It's 8pm on a Thursday, and Bentleys, Range Rovers, Mercs and souped-up Nissans jostle for parking spaces outside an unassuming strip mall on Al Thanya Street in Dubai's Umm Suqeim. They're rolling up to Nostalgia cafe, which is standing-room-only as customers drink everything from slowly-dripped V60 coffee to air-pressure-brewed Aeropress.
A few hundred metres away, cars toot their horns outside Brew Cafe on Jumeirah Beach Road, where coffee beans from Berlin are ground into the “dirty white”, a shot of espresso with steamed milk, poured over ice with a sprinkle of coffee grind for texture.
A few kilometres away at another modest mall on Al Wasl road, around half of the cars outside Drop Coffee have Abu Dhabi license plates, with enthusiasts having driven from the capital to tour Dubai’s coffee hotspots for the night.
In most parts of the world, coffee shops are busiest from about 7am to 9am, but here, their peak time is between 7pm to 9pm, with specialty coffee shops the new "places to be" across the UAE.
What is 'third wave' coffee?
Small artisanal coffee shops are now sprouting up everywhere from Ras Al Khaimah to Al Ain, so it’s safe to say that the “third wave” of coffee culture has well and truly hit the Emirates.
The term was first used in relation to coffee in the early 2000s, and the movement is all about turning coffee into the kind of food product that inspires talk of flavour notes. This is done by improving every stage of coffee production – from the harvesting to the barista – and taking into account things like altitude (Arabica coffee must be grown at 3,000 feet or higher), while respecting the coffee bean as a seasonal plant.
“Third wave” coffee has its own rating system, the Q Grading system – and those certified by the Coffee Quality Institute can give Arabica coffee a rating out of 100, using both their sense of smell and taste. Only coffee rated at least 80 out of 100 can be deemed “specialty”.
While Arabic coffee culture dates back to at least the 1200s, the western world’s “first wave” of coffee is considered to have come to light in the early 1900s when brands like Nescafe put coffee powder on the table of most homes; the “second wave” came when Starbucks et al made the notion of fast, customisable takeaway coffee famous. And now, the “third wave” has taken hold, and the bean is king, while non-automated machines allow baristas to work with flair and accentuate the flavour of the roast rather than hide it in sugary syrup.
Coffee in the UAE
In the UAE, this movement was initially pioneered by New Zealander Kim Thompson of Raw Coffee, who first started roasting green beans here in 2007. Raw's beans are always ethically sourced and fair trade – coffee is, after all, the second most traded commodity. When Raw Coffee first started roasting in Dubai, a well-made, not-overly-extracted cup of coffee was hard to find (because a bad barista can make a mess of even the finest of beans), but 10 years on that is no longer the case.
“One of the very interesting things, is that around 149 different hands generally touch a coffee bean before it lands in your cup. So, every time you have your coffee, just think about that, and drink it with mindfulness,” explains Ghanim Al Qassim, the co-founder of Drop Coffee on Al Wasl Road in Dubai, where green beans are roasted on site.
“We wanted our customers to know that what’s getting roasted in there,” he points to the micro-roastery, “is what they’re going to be drinking in a few minutes.”
Next door to Drop Coffee is Emirati Coffee, another specialty spot that has its own roastery in Al Quoz that can process up to 22 tonnes of beans a month. Coffee runs through the veins of its founder Mohamed Ali Al Madfai, whose grandfather, an early UAE merchant, traded coffee in the 1930s. "Coffee was part of my upbringing," he tells us. "And, of course, it's a staple in every UAE home. It's part of our culture, a representation of our hospitality. It's the first thing you're served when you enter an Emirati home... and you can even see it on our currency, where the 'dallah' [coffee pot] is on the dirham."
Al Madfai is quick to point out that today’s artisanal coffee culture is not connected to the traditions of Arabic coffee – but he has had customers ask for a traditional, lighter roasted, Arabic coffee, which is why he’s exploring using high-grade beans to make a specialty Arabic coffee.
He admits that the aromatic, often fruity flavours of specialty coffee are an acquired taste. "My dad associates good coffee with heavy cream and an oily, bitter mouth feel. He drinks his coffee like Italians, with Robusta, which is less complex. Specialty coffee is not for everybody. That's why one of the bestsellers in the UAE is the Spanish latte... a double shot of espresso with milk and 25 to 45 grams of condensed milk. Coffee shops use dark roasted coffee, which is overly burnt in a way you get with commercial coffee. And they enjoy that. The sweet and bitter go well together."
However, some tastes are changing, notes Drop Coffee co-founder Mahmood Al Khamis: “A lot of people are used to sweet drinks. They always have mocha and caramel, but we’re seeing a transition. They start off wanting sweet cereal in their coffee, then they move to ‘can I just have one sugar in my coffee?’ and then they go to plain coffee.”
Around 15 per cent of Drop Coffee’s sales are for V60 coffee, and other more complicated brews, rather than a grab-and-go flat white or flavoured, sugary beverages.
But will the light, almost tea-like style of V60 drip coffee ever overtake Arabic coffee in the UAE? “If we’re talking about our culture, Arabic coffee is something we do when people visit our home, it’s part of our generosity. I don’t know if the day will ever come when we serve V60 at home – but yeah, it’s an improvement, so who knows, there’s a reason why it’s called ‘third wave’, right?”
Where to get the best espresso in the UAE
Sick of asking for a flat white and getting a watery latte? You’ll be safe at any of the spots on our good
brew index ...
Brew Cafe (Jumeirah Beach Road, Umm Suqeim; 04 331 2333); The Espresso Lab (Building 7, Dubai Design District; 050 421 1188); Goldbox (Umm Suqeim Road, Al Quoz; 04 341 4320); Mokha 1450 (Al Wasl Road, 04 321 6455); Neighbors Cafe (API 1000, Al Thanya Street; 04 341 1220); Nostalgia (API 1000, Al Thanya Street; 04 385 3303); Nightjar Coffee (8th Street, Al Quoz; 04 330 6635); Raw Coffee (Corner of Street 7a and Street 4a, Al Quoz; 04 339 5474); Roseleaf Cafe (Dubai Garden Centre, Sheikh Zayed Road; 04 224 4584); Seven Fortunes Coffee Roasters (Al Asayel Street, Al Quoz; 050 625 2265); The Sum of Us (Burj Al Salam, Sheikh Zayed Road, Trade Centre; 056 445 7526).
Bottega Cafe (near the corniche, Ras Al Khaimah; 07 221 2220); Brews & Co (North Ras Al Khaimah; 058 596 0 700); Caffeine Espresso Bar (Al Butain Street, Umm al Quwain; 050 696 7070); Drowsy Coffee (Muwailah, Sharjah; 050 324 1723); Hoof (University City, Sharjah; 058 998 8486).
Abu Dhabi and Al Ain
% Arabica (Al Jazeera Tower, Abu Dhabi Corniche; 02 677 7335; also in Dubai Mall, Mall of the Emirates, City Walk); Buzz by Mlt. (Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Street, Al Karamah, 056 666 5016); Dose Cafe (Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Street, Al Ain; 03 721 5883; also in Al Wahda, Abu Dhabi); Joud Cafe (Al Bateen; 056 525 8235); Oz Specialty Coffee (Al Wahda; 02 441 1215); Rain (Mohamed bin Khalifa Street; 058 161 4461); Sam’s Box (Embassies District; 02 666 7004).