Image: Coffee farmer in Taizz, Yemen

As the espresso machine hummed in the background and the smell of coffee wafted through the air, well-suited young professionals gathered one-by-one around a long café table with lattes in one hand and copies of the same book in the other: The Monk of Mokha by Dave Eggers.

As the book club, hosted by the Washington International Trade Association’s Young Trade Professionals group, commenced and we went around the table introducing ourselves and affiliations, there was one clear tie that held us all together – our interest in trade. This unique group of lawyers, economists, government employees, and trade association representatives all brought a different expertise and perspective to the table, quite literally.

We were there to discuss the book, the art of growing specialty coffee, the business of exporting, and the miraculous true story of a young Yemeni-American man who overcame seemingly impossible obstacles to export coffee from Yemen in the midst of a raging civil war.

The Monk of Mokha

The Monk of Mokha tells the story of Mokhtar Alkhanshali, a Yemeni-American who grows up in one of San Francisco’s poorest neighborhoods. Mokhtar’s young life has a winding and sometimes troublesome path, before he finds his true calling in coffee.

He dedicates himself to learning everything he can about the crop, becoming the first “Q grader” of Arab descent to be certified by the Coffee Quality Institute to judge coffee quality based on a complex series of tests. He then returns to his homeland of Yemen to revitalize the nation’s largely forgotten coffee industry. Although history remembers Yemen as one of the original birthplaces of coffee, the country had long neglected its signature crop, opting instead to grow the more profitable khat in its place (a flowering plant categorized as a controlled substance and illegal to import in many countries).

So begins Mokhtar’s improbable journey across the Yemeni countryside visiting farmers and teaching them how to elevate the quality of their coffee crops. He sets up his own supply chain, hiring local women to help sort the coffee and working with partners to process his beans. One problem — Yemen is in middle of a war. As bombs fall around him, we follow Mokhtar on a harrowing journey to escape Yemen with a few suitcases of his prized coffee beans.

(SPOILER ALERT) Mokhtar manages to leave Yemen on a dinghy across the perilous Red Sea. He eventually makes it to the world’s largest coffee conference in Seattle, where his Yemeni coffee scores so high in quality that specialty coffee chain Blue Bottle vows to buy it all. In the end, Mokhtar’s realizes his dream as he watches 18 thousand kilos of his specialty coffee arrive in the port of Oakland, California. Blue Bottle sells it for $16 per cup – the most expensive cup of coffee it had ever sold.

While Mokhtar’s personal trials and tribulations form the core of the book’s exciting narrative, Eggers’ ability to weave the ins and outs of the coffee trade throughout the book is a true achievement. It’s not easy to hook a reader on the pros and cons of wet versus dry processing of coffee beans, and yet his vivid descriptions of the process made the book a true page-turner. I walked away with a much deeper appreciation of my morning cup of Joe, and all of the steps and people needed to produce just one small bag of beans.

Instagram shot of Monk of Mokha
Image: Book cover from @theMonkofMokha Instagram

Book club conversation ranging from social customs to commercial customs

As the coffee flowed in the café, so did the book club conversation. Discussions ranged from Middle Eastern customs for welcoming visitors to airport customs searching suitcases filled with coffee beans.

One woman shared a gripping story of a college friend who was actually kidnapped in Yemen (similar to one of the scenes described in the book). Another shared her newfound desire to share the origins of coffee with all of her friends thanks to the book. One shared her awe that the book’s main character headed into Yemen without a business plan. We all talked about pricing, and whether knowing what we know now, we’d be willing to spend $16 on a cup of coffee.

The book and book’s discussion were an eye-opening reminder of how pervasive trade truly is in our everyday lives. Although we all came from different backgrounds and expertise, trade not only brought us together, but also brought us the coffee we were sipping in our cups.

As for me, I’ve signed up for a coffee brewing class at my local Blue Bottle this weekend. There’s always more to learn.