Third wave of coffee sweeps Dubai

How the city graduated from Starbucks to artisan coffee in a matter of years


Mazhar Farooqui

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Published: Sat 13 Aug 2022, 11:19 PM

Ahmed Shafi rolls down the window of his SUV as the barista hands the Emirati a piccolo latte — two ristretto shots topped up with steamed almond milk and served in a 90ml cup. Next to his Nissan Patrol, a European couple enjoy their cortado while listening to Taylor Swift’s Fearless in their BMW 4 series convertible.

It’s 7pm and the Saddle Café located in a parking lot on Al Wasl Road is just beginning to get busy. The scene at Nostalgia Café on Al Thanya street is no different as cars queue up outside.

By late evening, baristas at both places have their hands full as they rush from one car to another to take or deliver orders.

Elsewhere at The Grey, Raw Coffee Company, Stomping Grounds, and Coffee Lab, coffee- aficionados relish everything from Panama Geisha V60 to complicated brews, made from single-origin beans, meticulously roasted in the café’s own on-site roastery.

Welcome to the world of the third wave of coffee culture sweeping through Dubai.

What is the third wave of coffee?

For the uninitiated, third wave coffee, or the coffee renaissance, is a movement that views coffee as an artisan beverage instead of a commodity, focusing on the subtleties of flavour, origin and brewing techniques.

The term was coined in 2002 but gained traction in Dubai in 2010 before spreading like wildfire.

That would explain the sudden proliferation of specialty coffee shops and homegrown cafes in the city. Seven food establishments open in the Emirate every two days. An overwhelming majority are cafes.

Humble origins

Curiously, the third wave coffee movement in Dubai began in a modest 40-foot shipping container at Dubai Garden Centre in 2007 when New Zealanders Kim Thomson and Matt Toogood started using the storage box to roast high quality green beans sourced from sustainable farms around the world.

The concept was an instant hit.

“We were doing average business, but we stood out in the market because of what we offered to customers,” recalls Toogood, who is now the CEO and owner of Dubai’s original urban roaster, the Raw Coffee Company, in Al Quoz.

Discerning customers

He reckons the surge in independent coffee shops in Dubai has made customers more aware of where their coffee beans come from.

“More people today care about what they consume and how it could affect them. We also have the opportunity to educate them about ethical sourcing,” he says.

Ryan Godinho, owner at Stomping Grounds, a family-owned Australian-style cafe in Jumeirah frequented by Dubai royals, says they noticed a gradual shift from mainstream commercial brands and franchise models to artisanal small batch single origins, in the early stages of the third wave movement in 2012.

“As more and more coffee drinkers realised that black coffee does not need to taste bitter, that coffee can be more nuanced and can be thoroughly enjoyed without the need of sugar or any ad-ons; the journey of genuine coffee appreciation started,” says Godinho.

“People became aware of a well-crafted coffee, and as more roasters and cafes popped up, there was a wider spread of knowledge and expertise. This led to an increase in specialty coffee awareness and a rise in customer expectations,” he explains.

In 2015, Godinho set up a Specialty Coffee Association (SCA)-certified coffee training campus in Dubai, which eventually evolved into the Stomping Grounds Café.

“We wanted to introduce a better overall experience of specialty coffee and casual dining with a ‘neighbourhood café’ feel to a market, which at the time had mostly commercial/franchise model cafes,” Godinho recalls.

The coffees served at Stomping Grounds are all premium single origin, sourced from around the world and roasted locally. “We offer at least two to three single origins on rotation besides exclusive Gesha coffees, which are trending here,” says Godinho.

Both Toodgood and Godinho feel coffee education and awareness is critical to the growth of coffee sales within the ever-growing retail space.

“Educating consumers on coffee is still pretty much what motivates us even now,” says Godinho.

Ahmed Bin Sulayem, executive chairman and CEO of Dubai Multi Commodities Centre (DMCC), which runs the sprawling DMCC Coffee Centre in Jebel Ali says increased focus on consumer education and service will be key elements for a café’s success during the third coffee wave.

Bin Sulayem plans to increase the coffee centre’s capacity threefold, with an eventual goal of processing 20,000 tonnes of green coffee worth over Dh360 million. (See interview)

According to Toogood, the popularity of gourmet coffee has prompted even big coffee chains to improve quality in a bid to retain customers.

Dubai’s coffee landscape has evolved significantly since Starbucks opened its first cafe in City Centre Deira way back in 2000. Today, there are over 100 Starbucks outlets in Dubai and the numbers keep growing.

Andy Holmes, president of Starbucks MENA at Shaya Group says the UAE’s love for coffee is one of the main drivers of their expansion in the region.

“One thing’s for sure, people in the UAE love coffee. The UAE is amongst the most sophisticated and developed coffee markets in the region, so we foresee an approximate annual five per cent increase in consumption. We aim to serve over 30 million cups by the end of the year with a growing number being attributed to our home delivery service,” says Holmes.

Price factor

Commercial blends are yet to feel threatened by speciality coffee, which costs up to Dh35 for just one cup.

Godinho says price conscious customers always have a subjective threshold.

“We cannot generalise or determine the extent at which the value of an item is regarded and justified. For the most part, it would seem logical that value for money would be associated primarily with the overall sensory experience. So, at the end of the day, if a coffee is ethically sourced and still of high quality then there is greater chance for acceptance and appreciation.”

‘Coffee consumers in Dubai are perhaps more knowledgeable than elsewhere’

Khaleej Times caught up with self-confessed coffee aficionado Ahmed Bin Sulayem, executive chairman and CEO of DMCC who is championing specialty coffee and positioning Dubai as the hub for global coffee trade through the DMCC Coffee Centre. Excerpts from an interview.

How has the third wave of coffee changed Dubai’s coffee landscape?

Dubai has a rich, vibrant history with coffee, with the beverage being intertwined with the emirate’s culture of warm hospitality.

As such, consumers in Dubai are perhaps more knowledgeable than those in other markets; they can truly appreciate a quality product. This translates to coffee shops offering high-quality, single-origin specialty coffee increasing in popularity as consumers develop a preference for particular flavour profiles.

Meanwhile, we are seeing an emergence of world class baristas in the region. The story-telling element of the third wave of coffee also resonates well with Dubai’s consumers. Simultaneously, the demand is further increasing as people become more in tune with the positive social impact that specialty coffee often provides. Sustainability is a major deciding factor for many consumers, and the third wave’s story-telling can emphasise this positive impact.

Each of these elements are key drivers behind the operations of the DMCC Coffee Centre. Our core roasting, warehousing and packaging solutions are backed-up by additional offerings such as our barista training facility, meaning we support the entire coffee industry from crop to cup. We are bringing the world’s finest varieties of coffee to Dubai

The DMCC Coffee Centre also plays a key role in supporting coffee shops across the UAE and beyond, primarily through the provision of roasting and specialised services. By using our facilities and expertise, over 20 speciality coffee concepts across the country are able to offer a unique product to their customers.

We also host a range of barista competitions to further support the coffee ecosystem in Dubai.

What’s next for the coffee industry in Dubai?

The third wave will continue to have a major influence on Dubai’s coffee scene across multiple aspects of the sector.

One that I am particularly interested in is the innovative ways in which Dubai’s coffee entrepreneurs can bring high-quality coffee to the home of consumers.

Separately, through the work of the DMCC Coffee Centre in connecting with a diverse range of producers across the world, Dubai’s consumers can also expect a greater range of coffee origins to be made available to them.

Many of our members are importing premium specialty coffee direct from the origin farms from across the world. Additionally, we regularly hold coffee auctions with a vast range of specialty coffee varieties on offer.

Each of these efforts are key for consumers looking to find the right bean, roasting and brewing combination that creates their perfect cup of coffee.

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