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Leon Kaye headshot

Can the $16 Cup of Blue Bottle Coffee Help Rebuild a Country?

By Leon Kaye

Blue Bottle Coffee has taken the Bay Area and Silicon Valley by storm, and affection for its brews spread from its flagship store at the Ferry Building in San Francisco to the East Coast and even as far as Tokyo. Visit any of its locations, and chances are the lines will be long. And of course the wait, to many, is worth it: This coffee is a far cry from your grandparents’ MJB or Folgers percolated coffee or the burnt, over-roasted brew served up by Starbucks.

And this is a company that takes its coffee seriously; as with some of its high-end competitors, such as Chicago-based intelligentsia Coffee or Los Angeles’s LAMill, the easy 20-minute wait for that latte or even a simple cup of drip either leads to caffeinated heaven or sparks more of an exasperated Larry David moment. But Blue Bottle Coffee has earned plenty of fans, as well as investors, who provided the company with over $120 million as it built a robust business.

Now Blue Bottle Coffee is upping the ante with a high-end cup of coffee that would make some of the most expensive cafes in Dubai or New York City blush.

For those with money to burn, or those who want to hold court with another tale expressing their commitment to social enterprise, the Oakland-based purveyor of coffee has rolled out a cup of coffee sourced from Yemen that will set you back $16. The price includes a cookie, a pamphlet about the coffee’s story, and pride knowing that one is doing his or her part to assist a country in the Middle East that is suffering from war.

The story is truly fascinating, and it's one that deserves a screenplay. Moktar Alkhanshali, a Yemeni-American businessman, had been exporting coffee from Yemen for several years when he was caught in the middle of Saudi Arabia-led airstrikes against the country’s Houthi rebels. He managed a hair-raising escape and reached the historic seaport of Mokha (or Mocha) and then eventually to Djibouti. Once the region’s most important port, Mokha was once the central marketplace for the global coffee business from the 1400s until the early 1700s. Yemen has long prided itself on being the birthplace of coffee (though, alas, the Ethiopians have a rapid response to that question), and if you see photos of this product, and this nation’s breathtaking landscape, it is easy to understand why.

Despite that scare, Alkhanshali stayed committed to his ancestral homeland and realized that the country’s long-suffering coffee industry, along with its farmers, offered potential. Unfortunately, those growers suffered from the usual indignities befalling those who grow coffee beans: loans at high usury rates, terrible working conditions and pitiful prices for their final product. Such exploitation across the world has led to the fair trade movement. As Alkhanshali explained to one interviewer, his determination led to his founding of Port of Mokha, a testament to the timeless city’s role in the once-lucrative Yemeni coffee trade.

As discussed in Inc., the partnership between Blue Bottle Coffee and Port of Mokha has fostered several benefits for coffee farmers in Yemen: Laboratory technology is now available in their country; pre-payments for coffee micro lots (the best beans within a coffee farm) have become the standard; and overall there is a “more stable infrastructure” for these growers. Not that everyone is buying into this idea; one disgruntled writer for Los Angeles Magazine was entranced with this cup of Java until the supposed plethora of flavor notes and a reminder about its cost soured his taste buds.

But this tale is also a reminder of why many consumers, who want to do the right thing, are increasingly wary of these stories, missions, fair trade or ethical product programs and, finally, crowdfunding campaigns. How much of that $16 is going to help these farmers, whose stories are vividly described but yet we cannot see with our own eyes? Blue Bottle is not specific when answering these questions, which in the end raises eyebrows and induces eye-rolls in a reaction to what is otherwise is genuinely inspirational story of purpose.

Image credit: Blue Bottle Coffee and Port of Mokha

Leon Kaye headshot

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

Read more stories by Leon Kaye