Coffee has been a part of Middle Eastern heritage for nearly as long as it has been in use as a drink. Yet it is only this year that Dubai’s heritage district, Al Fahidi, welcomes the country’s first ever dedicated coffee museum. While the museum has had its doors open to the public for several months, the Dubai Coffee Museum will officially launch (with a user-friendly addition of more explanatory information around the exhibits) at the end of October. With this in mind, and to mark International Coffee Day (which takes place this week on Monday September 29), we took a tour of Dubai’s new shrine to caffeine consumption with founding partner Khalid Al Mulla.
Wandering through a sand-blasted and sun-baked Al Fahidi, you’ll find Dubai Coffee Museum tucked away in an unassuming back street of the village. With an unassuming façade, it currently looks much like a domestic villa, as it once was. Bowing our heads and sliding inside the small entrance (first through the museum’s small gift shop), once inside the central courtyard of this wind-tunnel house, we find a two-tier maze of majlis and miniature adjoining rooms, all dotted with intriguing artefacts. The museum already strikes us as a feast for the eyes, long before Khalid has had a chance to offer insightful explanations of each item as he shows us around.
Working for Dubai-based coffee importers and roasters Easternman and Co, the concept of the museum, Khalid tells us, is to showcase not only regional, but also global coffee history. The embryonic beginning of the museum started with a small handful of artefacts related to coffee making and drinking, which Khalid displayed at tradeshows when exhibiting on behalf of Easternman and Co. Realising how much interest visitors to the shows had in these objects, with only a handful of dedicated coffee museums elsewhere in the world (Italy, Portugal, Brazil, the Netherlands and Russia, for example), the idea was born to create a museum in Dubai. Following the closure of the coffee museum in Hamburg, Germany, Khalid’s team bought up numerous artefacts for use at the new Dubai venture. As a result, for a museum based in this region, it showcases a wealth of European exhibits. And don’t be surprised to spot the odd piece of vintage coffee advertising on the walls, written in German.
The ground floor of the museum is divided into zones reflecting the traditions of different coffee drinking cultures. Starting with the country where coffee drinking reputedly began, one zone of the courtyard is dedicated to Ethiopia. Here an Ethiopian lady sits and patiently stirs a pan of green coffee beans, gently roasting using this traditional Ethiopian technique and filling the air with a wonderful aroma. Next to her sits Egyptian barista Abdul, dressed in traditional Egyptian galabeya. He stands guard over an impressive structure (custom built in Egypt for the museum) where coffee is prepared in a bed of hot sand. The museum also includes an Emirati-style majlis, where local Bedouin coffee traditions are observed.
Taking us from this courtyard, into a maze of small exhibition rooms, each neatly stacked and packed full with artefacts and antiques, Khalid takes us through, item by item.
Among the antiques on display, are 300 year old examples of the distinctive jug-shaped clay coffee pots historically used by the Ethiopians known as ‘jebena’ and the Yemeni equivalent, known as ‘jamena’. Different, but obviously cousins, these two styles of pot reflect the very earliest beginning of coffee drinking (discovered in Ethiopia), and the birth of coffee roasting (bringing it closer to the drink we know today), attributed to the Yemeni.
Upstairs, we find the literature room, which displays texts related to coffee, from the eighteenth century to the present day. Once such text, Johann Friedrich von Pfeiffer’s 1784 encyclopaedia, Khalid tells us, is thought to be the oldest printed text to discuss coffee in detail. Clearly, Herr von Pfeiffer was something of a coffee fanatic himself, since the encyclopaedia includes a staggering 177 pages on the bean, as well as an appendix with illustrated diagrams of coffee equipment. Our final stop for the day is the museum’s custom built brew bar. Here Khalid cooks up Mexican coffee using a syphon, and our caffeine-fuelled tour ends with an excellent caffeine hit. Dubai Coffee Museum, Villa 44, Al Fahidi Heritage Museum, Bur Dubai (04 380 677704 380 6777).