad, not knowing if I would live to see the morning."

What followed was a perilous journey out of Yemen, with Alkhanshali dragging two suitcases of coffee beans. He was due at a major coffee conference in San Francisco in a few days, to sell the beans he'd risked so much to secure.

After a seven-hour drive to the port of Mokha, Alkhanshal found out the mid-sized ship that was supposed to take him out of the capital wasn't working. In lieu of that, a stranger offered to take him across the Red Sea in a small, fibre glass boat.

"I took that boat ride and that was the biggest leap of faith in my life. Looking back it was really stupid. If for whatever reason the engine stops you are stuck in the middle of the ocean. It is one of the most pirated waters in the world. But eventually we crossed it and after a day we made it do Djibouti."

En route, he called his mother and told her the story of his escape.

"My mom was so emotional and she said: 'Did you make it?' And I'm like: 'No mom, I died.' I'm talking to you on the phone. I made it. Of course I did."

A man sells coffee at his stall at Taghyeer (Change) Square, in Sanaa, Yemen. (Khaled Abdullah/Reuters)

Alkhanshali did make it on time to the coffee convention. He believes his story carries a message of hope to young readers.

"I'm a kid who grew up in the Tenderloin and I grew up in a one-bedroom apartment with six siblings. Nine of us. My dad was a bus driver. I didn't have many options in my life. Most of my friends didn't make it to college," he said.

"I am very thankful for where I am, and I hope any young person reading this book can find themselves in these pages and try to find who they want to be."

Listen to the full conversation near the top of this page.

This segment was produced and written by The Current's Howard Goldenthal.