UAE's neighbourhood cafes driving quality of specialIty coffee
All coffee enthusiasts will agree with the fact that coffee has a global appeal.
Visit any part of the world and the coffee culture will be the first thing visible right from the airport to the tourist areas and from upscale hotels to the inner lanes of the city.
Owing to its universal popularity, a typical leisurely activity such as coffee drinking has emerged as a highly profitable and viable business in recent years. The demand for speciality coffee is on the rise due to growing awareness among consumers. More cafes are opening up, offering gourmet coffee to meet consumers' diverse caffeine demands.
Euromonitor's recent study indicates that consumers spend $85 billion on coffee globally with the Middle East's share at $6.4 billion or a significant 8 per cent of the total. What's more, the UAE presently spends $121 million on coffee - a figure that is set to grow by 35 per cent by 2020.
Going by the study, now is the most opportune time to enter into the coffee business, particularly into independent coffee shops that specialise in sustainably sourced, single-origin coffee. One such neighbourhood café is Sharjah-based 'Ratios', which was inaugurated in August this year to serve single-origin, speciality coffee to tourists, artists and visitors to the 'Heart of Sharjah.'
Khalid Faisal Al Qassemi, Vice Chairman of Al Qasimi Group and Owner of Ratios, said: "We opened Ratios to offer our guests perfectly brewed coffee unlike what is served in branded shops amidst a vibrant atmosphere and supported with exceptional customer service.
In just a short span of operation, we are proud of the popularity of the cafe. We do not have a bestseller as we make consistently high-quality coffee every time, whether milk-based or filtered."
Another popular speciality coffee house is The Espresso Lab located in the Hundred Wellness Centre in Dubai. It began operations with a focus on single-origin beans sourced directly from the world's finest coffee farms under the knowledge and professional skills of its Founder, Ibrahim Al Mallouhi, who has tremendous experience and expertise in every aspect of the coffee industry. The Espresso Lab is a member of the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA) and the Specialty Coffee Association of Europe (SCAE).
The neighbourhood cafe is the next big thing in the UAE's fast-expanding food and beverage (F&B) sector. Branches have opened up to offer connoisseurs not only a freshly brewed cup of coffee but also a whole lot of information such as the origin of the beans and the quality of the roast. Another responsibility of neighbourhood cafes is to educate coffee lovers about the fine art of coffee drinking by offering them gourmet coffee superior in taste over traditional coffee.
Al Mallouhi remarked that they have a goal to "increase awareness on speciality coffee among the UAE and GCC consumers." Aside from satisfying an informed guest, they have to compete with established and renowned brands such as Starbucks, Costa, Second Cup, Jamaica Blue, and Tim Hortons to lure more consumers who can swear by gourmet coffee.
"Our membership in international coffee organisations is the starting point of our core values for maintaining basic standards and developing them further to create great coffees. At The Espresso Lab, guests are enthralled by the overall experience and the element best appreciated by our consumers is that all our coffee is served without sugar, as it is naturally sweet. As for our bestseller, it is our signature 'Gibraltar' drink," pointed Al Mallouhi.
So what are these speciality coffee shops doing to ensure their coffee is not just different but better than those of branded outlets? The key is their focus on single-origin beans, style of roasting, freshness of roasted beans, and equipment, all in that order.
First and foremost is to procure the world's best beans, second is to lightly roast in small batches to retain freshness, and lastly ensure that the beans are consumed within two to four weeks of roasting. Al Qassemi explained: "We source only the best coffee beans from around the world and get them roasted by Specialty Batch Coffee in Dubai."
Al Mallouhi said: "We believe that coffee and its evolving traditions are a ritual of modern life and at The Espresso Lab, we labour to evoke the magic of the truly complex and mysterious nature of coffee beans. We have committed to work directly with international speciality coffee providers and sustainable farms to make a positive impact in the communities we serve by sourcing the greatest handcrafted coffee beans directly from the farmers."
Along with this, training of baristas is equally important as they are the face of the coffee shop. "Our baristas are highly trained and adept at all types of brewing procedures and serve the same coffee every time," remarked Al Qassemi. Al Mallouhi, on the other hand, stated: "Aside from being specially trained, our baristas are members of SCAA and SCAE."
Coffee exhibits complexity similar to that of wine, chocolate, cheese, and olive oil and proper training enables baristas to acquire competency in making speciality coffee. Moreover, they should be skilled to operate the latest equipment to brew the perfect cup that has the right blend of water, coffee and milk.
Al Qassemi said: "Ratios thrives to serve only the best coffee in the UAE. Our coffee, which comes in different varieties, are of the highest grade, and we remain fully committed towards maintaining this standard of excellence for our clients."
"We want our customers to have a Michelin-star restaurant experience when they walk into The Espresso Lab and for this reason we constantly strive to upgrade and improve our quality. We are the only cafe in the UAE to serve micro-lot coffee, which is very expensive, but is known as the 'cream of the crop.' In the near future, we plan to open a boutique micro roaster to cater to the upcoming demand for speciality coffee in the country," concluded Al Mallouhi.