No ordinary joe
Dave Eggers’ new book explains just why your cup of coffee is so expensive
Should you find yourself in the habit of complaining about the crippling cost of your morning cortado, you might wish to leaf through The Monk of Mokha by Dave Eggers, to remind yourself that, perhaps, the price you’re paying is not nearly high enough.
The non-fiction work follows the exploits of Mokhtar Alkhanshali, an enterprising Yemeni-American who was working as a doorman at a fancy apartment building in the San Francisco Bay Area when he stumbled upon a plan to revive the coffee industry in the country from which his parents emigrated.
Yemen, Alkhanshali discovered, could legitimately claim to have been the birthplace of coffee. While the properties of the coffee plant were thought to have been first observed by a shepherd in Ethiopia, whose sheep became unexpectedly lively after eating the berries, it was a Sufi holy man in Yemen who first brewed the beans into something like what we know as coffee for use in all-nighter ceremonies (proving that one man’s religious ecstasy is another’s morning pick-me-up). When processed properly, the native beans, Alkhanshali discovered, had the potential to rank among the best in the world. He decided to spread the word.
However, there was one problem: Yemen. As Alkhanshali was enlightening himself — and us — about the history, production and phenomenon of coffee (if you finally want to find out the difference between a secondand third-generation coffee shop you can do so here), his country is going in the opposite direction. After the promise of the Arab Spring, a power vacuum leads to civil war, Saudi-initiated military strikes and famine, not to mention the rise of al-Qaida and Isis, all of which makes the prospect of buying and shipping coffee to smug Northern Californians a much trickier prospect.
Eggers, who some might count among those smug Northern Californians, nevertheless does an admirable job of delving deep — very deep — into the life of another man, as he did with child refugee Valentino Achak Deng in What is the What (2006), and Hurricane Katrina survivor Abdulrahman Zeitoun in 2009’s Zeitoun. Yes, it’s terribly worthy, and no, the subject is not a candidate for the kind of satirical detachment Eggers achieves in some of his fiction works, such as 2013’s technocracy take-off The Circle, but it’ll open your eyes — very wide — to the singular origins of your single origin.
The Monk of Mokha (Hamish Hamilton) by Dave Eggers is published on 25 January