Dave Eggers’ The Monk of Mokha

cover artBeing half-Scandinavian on my mother’s side, I was introduced to the joys of coffee at an early age – by the time I was 5 or 6 years old, I’d say. With more than a dozen years as a coffee drinker under my belt already, I eagerly jumped on the bandwagon of what’s known as Second Wave Coffee in the early 1970s at university. And more recently I enthusiastically began exploring the joys of Third Wave Coffee – having the good fortune to live near one of its epicenters in Portland, Ore.

If you’re not familiar with those appellations but you’d like to know more, I have the book for you. No, it’s not a dry tome about the history of coffee and how to grow, process, roast, grind and brew it in order to produce the most perfect cup o’ joe you can get, although you will learn a bit about all of that. It’s both a ripping yarn and an engaging profile of a young man who becomes obsessed with coffee.

Dave Eggers’ The Monk of Mokha is a solid and entertaining book of reportage about the life so far of Mokhtar Alkhanshali, an American of Yemeni descent who has made it his mission to return Yemeni coffee to its former place of prominence in the world.

Eggers is a well-known journalist and author, and founder of McSweeney’s. He’s written 11 books, and his nonfiction and journalism have been published in some of the top venues of the day including The Guardian and The New Yorker.

Now he tells the story of this young man (still in his 20s) who grew up in a working class family in San Francisco’s only poor neighborhood, the Tenderloin. Mokhtar can’t quite figure out what he wants to do with his life, until he discovers his passion in coffee. He’s not a coffee drinker, but when he learns that coffee was first cultivated in his ancestral homeland of Yemen, he sets out to bring that country’s coffee out of the dark ages of the First Wave into the Third.

Ethiopia may have been the original home of coffee and where its abilities as a stimulant were first noticed (Eggers rather egregiously goes along with the mythology about the goatherd and his prancing goats), but it was probably first cultivated, brewed, and exported from Yemen. And stolen from Yemen in much the same way that tea was from China. But over the centuries Yemen lagged behind such powerhouses as Colombia and Brazil, and in recent decades much of its former coffee-growing land has been given over to the mild narcotic called qat.

We learn about coffee’s history as a commodity as Mokhtar learns it, from hanging around a specialty roaster that’s near his job as a doorman in a luxury apartment complex. Coffee’s “first wave” came in the early 20th Century when San Francisco’s Hills Brothers discovered vacuum-packing. The second was in the late 1960s and early ’70s when aficionados discovered that freshly roasted and ground beans made much better-tasting coffee; and that varieties from different countries tasted much different, particularly if they were arabica beans rather than the more commercial robusta. In the third wave, that began in the late ’90s, importers began trying to improve coffee and the lives of the farmers through direct trade and fair pricing.

Mokhtar is a natural salesman with the gift of gab and an ability to read people. This comes in very handy when he has to try to get people to believe and invest in his vision of reviving Yemen as a coffee grower and exporter. That’s when the story really takes off. In the end, his journey to Yemen to bring out the first crop of properly grown and processed beans coincides with the collapse of Yemen into all-out civil war, and you’re not sure whether he or the coffee will survive the trip.

I could hardly put this book down once I started it. At a little over 300 pages, it’s a fast read; Mokhtar is an amazing young man and you’re always waiting to see what he’ll do next; and Eggers’ practiced, economical and engaging style keeps you turning the pages. I was even more impressed when I reached the end and found that the author and Mokhtar have set aside proceeds from the book to establish the Mokha Foundation, which directly invests in improving the lives of the coffee farmers of Yemen.

(Knopf, 2018)

About Gary Whitehouse

Gary has been reviewing music, books and more at the Green Man Review since sometime in the previous Millennium. He lives in a mostly hipster-free part of Oregon, where he enjoys dogs, books, music, the outdoors, and craft beer, cider, and coffee.