Tuesday, May 01, 2018

The Monk of Mokha: No Better Book to Curl Up With a Cup of Coffee

Book Review: The Monk of Mokha by Dave Eggers
Version: CloudLibrary borrow

The Monk of Mokha is the story of Mokhtar Alkhanshali, a very young Yemeni American searching for his life's destiny in an uncertain world. At the same time, it's the story of coffee, in particular coffee from Yemen, which though it isn't the origin of the coffee plant it is the origin of cultivated coffee and probably the finest coffee in the world.

Mokhtar was very young when his parents, immigrants from Ibb, Yemen, uprooted him from New York City and moved him to San Francisco, California. As with most immigrants, Mokhtar's parents worked hard and expected much from their son, but he didn't have the drive or the passion to study as they wanted him to -- they wanted him to do well in school and become a lawyer. His life would take him in a different direction.

You see, Mokhtar seemed hopelessly lost academically, so his parents sent him to stay with his grandfather in Yemen for a year. There, he learned personal discipline and passion for a purpose. He also saw how people in the third world lived. When he returned to San Francisco, Mokhtar was a changed young man. He studied more fruitfully, although he still didn't see this parent's vision for his future. Within him kindled an entrepreneurial spirit. He took on many low-paying jobs, including one as a doorman at a luxury apartment building in the Embarcadero District. It was there he became impassioned with coffee and saw the statue of the Monk of Mokha at the Hills Brothers headquarters building across the street from the apartment complex and the story of coffee's origins. You can actually see the statue if you look for the Hills Brothers building on Google Maps at 2 Harrison Street and take the Street View tour to The Embarcadero side of the building, just around the corner from Harrison Street.

(Photo from Google Maps Street View)

While Mokhtar visited his grandfather he saw coffee plants -- trees or shrubs, really -- but didn't know what he was looking at. Becoming obsessed with the topic through visits to upscale coffee shops, cafes, tasting rooms, and eventually a training center, Mokhtar learned all about coffee plants, the coffee fruit, coffee beans, and the process of cleaning away the fruit to the bean and then roasting it. He also learned about the care of the trees and selecting the best fruit for harvest, and the best way to store and roast the beans, not to mention which varieties make the best drinks.

What Mokhtar learned was that the best coffee in the world at one time came from Yemen, but with the strife in the Middle East, over time the coffee trade in Yemen had faded away. Over centuries coffee seedlings had made their way over vast places around the world, and those places had replaced Yemen and even Ethiopia (where the first plants had been discovered) as sources for coffee.

As a Yemeni American, Mokhtar decided he wanted to become a coffee importer to bring the coffee trade back to his people in Yemen. And The Monk of Mokha is a lot about his journey of discovery and his struggle to accomplish that goal at his very young age during the civil war that grew in Yemen as he tried to rebuild the coffee business there.

Besides a very intriguing story behind this young man's life and struggles, you learn a lot about coffee and the coffee business. For instance, did you know that a top professional coffee roaster has 800 aroma and taste complexities to consider when roasting coffee? And did you know that from the growing of a coffee plant through picking the fruit and processing to the barista at your favorite coffee shop serving you a cup, twenty people will have handled those coffee beans? And your coffee beans may have come from India, Kenya, Mexico, or Java, among others? There are only a couple of thousand coffee quality testers (Q graders) in the world, and Mokhtar because the first Arab Q grader, despite coffee's geographic origins.

I'm not a coffee drinker, probably because when I first tested coffee I was just a teen in the 1960's and coffee was bitter and, as you will learn in The Monk of Mokha, that was a terrible time in the quality of commercialized coffee. But having read this book, I'm ready to try different veritals of coffee to see if there isn't something I can enjoy along with my wife. The book even discusses the different kinds different people likely would enjoy. Did you know smokers would probably like a darker blend because their taste buds have been affected by their smoking? Or that you should never drink a cup of coffee hot, because the heat causes the taste buds to clench up, keeping them from fully tasting the coffee?

Nowadays, artisan coffee has become as ritualized as enjoying wine, with cupping and spooning and tasting sessions similar to smelling and swirling and slurping wines.

All of this blends into an amazing read on coffee and Mokhtar's obsession with bringing Yemeni coffee back into the market for its remarkably high quality taste and helping the struggling people of Yemen prosper more fully in the process. It's also a riviting read about a young man who put his life on the line during a tense time in Yemen's history to achieve his personal goals but also to help his people. And the end of the story provides a stirring conclusion of human triumph you will enjoy to the last page.

Most readers, young adults and older, enjoy a good cup of coffee. I can't think of a better read to curl up with your favorite brew than The Monk of Mokha.

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