So how much would you pay for your favorite blend? Or better yet, would you be willing to die for it? Mokhtar Alkhanshali, the subject of Dave Eggers’ book, “The Monk of Mokha,” will be sharing how he almost did. Died that is.
Hosting a live conversation at The Lawrence Family JCC, 4126 Executive Drive, 7 p.m. on Tuesday, Jan. 15, the duo will narrate Alkhanshali’s journey of the birth of his Port of Mokha Coffee.
The fascinating New York Times bestseller chronicles Alkhanshali’s plight to resurrect Yemeni’s once worldwide monopoly on high-quality coffee production. Farmed in his ancestral homeland more than 500 years ago, the brew had since plummeted to become regarded as one of the world’s worst-tasting coffees.
Eggers eloquently retraces the 24-year old’s transition from a doorman to a Certified Q grader from the Coffee Quality Institute beginning with his youthful migration from Yemen to San Francisco’s infamous Tenderloin District, where life among the un-noticed served as a catalyst for “pursuing the American Dream.” As details highlight ingenuity, grit and tenacity, the story is replete with political upheaval, civil war, the terror of al Qaeda, Algerian pirates, Houthis rebels, Saudi bombs, air raids, hostage negotiations and harrowing escapes.
This tale of revival is juxtaposed with its tale of survival.
Readers will also learn about coffee’s 15th century discovery by a Sufi mystic who realized that the muddy-brown liquid that emerged from boiling the seeds of a wild, cherry-like fruit elevated his spirits and enhanced his ability to stay awake. The Islamic Scholar, known as the Monk of Mokha, could study and pray deep into the night by simply drinking the strangely bitter-sweet brew.
Sharing this prized beverage with his tribe, pilgrims and traders gave way to local farmers cultivating the fruit in their mountains and valley terraces. The area’s microclimate and elevation were perfect for sustaining the drought-resistant, chocolate-sweet coffee plants.
At the onset of the 16th century, Yemen had become the world’s exclusive coffee supplier. Shipped from the Port of Mokha, located on the Red Sea, Yeminis touted 90 percent of the world’s coffee sales. Trade of the coveted cherry-pitted fruit was deemed illegal by Yeminis. Despite their best efforts, seeds were nonetheless smuggled – quite ingenuously – out of Yemen circa the mid-16th century. Coffee quickly became a worldwide commodity.
And yet, Yemini coffee still served as the best tasting brew in the world. To imitate its cocoa flavor, brewers added chocolate to bland brews giving birth to “mocha” coffee.
Among many factors that included competition, time thwarted the quality and quantity of Yemeni coffee production. Farmers replaced their treasured crop with khat, a, drug-inducing stimulant chewed like tobacco that’s considered an illegal, controlled substance in the United Sates. Rich-tasting Yemen coffee became practically non-existent.
Eggers fast forwards to 2013, as a budding entrepreneur envisioned reviving his ancestral homeland’s coffee while empowering the area’s local farmers. Supported through the generosity of those who believed in his determined sincerity, Alkhanshali spent three years surveying Yemen’s remaining 30 coffee regions, some accessible only by hiking days through the mountains.
While garnering meticulous notes on climate, elevation, soil, harvesting, drying and processing techniques, Alkhanshali befriended farmers on a personal level. He knew that educating and galvanizing farmers to elevate the quality of their beans and operate globally by trading directly – rather than the expensive middlemen and loan sharks who were exploiting them – coffee crops would yield more money than the khat now straining their water supply.
Education included everything from organic fertilizers to more efficient harvesting and drying practices. He introduced the first moisture analyzers and built modern drying beds while organizing farmers into collectives that included women.
The education paid off. The quality and quantity of the new crops exceeded expectations. Farmers who followed Alkhanshali’s protocols – The Monk of Mokha Method – eventually yielded a 33 percent increase from the price of their beans.
Ready to test his beans against highly-regarded critics, Alkhanshali packed two suitcases of coffee samples and headed to SCaa, the world’s biggest coffee conference in Seattle.
Civil war broke-out on the eve of his departure. Saudi-led airstrikes bombed airports. Flights were cancelled. Trapped, Alkhanshali committed to the seemingly impossible – to land in Seattle with his beans. Abandoning his ambitions or his people, many who now depended upon his success, was simply not an option.
He traveled to the Port of Mokha, a breathtaking, hair-raising experience that see-sawed between life and death. Literally. He hired a fisherman – along with a fishing vessel so minute it lacked radio and navigation equipment – to transport him, his beans and a colleague across the Red Sea. The coffee caravan safely arrived in Dijibouti, located on the horn of Africa, seven hours later.
Alkhanshali made it to Seattle and won a blind cupping test, (a 90+) giving birth to his company, The Port of Mokha Coffee. An export company and more exploits followed suit, but Alkhanshali was on his way.
Eggers skillfully crafts an admirable legacy of a young man unwavering in his efforts to enrich the lives of everyone involved. “The Monk of Mokha” is not only a must-read for coffee lovers, the page-turner is biblical for anyone dreaming of embedding their imprint on a global scale.
Alkhanshali’s often quoted saying, “The shortest distance between two people is a cup of coffee. We live in a very divided world. To have moments around coffee allows us to make time and slow down and be present.”
“The Lawrence Family JCC is privileged and proud to host Dave Eggers and Mokhtar Alkhanshali for what’s sure to be a great evening,” said Brian Garrick, director of Cultural Arts Programs of the Lawrence Family JCC. “There are a lot people – and a lot of roasters – excited track the origins of their daily cup.”
Attendees will be treated to a delicious cup of Mokha’s coffee. To date, in 2017, in a blind cupping, Port of Mokha’s Hayma Microlot was awarded a 97 from Coffee Review. The coffee is sold at Blue Bottle Coffee Café’s in San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York for $16 a pour, and $20 for a siphon pot.
“The Monk of Mokha parallels the Jewish story with its components of immigration and war,” concluded Garrick. “The Jewish Story par excellence is the Exodus – people moving from a place of unfreedom to a place of freedom. ‘The Monk of Mokha’ celebrates the success of immigrants in America and we – the JCC – we’re obligated to serve as a forum for discussion.”
Dave Eggers is the author of 11 books, including: "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius," a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize; “The Circle; Heroes of the Frontier,” longlisted for the International DUBLIN Literary Award; “A Hologram for the King,” a finalist for the National Book Award; and “What Is the What,” a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and winner of France's Prix Médicis Etranger and the Dayton Literary Peace Prize.