How Dubai graduated from Starbucks to artisan coffee



The third wave of coffee culture is sweeping through the city

As evening sets, coffee aficionados at cafes like Raw Coffee Company, Stomping Grounds, The Grey, and Coffee Lab settle in to relish everything from Panama Geisha V60 to complicated brews, made from single-origin beans, meticulously-roasted in the cafes' own on-site roastery.

Over at the Saddle Cafe, located in a parking lot on al Wasl Road, things are just beginning to get busy. 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 enjoys their cortado while listening to Taylor Swift’s Fearless in their BMW 4 series convertible.

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.

It's official: The third wave of coffee culture is 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 speciality 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, managing partner 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 for sugar or any add-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 speciality 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 speciality coffee and casual dining with a "neighbourhood cafe" 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.

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 at 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 and 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.”

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