Hello, Dubai: How’s Your Coffee Scene?
Coffee is one of those universal beauties. No matter where you’re from, what your background is – or even if you don’t particularly enjoy coffee – I’m sure we can all appreciate what the coffee industry has become, considering where it all started.
It’s not limited to a quick drive-thru, sugar and milk laced and haphazardly constructed concoction any more, nor is it reserved for the elite who drink it from golden chalices in lieu of ceremony.
No, coffee is that universal ingredient that can make sublime drinks, is used as a tool to start conversations, to help end them; coffee is a medium, a medicine and a master.
We were lucky enough to catch up with a South African Barista living abroad in Dubai. He embarked on a coffee adventure earlier in 2017, with a mandate to get on over to the UAE and help start up a speciality coffee shop. He’s shared some insightful knowledge, gained first hand living in and amongst the hubbub, and it’s quite interesting to note what he’s observed.
Arno Q. Els
I recently moved to Dubai to help open a speciality coffee café and roastery. At first glance the general vibe is the same as South Africa when it comes to coffee. Everyone makes espresso based drinks with a reasonable amount of skill. And most places have an impressive brew bar. You might even feel inclined to think: “coffee shmofee, its the same thing everywhere”. But the truth is coffee culture is very different in Dubai. Let’s dissect this in a few digestible sections:
Ahh boo let’s start with what’s wrong because bad news sells. Instagram in Dubai is massive. So much so that people who visit a café for the first time will get their first drink in a takeaway cup. Even if they’re sitting down, they do it for the gram. this influences how people might order and has a pronounced impact on presentation and branding. It’s not unknown for someone to say “I saw a drink that looked like so and so on so and so’s Instagram story and I’d like to try that.”
As a result, drinks that aren’t considered “speciality coffee” quickly become a best seller. I must add that this applies to the casual coffee consumer, the bulk of any establishments turnover -i.e. the person who orders the single shot low fat latte on their way to yoga (I’m talking to you Cape Town).
But in Dubai, due to the heat, you’ll find people queuing for an iced latte or a Spanish iced latte as their staple. In Dubai a Spanish iced latte is a dollop of condensed milk mixed in with espresso, ice cubes, and topped up with milk. To put it into perspective, as a South African Barista, imagine the frustration of receiving an order for 5 lattes. Now multiply how long it takes to make those by 2 and then multiply the frustration by 4.
Most café’s here are very well thought out and aesthetically perfect. The Barista’s in what can be considered 3rd wave cafés do their utmost to extract perfection. Unfortunately most places roast a touch too dark and you can expect a hint of ash and sadness in most coffees. This doesn’t mean all hope is lost. Drop Dubai (shameless self promotion) are getting the best possible coffees and roasting it to an international standard of excellence. Other places that are doing great things include Mhoka and Cafe Rider, both of which are a slice of European café culture.
For all it’s sweet and iced milky drinks, Dubai coffee culture has many redeeming factors. One, and this one is really important to me, is the amount of black-coffee connoisseurs. And I’m not talking about just any old Americano. People are ordering V60s and Chemex’s in the numbers. In South Africa a very generous estimate would be to say 5% of café coffee sales is espresso and brew bar based. While the lattes, flat whites, and cortados get pumped out at a phenomenal rate. Dubai’s local coffee consumer drinks predominantly Piccolos, Single espressos or brew bar drinks. It’s also not unnatural for someone to try an espresso of each coffee on offer. This, I believe, is also responsible for the preference of single shot espressos in Dubai. I’ve tried offering double shots but often face the reply “No thanks, I’ll be drinking a lot of coffee tonight”. Yes, tonight. Our café is busiest from 10pm onward. It’s a strange sensation to work in bar at night that does not serve alcohol. Whereas cafés in SA generally opt to close at 5pm or 6pm, just in time to crack a cold one with the boys, in Dubai that’s when the café-scene really comes alive.
The consumer here is also a lot more interested in learning about the coffee and why it is what it is. We have the pleasure of talking about our coffees on offer more often. And it is easier here to suggest a better way of appreciating a coffee. In short – Dubai wants to drink good coffee and learn how to enjoy it even better. This is an appreciated surprise as in SA it can prove challenging to talk about why we don’t recommend sugar or why water is a better milk alternative than soy. In fact the trust invested in the Barista here is very warm and it’s hard to think back to being called a “barister” or a “coffee maker”. On a serious note, the level of respect for coffee professionals is very encouraging. But this also means the industry is a lot more competitive in terms of coffee knowledge and professionalism. I consider it a good thing as it pushes everyone to learn more, grow more, and showcase more.
Equipment, equipment, equipment!! When I first moved here I spent a week trying to keep my jaw from falling off at every spectacular car I saw. Now I hardly notice them “ugh another Aston Martin” and the same goes for equipment. This city is rife with phenomenal equipment. Most of which has been customised to fit a visual narrative. Synesso, Black and White eagles, Spirits, and don’t even get me started on the grinders… and this is just looking at restaurants serving average coffee. Of course there is spending power and it makes creating a great café all the more achievable. But any café is an empty shell without the coveted Barista and his/her personality.
The Gray Areas
Depending on who you ask, there is a lot to say about the personalities captaining the machine behind a bar. For me, and I expect flack for this, I would rather get an average coffee from a great personality than a great coffee from an average personality. The people make the place. A lot of cafés have Baristas that are good at what they do, but a conversation is like trying to kick-start a dead horse. It makes me miss the warmth of the SA service industry. Some places, like ourselves, have opted for recruiting the most interesting people they could find from all over the world. This has meant that some cafés which are on the same level of quality as other have become more popular because people want to go get a coffee from their friend, the Barista.
Something that has been frustrating is the different recipes for age old drinks. Sometimes cup sizes are completely skewed, milk to coffee ratios are a mess, and there is often a general disconnect between my idea of a flat white and someone else’s. How big a problem this is, I can’t be sure. Moving from a purest Durban coffee company (where every drink was very precise and factually correct) to the Godfather of SA speciality coffee in Cape town (where every drink was slightly adjusted and ratios were modified) was vastly frustrating at first. But turns out I preferred the latter’s method once I gave it a chance. Giving something a chance should be the key element in this paragraph.
Dubai coffee culture is reminiscent of SA coffee culture in 2012. But, and it hurts me to say, Dubai more willing to learn as a consumer, more discerning when it comes to beverage choice, and more sophisticated in communicating with its Baristas.
The coffee can be roasted better and I believe we’re on the cusp of doing just that and making it the norm.
Dubai, as everywhere else, has it’s pros and cons. And when we look at the coffee, of course, you’re spoiled for choice. It’s a city of almost 2.8 million people – 90% of which are expats. You’re often gonna have a hard time getting on the same page. But that’s the beauty of it. As a coffee person I have never questioned every part of what I know and do as much as I have in Dubai. and I’ve never had what I know and do questioned as much either. It makes for very necessary progress in a still underexposed industry.
I can’t really say the coffee culture here is better or worse in Dubai. It’s different. Where would I rather order a cup of coffee? South Africa for sure. Where would I rather make a cup of coffee for a stranger. Dubai. I guess it depends on which end of the coffee stick you find yourself – as well as what you look for out of your caffeine related experience.
One thing is for certain and that is no matter where you go, coffee brings everyone together.
This article was written by Arno Q. Els, currently living in Dubai.
All views expressed are that of the writer, not endorsed by Aquaspresso or the publisher.
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