Coffee isn’t new to the Middle East. If anything, it is one of the oldest still-in-practice traditions of the region, with its origins traceable to 15th century Yemen. In fact, even the English word coffee owes its roots to the Arabic “qahwa” with various incarnations in between, via Turkey and Greece.
But what is new is the burgeoning interest in specialty coffee in the Middle East, particularly Dubai which has seen a real spurt in both interest and availability of specialty coffees in recent years.
According to Orit Mohammed, founder of Boon coffee, a specialty Ethiopian coffee supplier, “a few years ago, people just weren’t aware about specialty coffees, and preferred mainstream brands they were familiar with.”
“It’s only in the last two years that the interest has really grown, and especially in 2016, we’ve seen the maximum shift in dynamic,” she said.
Emirati entrepreneur Ibrahim al-Mallouhi, who founded artisanal coffee shop and roastery The Espresso Lab in 2015 after a decade of personally researching and studying coffee culture, agrees, saying, “there was a real hunger in people seeking out independent coffee houses. In the past one year alone we’ve seen around ten specialty coffee places open up in Dubai.”
While specialty coffee as a trend has been gaining traction globally for several years, whether it’s in Melbourne or Portland or classic coffee drinking nations such as France and Italy, clearly Dubai is now catching on.
The movement is known among industry insiders as “the third wave” - the first wave being coffee coming into the mainstream between the 1800s and 1900s, with the innovation of instant coffee being a key trigger; and the second wave being the phenomenon of coffee shops that started in the 20th century.
In part, this may be because of the growing interest among people in understanding where their food (or in this case, beverage) is coming from.
“People have started asking questions, and more importantly, when they try coffee that isn’t mass produced or destroyed through over-roasting, they can taste the difference,” says Orit.
Which brings us to what exactly can be classified as specialty coffees. While terms like “cold brews” and “single origin” may have replaced “lattes” and “mochas” in popular lingua franca, in the strictest sense, specialty coffee can be defined as coffee that has a certain grade (80 or higher) on a globally recognized scale. Typically, these coffees are grown in optimum conditions, both geographically and in terms of climate, and have a distinctive taste that can vary from batch to batch. The real connoisseurs should be looking out for a 90+ grading (known as Cup of Excellence) that are usually bought on auction in micro lots or nano lots.
Specialty coffees are usually produced in small batches, rather than being commercially mass-produced and are best enjoyed freshly roasted (most roastmasters’ tip is to go for medium roast, as it maximizes the flavor of each bean, although it depends on individual taste in the end).
In short, specialty coffees are treated with the respect reserved for gourmet produce, from crop to cup, and brewed and served using craft techniques.
The increasing availability of locally based roasters and cafes offering artisanal coffee means that for the consumer, this translates not only into more choice of a higher quality product, but also an insight into its provenance – an understanding of where the coffee comes from, its sustainability credentials and its unique taste profiles.
Surprisingly, a high quality cup of coffee doesn’t have to cost the earth, with the price of a specialty espresso being only marginally higher than that of global coffee chains. Now, that’s something we can drink to!