Dubai is a city where things develop at a relentless pace. In the time it takes for a sandstorm to mercifully blow out to sea, it seems as if whole new buildings appear where once there was only desert. New city blocks and suburban oases are constantly rising up out of the sand to be filled by an ever-increasing population of expats seeking a new life and fortune in this thriving Middle Eastern metropolis. What do this international community, plus discerning local Emiratis, do however when it comes to staying caffeinated? Travelling to Dubai recently for the first time in three years, I was happily surprised to find that the answer to that question is starting to change and, in typical Dubai style, it’s changing fast!
On my previous travels through Dubai, it was impossible to avoid the trappings of the commercial coffee world and international coffee chains should you wish to stave off caffeine deprivation. It was dark roasted, low quality large beverages — or be damned. Three years on, I can report that this sprawling city is finally waking up to the difference specialty coffee, quality equipment and passionate baristas can make to the coffee experience. While they’re certainly not yet in the specialty-as-the-new-mainstream world we enjoy in Melbourne, I thought I’d report on some of these oases of delicious coffee for anyone passing through this international travel hubs.
Making waves as a roaster and developer of barista talent in Dubai, Specialty Batch Coffee Roasters are bringing in some high quality, small lot coffees and supplying select, quality-focussed cafes. Owner Ryan Godinho and his family have long been working with baristas through the annual UAE Coffee Championships and bringing to the Emirates the valuable resource of SCAA training courses. More recently, Ryan has also been importing some excellent coffees and learning the art of roasting them to perfection, whilst also building a new café/roastery to call home. Creating a community of skilled coffee professionals is still very much key for Specialty Batch and this will soon reach its ultimate conclusion with the opening of Stomping Grounds. This comprehensive café location will sport some serious coffee gear including a 2 group Synesso, Marco Uber boiler and even that showiest of filter brewers, the Steampunk, alongside a full à la carte menu of brunch classics. As well as hosting a permanent team of skilled baristas, this space will include a training school and offer vital training opportunities for the increasingly in-demand, specialty focussed coffee recruits.
Fittingly, Specialty Batch supplied two of the café gems I was lucky enough to visit in the area. Actually, in the Emirate of Sharjah (which neighbours Dubai to the north), there is a fantastic espresso bar named Ratios. This brilliant little café is located in the historic area of Sharjah and serves up a variety of select specialty coffees across a range of hot and cold brew methods. It was great to see their concentration on matching the coffees with the most suitable brew method rather than just serving any coffee, any way. Here I enjoyed a Colombian long black from their 2 group Synesso Hydra, an iced V60 of a Costa Rican Red Honey plus a Chemex of Kenyan goodness. Travelling with some friends who boast many years of serious coffee cred, we were all super impressed with the level of personal service these guys provided alongside some damn fine brewing skills. Group photos abounded before we left and we’ll all surely make the effort to visit this crew down in Sharjah again.
Perhaps the most serious coffee geek I met in Dubai also happens to own one of the city’s most celebrated cafés. Ibrahim Hamza Al Mallouhi opened his Espresso Lab location with a very personal drive to serve the very best coffees the specialty world has to offer. Sharing a space with The Hundred Wellness Centre, this place is first and foremost an espresso bar concentrating on fine espresso and brewed coffees. Ibrahim rocks a 2 group Synesso Hydra, Anfim grinders and an array of hot and cold brew gear. Whilst there is a small food menu, coffee is the star attraction featuring nothing short of the Panama Esmerelda Geisha Special which Ibrahim shared with us as a V60. This very exclusive, very delicious and yes, very expensive coffee really sums up the pride and passion this café has to serve some of the very best coffees the specialty world has to offer. This beauty was sourced specifically by the café, and the array of other great coffees Espresso Lab has on offer are roasted by Ryan at Specialty Batch.
Judging the UAE Barista Championships this year, I saw a further demonstration of Ibrahim and his team of baristas’ skill and dedication. Ibrahim stepped up to join the sensory judging team adding both his undoubted sensory palate, but also a touch of suitable local tradition and attire to the proceedings by sitting on the panel wearing formal dishdash (robes). Respect. The UAE Barista Champion for 2016 was in fact Espresso Lab barista Lyndon Recera, serving a Kenyan micro lot which was again roasted by Ryan. His winning performance was testament to twelve months of hard work, practice and passion. A trip to Kenya prior to the world finals to get to know his producers further is in the offing for both Lynden and Ibrahim.
Representing roasted coffees from the wider world of specialty coffee, Café Rider is home to last year’s UAE Barista Champion and this year’s Sensory Judge, Dmitriy Griekhov. Café Rider is both a specialty café and a custom motorcycle shop, featuring some awesome equipment for both brewing coffee and getting your inner Easy Rider on. Bikes in various states of repair from scrap to fully restored beauties share the limelight with a pretty sweet Kees 2 Group Spirit and a recently restored, manual lever Faema. Not yet a year old, this business has really taken off with the expat coffee community and, despite the expensive bikes, it’s a child friendly haven from the heat. The coffee menu constantly rotates and is very much emblematic of Dubai as an international hub. Many of the coffees on offer are sourced during Rider’s friends and family’s travels or they’re flown in from the four corners of the specialty world accompanied by select local roasters. On this visit, I was lucky enough to share both a Costa and a Guatemala roasted by Sightglass of San Francisco, plus a locally roasted Ethiopia Sidama Guji by Jibena. Check out the event being run by Café Rider in December for an example of how the worlds of coffee and motorbikes collide in the coolest way — Caffeine Cruise – The Road to Jais.
Often when sizing up a café elsewhere in the world, Victorians can be heard labelling it as “Melbourne Style” and I have to admit that The Sum of Us came similarly described. This accurate comparison implies reference to the large, bright, clean modern temples to both specialty coffee and quality brunch which have become intrinsic to our own café culture. Dubai has become devoted to the brunch ideal, with the local TimeOut Magazine food listings being dominated by the section recommending day time breakfast/lunching. Riding this boom logically is specialty coffee, and The Sum of Us encapsulates this emphatic rise perfectly. The second instalment in what is currently a group of three like-minded cafes, (apparently five more venues are on the horizon — things happen fast here), The Sum of Us is a large, two-story café which is also home to an artisan bakery and micro coffee roastery. Coffee is sourced by local roasters, Raw Coffee, but roasted in house on two twin 5kg roasters. The fit out is indeed “very Melbourne” with lots of white tile and scandi timber offset by greenery. Impressed by the scale of the first floor, upon venturing upstairs I was amazed to find a second fully formed café space, espresso machine and brew bar. This very busy site is home to a pretty substantial amount of industry leading equipment whether it be extracting or brewing. I counted three La Marzocco espresso machines, two Marco Uber fonts, a Marco Jet Brewer and, of course, an EK43 grinder. Regular cuppings are held in the café’s cupping lab/retail space and there was a constant stream of curious noses pressed against the glass of their open roasting space. This café, along with its sister sites Tom & Serge and Common Grounds, is very much establishing a new model for specialty cafes in the UAE and it’s no surprise to see them proving so popular.
So while as recently as three years ago there was a complete drought of top quality cafes, the specialty coffee floodwaters have well and truly broken in the UAE. I expect to see this third wave grow at a typically outlandish pace in Dubai especially, and very much look forward to visiting this new specialty coffee territory in the future.