Distilling coffee’s aromatic history

Since falling in love with coffee when he was a child, Khalid Al Mulla has made the bean business his life’s work. Now he has set up a museum to celebrate its global impact, Rym Ghazal reports

Khalid Al Mulla, the founder of the Coffee Museum, shows two German-made coffee grinders from the Second World War to Arezou Schulz, a project manager at the museum. Ravindranath K / The National
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During the Second World War, every German soldier carried an essential piece of equipment along with his weapon. Small, sturdy and built to survive almost anything, it was a coffee grinder.

The steel box had a handle on the top and a container at the bottom to catch the coffee grounds. It could be easily disassembled and packed away.

So strong indeed was the European love of coffee that even a scarcity of metal after the war ended did not stop the production of coffee grinders and roasters. Instead, munitions were melted down to manufacture them.

The importance of coffee to different cultures and countries through the centuries is the theme of Dubai’s new Coffee Museum, which will allow visitors to view the rituals of serving the popular beverage and to taste it.

Stepping into villa No 44, a traditional Emirati home in Bur Dubai’s Al Fahidi historical district, the visitor is immediately struck by the familiar aroma of freshly brewed coffee. Even though the museum’s signage has yet to be put up and its official opening is at the end of October, the museum is already swarming with coffee lovers.

“You will love coffee even more after visiting the museum and understanding its history and cultural relevance to us and the other cultures,” says Khalid Al Mulla, the museum’s 43-year-old founder and the director of Easternmen & Co, a coffee company.

His love of coffee begun in childhood, as it did for many Emiratis and Arabs who grew up watching their parents drink coffee and serve it to guests in a show of hospitality and friendship.

Mr Al Mulla later joined the coffee industry, importing to the UAE varieties from more than 16 countries including Indonesia, Brazil, Sri Lanka and Yemen.

He also became the local representative for several coffee brands and coffee-machine makers, including some from Japan.

But he still wanted to add another dimension to his enjoyment of coffee, so he decided to create a historical archive of his passion.

"Coffee drinking should be an entire experience, where all the senses are involved," Mr Al Mulla says with pride as he takes The National on a tour of the museum, which comes alive with different aromas and sounds.

Seeing how coffee beans are roasted and brewed – from using traditional methods to the latest gadgets – and tasting the essence of different coffee beans are all part of the experience.

In the two-storey museum, which has six rooms on each floor, each part of the exhibition tells a different story about coffee and how it relates to its fans. Three of the rooms display antiques from the Middle East and around the world.

From Britain, there is a man-sized coffee grinder with an actual carriage-like wheel for a handle that carries the 18th-century crest of a British monarch. From the Ottoman Empire, there are several grinders and hand-held portable roasters that are about 600 years old.

It is said that the first coffee house in Europe was opened in Vienna, using equipment taken from Ottoman troops defeated outside the city’s walls in the 17th century.

Other rooms in the museum display screens, filters, and grinders known as madaq, which are hundreds of years old.

The grinders, which are covered in Quranic verses and weigh more than 12 kilograms, are too heavy to carry. There are also grinders for women, with added support for the leg, allowing the grinder to lean in for support as the beans were being ground up.

In Ethiopia, the coffee pot is known as the jabena. It lacks the distinctive spout of the Emirati dallah. It was Yemenis who introduced the spout, calling the pot a jamena.

The dallah’s spout, which resembles a falcon’s beak, is sharper and narrower to allow the pouring of smaller amounts of coffee. Tradition stipulates the use of two dallahs, one for serving and the other to keep the coffee hot on the stove.

“As one digs, one discovers interesting history,” says Mr Al Mulla, citing as an example the reason for the popularity of Sri Lankan coffee beans in the UAE. “Because Sheikh Zayed used to drink it and liked it, we came to love it as well.”

All the objects on display at the museum – assembled over the years from around the globe – are from his personal collection.

“The museum connects the past of coffee to its present, and so I added live demonstrations of the coffee rituals in the Ethiopian culture, the Egyptian, the Arabic Bedouin, as well as the Levant and Turkish versions, so that every kind of coffee can and will be made here,” says Mr Al Mulla.

Coffee from the Levant is brewed over hot sand to better distribute the heat, he reveals. To be sure, Mr Al Mulla is a walking encyclopaedia on everything related to coffee.

Much of the museum’s top floor is dedicated to the research and study of coffee, with a library filled with rare books and a media room to screen coffee-related documentaries. “The history of coffee is still debated, with many versions,” says Mr Al Mulla. “But the version I like is the one about the man with the same name as me. They call him Kaldi, but his name was actually Khalid, just like mine.”

In the story of Kaldi, the drinking of coffee started in the Ethiopian Highlands hundreds of years ago. Then a goat herder, Kaldi noticed that his flock became hyperactive after eating some unknown berries from a tree. Curious, he tried them, and he remained alert and was unable to sleep afterwards.

There are different versions about how the actual drink was made.

According to some versions, Kaldi’s wife threw the beans on to a fire and roasted them. She then crushed the beans and made the grounds into a drink. In other versions, Kaldi took the coffee berries to a holy man. The latter disapproved of them, saying they were a drug and threw them into a fire. As the berries were roasting, they released the pleasant aroma with which we are all familiar. The roasted beans were then ground up and boiled in hot water, creating the world’s first cup of coffee and its second most traded commodity, after oil.

Coffee had also been drunk in monasteries, where monks were said to have consumed the beverage to keep awake for all-night prayers. From Ethiopia, the coffee trade crossed into Yemen, where Sufi Muslims used it as an aid for worship. It was in Yemen that the drink was first called qahwa.

“The legendary Mokha port in Yemen was once the main coffee exporting site for the region,” says Mr Al Mulla. “The Yemeni port’s name is synonymous with the mocha coffee that we drink today.

“Coffee spread across the world via the Arabs and Turks as the Islamic empire expanded into Europe and the rest of the world.”

Whether Asian or African, Central or South American, the islands of the Caribbean or the Pacific, all coffee varieties can trace their heritage to the trees in the ancient coffee forests of the Ethiopian plateau.

“The story of coffee started with an Ethiopian Khalid, and continues with an Emirati Khalid,” Mr Al Mulla says with a laugh. “I hope I tell it as well as he once did. The legend of coffee continues.”

His museum, unsurprisingly, has a coffee shop and a gift shop. The latter sells all kinds of coffee and coffee machines, as well as coffee-related jewellery, such as a dangling golden coffee bean on necklaces and bracelets.

The opening hours are from 10 am to 7pm, with tickets expected to be about Dh15 for adults and Dh5 for children.

Mr Al Mulla is still deciding whether to include the coffee served in the cost of the visit or to levy an extra charge.

To find out more about Coffee Museum, click here.