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If you’ve been in Miami long enough, you know the Magic City runs on cafecito. Yemeni-American coffee entrepreneur Mokhtar Alkhanshali, the subject of Dave Eggers’ most recent book, The Monk of Mokha, will share his love of coffee and indulge in Miami’s own when he visits Books & Books Wednesday, January 9.
“One of the biggest impacts of coffee is building bridges culturally,” says Alkhanshali, who is based in San Francisco. “People in Brooklyn or Paris may not know anything about Yemen except what they hear about the war… Coffee is the catalyst to humanize people. Often, people take a cup of coffee, not knowing the journey.”
Eggers’ book chronicles Alkhanshali’s three-year journey to bring Yemeni coffee to American tables. To start his company, Port of Mokha, the 30-year-old entrepreneur hiked for days to remote Yemen coffee farms, trained farmers on best practices to revitalize declining crops, and even endured airstrikes and hostage situations when civil war broke out as he was set to leave the country with his harvested coffee beans. But he says it was all worth it because he loves the product.
“I love coffee because I love its potential. It’s a vehicle to impact people’s lives. I teach farmers how to produce the best beans and balance ancient techniques with the modern. We bring in equipment like moisture analyzers and modern drying beds. We give farmers good wages and a dignified life… When people are proud of producing something, it builds a national sense of confidence,” he says.
Alkhanshali describes how his cultural background inspired him to create his company. “I immigrated here as a baby, and being an immigrant and the son of an immigrant, sometimes you feel as if you’re between two different worlds and you feel like you don’t fit in either of them,” he says. “That’s how I felt for a long time, and coffee is the first thing I found that connected both my identities. Growing up in the Bay Area, it’s hard to not be concerned with social justice or not be a foodie.”
Mokhtar Alkhanshali brews. Courtesy of Mokhtar Alkhanshali
But the journey to start Port of Mokha was not a clear path. “I think a lot of young people at some point feel stuck in life, not sure what to do or become… I found coffee; I found my calling, more than a career. I just jumped into this thing and I didn’t have a clear road map,” he explains. “Looking back, it was ridiculous, going into an enterprise in a country that’s politically unstable [with threats like] Al Qaeda and Somali pirates, and I didn’t have any business experience. I had more passion than fear and that helped keep me going.”
When he appears in Miami, Alkhanshali wants to inspire young people in the audience to follow their passions as he did and, of course, to sip a colada and taste Panther Coffee. “It’s my first time in Miami. One of the things I love about coffee is how coffee culture is different around the world. In Miami, the Cuban Latin culture is amazing. I can’t wait to try the Cuban coffee and pastries,” he says. “Panther Coffee is a great roaster. They source from all over the world; they have an alchemist to make the best flavor; they do all the stuff to make it wonderful. We live in a divided time and the shortest distance between two people is a cup of coffee.”