Roast of the town: The coffee industry has never been so diverse
Just a few years ago, I didn’t have any strong feelings about coffee – good or bad. I was quite happy to sip away at the instant variety in the morning and didn’t think any more of it. But my first trip to an independent coffee house changed all of that. And since I’ve had my eyes opened to the little nuances of one of the world’s most popular hot drinks, I haven’t looked back.
See, this coffee house in Bath, UK is run by Maxwell Colonna-Dashwood who just so happens to be a former UK barista champion. As he talked me through the different blends on the menu I became somewhat overwhelmed but intrigued at the different tastes that each brew was capable of. “Let it cool down a little, and then you’ll taste the fruity side of it” I remember him saying as I was about to chug it back as I always did.
And then it happened – the grapefruit notes burst through the coffee and I was suddenly fascinated by the possibilities of the humble cup of Joe. I liked it. And in a way, I knew right then that I could never go back to the simple hot brown liquid of instant.
Now I’ll gladly go out of my way to try and hunt down those hidden gem coffee shops to sample their latest and greatest wares. And it’s not just me doing this either. With countless independent venues popping up across the world, especially here in Dubai, there’s more demand for great coffee than ever. But how did we get to the point where hipster brew houses and roasteries started cutting in on the mega-chain’s profits?
As a rough estimate, around two billion cups of coffee are consumed daily. The industry is booming, and with the average cup somewhere between AED10-20, that’s a lot of cash for everyone involved. And although coffee has been around for centuries, things didn’t take off until the 90s.
Coffee historians point to Starbucks leading the way. The Seattle-based company has been pumping out cups of coffee since 1971, but it wasn’t until it introduced drive-thru cafes in the 1994 that the masses latched onto the idea of getting their fix in a hurry and it tasted great. The perfect pick-me-up for the day ahead.
Coincidentally, the UK’s Costa Coffee – the second largest coffee chain in the world that was also founded in 1971 – started to gain traction in the 90s, too. And here’s a fun fact: the first Costa location outside of the UK was Dubai in 1999.
A high street arms race was initiated, and a huge number of rival outlets began popping up all over the place. But while the big chains fought for customers by offering pastries, sandwiches and more, their focus on coffee shifted slightly and suddenly the door was open for a new breed of venue.
Since the early 2000s, the battle for supremacy has been duked out by independent coffee shops. Sure, Starbucks and Costa are still the big two, but these young upstarts are bloodying the nose of these titans and forcing them to rethink their strategies (more on this later).
In Dubai alone, there are more than 100 shops – each with their own interpretation of what the coffee experience should be. Ping pong tables, classy artwork draped down walls, the low hum of an extravagant looking roaster cooking the beans on site, every place creates a bespoke atmosphere to entice you in. Not only do they want you to step inside and purchase a coffee, these indies will even teach you – at a price – how to level up your brewing game at home and sell you the gadgets to do it.
The whole thing creates a sense of brand loyalty with the customer. If they leave having enjoyed the experience, not just the coffee, then they’ll be back. And you can be almost guaranteed they’ll tell their friends and co-workers to head there, too. Everything is measured in the pursuit of heightening your enjoyment, which is why baristas are key to the whole thing.
These girls and guys might not be turning out as many daily cups of coffee as your average staff in a high street chain, but their knowledge and skill make a huge difference. If a barista doesn’t know where the beans are from and what tones can be elicited from them, do you really want to drink one of their coffees? It’s like a mechanic working on your car and not knowing what the engine parts do.
You might not know this, but baristas have their own sort of Olympics. World championships are held for all manner of coffee disciplines such as brewing techniques, flavour extraction and even incredibly detailed latte art. It’s much more than a job to these people, which is why they usually go on to opening their own bespoke venues.
The influx of indie joints has changed the landscape for the coffee drinker. Not only can you make your own exceptional brew at home with a range of nifty gadgets, but you no longer have to search too long for a similarly priced, but potentially better tasting coffee at a smaller venue.
Starbucks and Costa have definitely noticed the shift in customers’ tastes. Why else would they suddenly start serving up special roasts that cater to the coffee connoisseurs out there? This is a savvy move – increase the price of these higher grade versions, ride the wave of the current coffee snobbery that’s taking place and watch the profits roll in.
Surely, the next logical steps are boutique, specialist stores for the big boys. Still, we win out overall. There’s a wealth of options at our disposal now so there really is no need to suffer that tasteless “hot brown” again.
Here’s a little selection of our favourite coffee places in Dubai. Go there, drink delicious beverages and then thank us later.
GOLD BOX ROASTERY
Where: Warehouse 7, Umm Suqeim Road, Near Mall of the Emirates Contact: +9714 341 4320 Web: goldboxroastery.com
Where: Warehouse 10, Corner of 7A and 4A, Al Manara, Al Quoz Contact: +9714 339 5474 Web: rawcoffeecompany. com
Where: Warehouse 12, Al Asayel Street, Al Quoz Contact: +971 50 625 2265 Web: sevenfortunes.com
THE ESPRESSO LAB
Where: Unit 8, Building 7, Dubai Design District Contact: +971 50 421 1188 Web: theespressolab.com
BREW CAFÉ, JUMEIRAH
Where: Jumeirah Road, Umm Suqeim 2 Contact: +9714 331 2333 Web: facebook.com/ brewcafe