Editor’s Note: This article was updated September 15th, 2022. In an interview, Royal Co-founder Bob Fulmer was once asked, “If you were to die and come back as a drink, what drink would you be?” He responded, “Yemen Mocca Sanani, roasted full city, made fresh and strong.” You can check out our recent Yemen cupping adventure here.
Yemen Mocca Sanani: Bob’s Salient Travelogue by Bob Fulmer
In what seems like a lifetime ago, I got a call from a watermelon seed salesman from Modesto who wanted to know if I was looking to buy coffee from Yemen. He said he had a good customer there, who needed to sell coffee here, to finance seeds to sell there.
Prior to 1989 we did not see much Yemeni coffee. What little there might have been was difficult to come by. For economic and political reasons, there existed a quota system, enforced by U.S. Customs. Nearly all producing countries were members of the International Coffee Organization. There were a handful of producers who were not members, and this non-member rogue group included Yemen. As a concession to these non-members, once a year the ICO opened a very short and unpredictable window, where importers could apply for “basket quota”, which if obtained, would allow some of this non-member coffee to be imported. It was not uncommon for would- be, non-member coffee importers not to get any quotas at all, and that was not so good for them. Absent quota, the coffee would remain in lockdown, imprisoned in bonded warehouses another year. If the prospect of having expensive coffee tied up in customs held for years was not workable, another option was to find a buyer in a non-member country, such as Russia. These non-member consuming countries were not known for paying up, especially for true specialty coffee.
As you can see, importing Yemen was a very bad bet, and this is why it was very rarely available. And even when some was available, the quality was dicey and suspect, and the price? Forget about it.
In 1989 the Cold War was considered at an end, and so was the need for the ICO the quota system. In July of that year member nations voted to end quotas, and with that action, a major obstruction to buying from Yemen was out of the way.
It was around this time that the melon man from Modesto introduced me, via telex machine, to Mr. Abdulmajeen Muslot, of the firm Ali Hiba Muslot and Sons. Not long after, as promised, a sample of Yemen Sanani Mocca arrived which, for me, and many of Royal’s customers, expanded the range of what was possible to taste in coffee. To this day, all things being equal, given a choice of every origin supplying their best coffee, with a gun to my head, and having to pick only one to drink forever, Yemen Mocca Sanani would be my choice.
I have some interesting stories; I could go on and on. But since many of them have been told in early Royal Newsletters… by the way, the first ever Royal Newsletter, maybe the first of its kind in the coffee industry, travel writing that chronicled origin adventures… was written in Hodeida while watching an old black and white T.V. The president of Yemen was giving a 72 hour speech which I found oddly comforting even though I could not understand a word. My friend and fellow co-founder of Royal Coffee, the late great Pete McLaughlin, was delirious with a fever, and there was not much to do. Even alcohol was off the table, being more or less illegal. And we had already explored the one and only attraction in town that the nice man at the front desk could think of recommending when we asked what was good to do or see in Hodeida. I sensed his genuine disappointment for us upon his finding that we had indeed already experienced the fish market.
Being the sole interesting local attraction, Muslot had of course shown it to us shortly after picking us up at the Hodeida airport in an old Dodge Duster on a 100 degree morning. He had taken us to a bunker where a door rolled up to release the most fragrant, wonderful green coffee aroma that was so good that we told Muslot there was no need to go further; most certainly yes, for sure yes, we can, right now, without waiting to get home and cup, approve this! And then, he being a man of few English words, rightly concluded that our business was, after spending all of 45 minutes together, confirmed and complete. Ten fascinating minutes at the fish market, complete with a shore side view of the Red Sea, back to the hotel, goodbye, thanks for coming, no, we’re sorry, no more flights out for three days, have a safe trip, etc.
So we had our first Yemen shipment. And I had two days with little to do in 115 degree Hodeida except to scribble some thoughts, which Pete, upon regaining consciousness, suggested we send out to our customers as our first ever newsletter.
Through the years, Mr. Muslot and I have relied upon sparse and concise communications. I think we have both understood each other without having to belabor the point. He would call, ask about Helen and Max, say a bunch of stuff in Arabic, in which I kind of heard a price, and to which I would usually agree, and then, great coffee would show up.
Muslot visited us here few times. One time, Pete suggested to Mohamed, Muslot’s travel companion and banker friend, that he get a massage at the Claremont Hotel. Mohamed rather emphatically dismissed that suggestion with “if I want a massage, I’ll massage myself!” But my favorite memory was watching Muslot and Mohamed go on a joyful, three-cart shopping spree at the Emeryville Toys R Us.
We can wish that someday we humans get along without war… air strikes… bombs… all that crap, and allow innocent people to go about their business and kids to play with Toys R Us toys.
There has been too long a break since we’ve been able to get any Mocca Yemen Sanani. But Mr. Muslot recently called, and if I understood correctly, I think I’ve bought some. The last thing I told him on the phone which, by his laugh, I am fairly sure he understood was “you don’t worry about the money, and I won’t worry about the coffee”. Since DHL closed their office in Sanaa some time ago, we have not bothered with pre shipment samples. I am not worried.