Independent roasters and cafes blossom in UAE

New businesses are springing up to cash in on the nation's love affair with coffee.

Martin Peel of Give Me Coffee with the numerous coffee making machines which you can use comfortably at home. Jeffrey E Biteng / The National
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The UAE appears to be full of beans these days - coffee beans. The country consumes an average of 3.5 kilograms of Joe per person each year, according to industry experts, and a sea of westernised franchises such as Starbucks and Costa Coffee cater to our demand. But now some interesting new businesses are jostling to give us our Java.
"The region is very brand-conscious, hence branded cafes and franchises have typically dominated the market," says Anselm Godinho, the managing director of International Conferences & Exhibitions, which runs Dubai's International Coffee and Tea Festival. "But entrepreneurs have begun noticing the speciality cafe gap in the market.
"Over the past six years, we have witnessed a transition from the franchise model of cafes to a more specialised business model, with neighbourhood cafes to home-grown and in-shop roasters."
One such enterprise is the home barista company Give Me Coffee, launched by the entrepreneur Martin Peel last year. The former engineer discovered his love for coffee while working in continental Europe but started brewing the beverage himself (at first with a popcorn maker) after finding an "unacceptable level of coffee shops producing overpriced and underwhelming coffee".
He went on to buy a second-hand espresso machine and came to the conclusion that "fine, barista-standard coffee" could be replicated at home without the need for expensive equipment or extensive training. So along with his business partner, he launched a website for Give Me Coffee in the UAE, selling home coffee roasters, grinders, brewers - and raw green coffee beans.
"Preparing good coffee is not a black art," says Mr Peel. "Everything starts with good ingredients. Buying a Dh300 bag of coffee that's three weeks old is tantamount to throwing money away. Green beans will happily store for a year, and I personally roast every three to six days.
"Grind immediately before brewing and you've got heaven in a cup," he says.
Despite the region's love for tea, coffee originated in the region in 15th-century Yemen, and the UAE has been identified a one of the fastest-growing markets for the drink in the world.
Global consumers spend US$85 billion on coffee today, according to Euromonitor, with the Middle East accounting for $6.5bn, 8 per cent of the total. In the UAE, $121 million is spent, with 35 per cent growth expected in the next five years. Euromonitor predicts strong growth for independent coffee shops, sustainably sourced ingredients and luxury and single-origin coffees.
The entrepreneurs Kim Thompson and Matt Toogood, both from New Zealand, launched the roaster Raw Coffee Company in 2007 after spotting a gap for organic and ethically traded coffee. They supply cafes, restaurants and households from their Al Quoz warehouse and say they have experienced a steep growth of 40 to 45 per cent per year since launching.
"We believe the speciality market for coffee is emerging here now, a good five years behind, say, London, Melbourne or Wellington," says Ms Thompson, 51, a former oncology nurse who has lived in the UAE for 18 years.
"Consumers are learning they have more options and are more educated. We believe we have less than 1 per cent of the market, so there is plenty of room for growth for us amid an emerging interest in better quality coffee."
While slurping down coffee is now a core part of most people's working lives, only 45 per cent of offices worldwide - and just 37 per cent in the UAE - have recreational areas in which to take a coffee break, according to the workplace furniture manufacturer Steelcase.
This means employees here and globally often opt to hold business meetings in coffee shops, staying back to finish up both their beverage and their work, says John Small, Steelcase's director of industrial design for Europe, the Middle East and Africa.
"The great disadvantage of this is that coffee shops rarely offer the high technological and ergonomic standards that people need, and outside the office staff members are cut off from their colleagues and the company culture."
That's why Steelcase came up with WorkCafe, a workspace concept combining coffee house and office. Implemented in the UAE by energy company Taqa at their headquarters on Abu Dhabi's Maryah Island, WorkCafe is a space full of open and semi-closed areas allowing standing, sitting or perching, work, meetings, relaxing, meals - and of course coffee.
"An office with a WorkCafe combines the atmosphere of a coffee house with the functionality of a well-planned office," says Mr Small.
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