Market Reports

Exploring Dubai’s coffee culture ahead of the International Coffee & Tea Festival

In looking to promote specialty coffee in the iconic city of Dubai, in United Arab Emirates, Ryan Godinho finds himself on the edge of two worlds. Traditionally, coffee is nothing new to the region. The Middle East has an established traditional coffee culture: roasting beans on open flames in an almost ceremonial style, grinding them by hand, and mixing them with spices in the final drink. As Special Events Coordinator for World Coffee Events’ UAE National Body, however, Godinho has focused on seeing the evolution from this traditional space to a more international and diversified service of coffee. His interest lies in the world of espresso-based and filter coffees, high-grade beans, and essentially everything that specialty coffee stands for. Fortunately, he’s found himself in the lucrative Dubai market, one that is not only brimming with wealth and diversity in culture, but also has a highly receptive crowd to anything that is trending in the food and beverage industry. “Espresso has gained a lot of popularity here, with a vast number of big brand names and Western franchises,” he says. “The groundwork here is all set for the rise of specialty coffee.” Despite a traditional coffee culture, Godinho says it’s safe to say that espresso is by far the most popular way to drink coffee. He says cappuccinos, lattes, and mochas are the top three favourite drinks. A local sweet  tooth enjoys chocolate and caramel flavours and with a warm climate, frozen drinks topped with whipped cream go down well. In the last few years, however, Godinho has even seen people beginning to experiment with drip coffee. “But it’s a slow process – in two ways,” he says. “Drip coffee is literally slower to make and doesn’t lend well to staff-time efficiency and the takeaway service. Also, it’s taking a while to catch on.” One interesting trend is camel milk. More than just a novelty, camel milk offers many health benefits as it’s higher in protein, and lower in fat than cow’s milk. However, because camel milk is quite potent when heated up, Godinho says that most cafés add flavours like cinnamon and caramel to balance the taste. A preference for flavoured lattes is a strong sign of US coffee giant Starbucks’ influence. Indeed, the company has well over 100 coffee shops in the country. Godinho says Starbucks did a good job of introducing the American-style branded coffee house, a trend that’s been followed by other chains. “Since the introduction of a first major coffee franchise in 1997, Dubai has been built around branded coffee chains,” says Godinho. “It’s been quite a rapid expansion.” Fortunately, what Starbucks and Costa Coffee didn’t have to do was introduce an out-of-home coffee drinking culture. As elsewhere in the Middle East, the population is naturally sociable, with alcohol consumption typically limited to weekends for most expatriates – the perfect setting for coffee shop success. “Meeting up outside of the home is culturally what the UAE is built on,” he says. “There are plenty of clubs and bars, but mostly coffee houses fill that role. Many are open past midnight where people usually like to congregate after work. It’s very common to see people sitting in coffee houses late into the night, sipping on lattes and cappuccinos.” Godinho says that he is working to encourage the evolution of this branded coffee shop culture into the next level of specialty coffee service.  He compares the current situation similar to the United States’ early uptake of espresso-based drinks. “Branded coffee shops are great for getting people ready for Third Wave coffee,” he says. “I think that’s what is happening here now. We’re seeing people who used to manage franchises setting up their own neighbourhood shops. The costs are less than licensing from a franchise, and they can add value and a unique identity to their business. I would say specialty coffee is currently at its embryonic stage in the region.” Godinho says more work needs to be done to educate consumers and the industry, in the form of awareness that can be driven by the set up of a formal specialty coffee association in the region, for example. Although Dubai may be known for its wealth, he says it’s not the economy that will drive coffee consumption here, but rather education and consumer awareness. “Dubai is known as being a tax-free zone, and people see a lot of potential to make money here. There certainly are a lot of affluent people here,” he says. “But the driving factors to the growing coffee consumption are more cultural than economical.” Taking it further, Godinho says geographical and logistical factors should eventually help Dubai sustain itself as the regional hub for coffee trade and distribution. He says the vast majority of coffee is currently being imported as roasted for the major chains. In a country with more than 9 million people, he says only around five Western-style roasters operate in the UAE. A prominent limitation, he says, has been the challenge of importing quality green coffee and awareness of the advantages of freshly roasted coffee. “There’s a lot of room for the improvement of quality, but that has to be driven by competition,” he says. “Imagine only having five roasters in such a densely populated country.” Introduction to Coffee Roasting Techniques will form just one of the many workshops Godinho has lined up in the educational offering at the upcoming International Coffee and Tea Festival, taking place from 12 to 14 November at the Meydan Gallery. This is the sixth edition of the only internationally-recognised trade event focused exclusively on coffee and tea in the Middle East. Last year, the event welcomed over 6500 visitors from 20 countries. This will be the sixth year that the event will incorporate the educational workshops, in partnership with the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA). The event will host the UAE Barista Championship and UAE Latte Art Championship. The event will also host a WCE All- Stars event, where past world barista champions discuss their experience, share their knowledge, and work through a fun and interactive schedule of activities. Interestingly enough, the event will come full circle in terms of coffee culture, as it hosts for the first time a national Ibrik competition. Godinho says it’s a great opportunity to bring the old in with the new, and reconcile the two worlds he’s been straddling. “People who make Ibrik don’t really know much about competing  in a coffee challenge or even specialty coffee for that matter,” he says. “This is a great chance to get them involved in ‘the evolution of coffee.” International Coffee & Tea Festival 12 – 14 November 2014, Meydan Gallery

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