‘Coffee continues to provide everlasting fascination. As a subject of exploration, it has more plots, twists and turns than an ‘HBO box set’.
As a coffee roaster and Q-grader who learnt the trade in Wellington and London, I (rather foolishly) suspected that I would be stepping into the ‘café scene from the dark ages’ when deciding to move to the United Arab Emirates… I was wrong… Naively wrong.
The Gulf countries have taught me alot about coffee and about the things you can do with coffee that I for one had never heard of: did you know in some parts of Syria they like to put a tiny drop of a sperm whale’s stomach mucus into their brewed coffee? Or that in Saudi they stir in sap from the Mastic tree?
The Gulf’s fascination with coffee stretches well back into the bowels of history and it is thought that an Arabic philosopher wrote about coffee in 800 to 900 AD. Whilst some authorities claim that coffee originated from the Arabian Peninsula rather than Ethiopia, stating that coffee was cultivated in Yemen from around 575AD, it is more likely that coffee spread to Yemen through Sudanese slaves. These slaves are thought to have eaten coffee beans to help them stay alive as they rowed ships across the Red Sea between Africa and Arabian Peninsula.
By the 16th century Yemen was rapidly growing coffee and Mocha soon became one of the world’s primary exporters. Ethiopia and Yemen continued to enjoy extensive trade relations during medieval times, so much so that Yemen’s trade was stronger across the African Horn than with the surrounding Gulf countries: Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, UAE. Nowadays, Ethiopia still has a strong Yemeni heritage and strong trade relations with Saudi Arabia, partly due to the first Islamic migration from Saudi to Ethiopia.
You also cannot ignore the affects of religion on the coffee scene in the Middle East. As the Quran forbids Muslims from drinking alcohol, the stimulating effects of coffee continue to make it a popular substitute in Islamic countries for wine. The first coffeehouses are said to have been established in Makkah and were known as the Kaveh Kanes, they were public places where Muslims could socialize and discuss religious matters. The relationship between Islam and coffee has not always run smoothly, and for a period of time it was banned for being an intoxicant. However, by the late 16th Century, the use of coffee was widespread throughout the Arabia, North Africa and Turkey. Its nutritional benefits thought to be so great that it was considered as important as bread and water – so much so that a law was passed in Turkey making it grounds for divorce if a husband refused his wife coffee.
One thing is clear – I live in an area that has deep-rooted traditions of coffee. So, it’s a surprise when you see throughout the major cities an abundance of affection for the franchised coffee shop model where many people want to be seen sipping on a frappe. However, here in Dubai at least, things are rapidly changing. We are beginning to see the rise of the independent coffee shop and new wave roasters bringing fresh ideas and merging these with tradition and ceremony. Coffee shops are beginning to recognise the importance of investing in people, training and equipment. They are seeing the immediate benefits of spending money on good quality coffee from a local roaster. Meanwhile, the local roasters are having an unprecedented impact on the coffee scene by injecting passion whilst having fun too. In the last year, we have all seen a huge rise in the demand for speciality coffee and this healthy, sustainable industry has encouraged roasters to nurture the interest, trend and rising passion collectively as opposed to fostering an overarching competitiveness from working in isolation. The Sabado Coffee Club for example is a social club where coffees are tasted from all over the world. It’s an important and neutral territory for aficionados and curious people of all backgrounds, those looking for something alternative and of course those in the coffee trade to spend time digesting and learning amongst like-minded people. Local roasters are changing the face of coffee in the UAE, whilst providing a foothold for coffee geeks like me to feel a sense of home.
Every February is the Gulf Food Show and the coming together of all ‘coffee people’ in the MENASAT (Middle East, North Africa, South Asia and Turkey). The coffee scene in Dubai saw for the first time that roasters and coffee shops of Dubai all worked together on an SCAE (Speciality Coffee Association of Europe) stand, which was led by a programme of fantastic lectures, demonstrations and a brew bar. Since then, we have seen Easternmen open up a wonderful coffee museum on the creek; the UAE Aeropress championships; participants from the UAE coming third in the World Ibrik Competition and one year later Dubai played host to the world Ibrik competitions.
Whilst admittedly, the coffee scene is still burgeoning and behind the likes of London, New York, or Melbourne it is changing at an accelerated pace. In the context of a city of contradictions, rapidly changing urban landscape, myriad cultures and transiency are unprecedented opportunities to introduce new ideas, merge knowledge with concepts that respond to the place, the people and the city’s unique qualities. There is a sense that anything can be achieved in Dubai and coffee is no exception. You only have to look through the window of the one or two newer coffee shops in existence to know that the people living in Dubai are thirsty for independent social spaces that bring out the best of their city and that they can collectively call home.