What to Read Next (No. 240): Brought to You by Caffeine
Few things in my life have been as consistent as my morning French press. I’m an early riser, so somewhere in the 5am hour — even on weekends — I go through a ~10 minute ritual of making two cups of coffee.
I heat up water (to 194-197 degrees), add 50 grams of freshly ground beans (which I’ve roasted) to the French press, stir that with ~745 grams of not-quite-boiling water, wait 4-5 minutes to plunge, and then fill up our Ember mugs nearly to the top with steaming and deliciously aromatic coffee.
It’s a snobby, finely-tuned, highly looked-forward-to process that’s been repeated for the last 3,500 days or so.
In short: I love a good cup of coffee, black.
Naturally, I enjoy reading books about the things I love, so every year I read one or two books about my favorite beverage. This year, it was Michael Pollan’s delightful Caffeine.
I’m also featuring a review of one of the very first books I wrote about in this newsletter, back in early 2018 when I had about 10 subscribers. The Monk of Mokha remains one of my favorite coffee-themed books.
What are you reading these days? I’d love to hear!
Caffeine: How Caffeine Created the Modern World by Michael Pollan
Few writers can combine information with entertainment with lyrical prose like Michael Pollan. Cooked, and the Netflix show of the same name, was incredible; without it, I wouldn’t be baking bread on a weekly basis. I also loved A Place of My Own, which I still think about on a regular basis, years after reading it.
Caffeine is a short little book that’s actually only found on Audible. (Their Audible Originals are generally really good.) Pollan narrates the story of caffeine in three tightly woven threads:
What is caffeine as a substance? What does it do to our brain and body, and why?
How caffeine has fueled the world’s movements and innovations for the last few centuries.
Pollan’s own experience giving up caffeine for a few months, for the purposes of writing this little book, and then taking it back up again.
Pollan’s voice entranced me with history and humor and poetic turns of phrase that had me eager to pick up my phone and keep listening every chance I had.
When you stop to think about it, it’s pretty wild that the vast majority of the world’s population is addicted to a psychoactive drug. But, as Pollan points out, as long as the supply is readily available and there aren’t serious dangers to long-term use, is there a problem?
Though it didn’t have me questioning my own addiction, Caffeine was thought-provoking and highly entertaining. Give it a couple hours of your time if you use Audible.
The Monk of Mokha by Dave Eggers
I love Dave Eggers’ books, So when I found out he had written a (non-fic) story about coffee, I knew I had to read it ASAP.
Mokhtar Alkhanshali has Yemeni roots but primarily grew up in a rough part of San Fran. He was an aimless young man after high school, trying to figure out his next step, when he heard the tale of Yemen's role in coffee’s origins.
While the popular and accepted mythology is that coffee was first discovered in Ethiopia, it was first brewed there as more of a tea. It was a Yemeni clan that first roasted the beans and made the beverage as the dark and strong-flavored drink we know today. At one time, the port of Mokha, Yemen was one of the most important in the industry.
Even though Mokhtar wasn't a big consumer of coffee, he was entranced by that story, and decided he would try to become a US importer of high-quality Yemeni coffee. But the industry was in a sad state in the war-torn country, and he had to not only learn about the coffee industry from square zero, but also how to navigate intense geopolitical issues.
In the midst of this story, Eggers also takes us through coffee's eclectic history as a commodity, and the rise of luxury coffees in the modern world, as exemplified most notably by the fast-growing Blue Bottle Coffee out of San Francisco. (I love Blue Bottle an am an occasional subscriber.)
This is a fascinating, absorbing story. I immediately made Yemeni coffee varieties a regular part of my roasting rotation.
The Monk of Mokha is a great, easy-reading book for a wide variety of readers. Even if you don't care much for coffee, I bet you'll be intrigued my Mokhtar's rags-to-not-quite-riches story. If anyone has truly captured the American Dream, it's him.
Thanks so much for the time and inbox space.