I love coffee. This is one of my more defining characteristics, like a Gilmore Girl. I learned to use an espresso machine as a kid, I started drinking black coffee when I was pretty young (might be why I’m the shortest in my family), and I memorized all the different ways to prepare and serve coffee by the time I was 14—just because I wanted to! Funny enough, I never actually worked in the coffee industry despite my draw to the beverage. Even more odd (only cause I’m also an avid reader of books), I never read much about the coffee industry either. As I got older, I became more aware of the importance of things like “fair trade” (mostly just in the vague way that it’s better for the famers), and temperature of water while brewing. I went through a phase as a coffee snob (but not really ’cause push come to shove, I would still drink Starbucks over no coffee at all), and I even worked a booth at Coffee Fest one year. Nevertheless, I never really realized just how little I actually knew about coffee until recently.
This past month I’ve had the pleasure of receiving a pre-release copy of The Monk of Mokha by Dave Eggers. (No, it’s not spelled incorrectly and yes, that is the same author who wrote The Circle, good catch!) It was my interest in coffee that made me excited to read this book. The Monk of Mokha follows the life of Mokhtar Alkhanshali, as a series of unfortunate events leads him down an unexpected career path. Let’s put the coffee-related aspects of this book aside for a moment, though I definitely learned quite a lot about coffee through this book and will absolutely circle back to that, because this isn’t just a story about coffee. This narrative still has much to offer to those of you who aren’t drawn in by all the coffee insights. Makhtar is a Muslim from Yemen who grew up as part of the immigrant community in San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood. His background, his culture, and the challenges he faced make for a compelling story that takes an in-depth look into a type of life experience I’d never get a glimpse of otherwise. There are parts of this story that take place in the Middle East during conflicts I knew embarrassingly little about and had to do additional research on. (I was a teenager living in Oregon during much of the timeline of this book, so many of the events it references seemed far removed from the life I was experiencing at that time.) For much of the book, Makhtar seems to get beat down by all sorts of hurtles, including a coup that causes civil war in Yemen, in his quest to restore Yemen’s reputation in this world as a place with superior coffee. Despite all that, Makhtar still manages to achieve his “rags to riches” entrepreneurial success story, (he is portrayed throughout the book as the hard working entrepreneur who never gives up). The narrative packs in plenty of action for the easily distracted and an ending that fuels plenty of debate over what it says about consumer capitalism and immigration. (In an effort to not give away too much of the story line, I’m not going to give any further comment on this, but if you’d like some additional review that do take a harder line on these subject, I recommend the Washington Post’s review and the New York Times.)
But back to the coffee part: At the beginning of the book, Mokhtar’s knowledge base of the history of coffee and the industry as a whole is about on par with my own, so throughout the story it feels like we’re learning together. Where coffee originated (or is believed to be originated from); how it spread to become a world-wide commodity; the techniques for picking, washing, and drying; how coffee is priced and sold; Q tests and cuppings! All things that just hardly a month ago I only had a very vague understanding of. Now I will say, this isn’t the Omnivore’s Dilemma of coffee. While it addresses some of the unfairness in the industry, it’s still more of a hero’s tale than a exposition on the environmental or humanitarian downfalls in the industry (I suppose that is another book for another time). But perhaps The Monk of Mokha would have an impact on my coffee buying habits if I didn’t already try to buy coffee that is more fair to the farmers. (I buy my coffee from a smaller local roaster calls Effective Coffee. I highly recommend them!) It did make me stop and think, “Have I ever had coffee from Yemen?”
I’ll say that over all, I liked reading this story. I thought it was interesting. It prompted me to put a little work into learning more about something I hadn’t thought too much about. It involved my first great love: coffee! It gave me a reason to learn more about Yemen, a country I mostly associated with an episode of Friends. (I’ll admit embarrassingly that if we were playing a word association game and you said “Yemen,” I’d say “Friends.”) Interested in reading The Monk of Mokha for yourself and joining in on the conversation? It’s officially available for sale TODAY. Pick it up from your local bookstore (or follow my link to buy it on Amazon).
GRETCHEN IS A WRITER-BASED IN PORTLAND, ORE. SHE GOT HER START AS A JOURNALIST WORKING ON THE SUSTAINABLE FASHION AND RESTAURANT BEAT BEFORE MOVING INTO COPYWRITING AND ADVERTISING WORK. SHE CURRENTLY BLOGS AND WORKS AS A FREELANCE WRITER.