Orit Mohammed of Boon Coffee talks Ethiopian coffee, Fairtrade and her company’s ethos.
While coffee was first discovered over a thousand years ago, it has been an integral cultural ritual across the world, particularly in the Middle East, where the Bedouin tradition of drinking ‘qahwa’ is thought to date back as far as the 15th century.
Yet it is only arguably in the last two decades that the drink has become serious business and a means for mega bucks from global coffee chains. Here in Dubai, a smaller coffee revolution has been kicking off in the last ten years with the first few local coffee producers and roasters opening in 2006 (Orbis) and 2007 (Raw Coffee). Now, the scene for locally roasted coffee is growing, with an increasing number of Melbourne-minded cafés launching, placing as much emphasis on their coffee menu as the food. In turn, the number of local coffee producers is also growing, with one of the newest companies, Boon Coffee, launched in 2011.
Having supplied the bespoke coffee blend for new restaurant and hotspot du jour La Serre Bistro & Boulangerie since its launch in July, Boon Coffee’s presence on the café market has grown in the past two months, with Urban Bistro, Baker & Spice and Lafayette Gourmet all switching to Boon Coffee since December 2013. In fact, Boon’s growth is now about to extend to its own café concept, due to open on February 15, serving coffee and Italian-style dolci and pastries, near its JLT offices in Cluster T.
‘Boon’, is the Ethiopian word for coffee (the drink and the bean) and is also used in Arabic. Amid Dubai’s existing roasteries, predominately lead by an Australasian philosophy, Boon Coffee’s point of difference is in part that it specialises in solely using Ethiopian coffee beans, from founder and roaster Orit Mohammed’s native land. Now the fourth largest exporter of coffee around the world (after Brazil, Vietnam and Colombia), it is thought that the origin of coffee, and even its name, lies in Ethiopia, where it is believed to have been discovered in the Kaffe region, around 850 AD, while Yemenis also stake a claim in the discovery of coffee. Hailing from the Harrar region (noted for coffee), Orit clears up the confusion: ‘Coffee came from Ethiopia, but they were just boiling it (the bean and cherry together). The Yemenis changed the form of coffee by actually roasting the beans, instead of using the cherries. And that’s how it started. Fine, fine, fine. We’ll give them that,’ she laughs.
‘My family has been involved in coffee my whole life. Even though I grew up around coffee, my love and appreciation for coffee actually began when I was living in the States. When I first went into Starbucks in America in the 1990s at the start of the fashion for single origin coffees, I saw Harrar coffee from my small town! I thought, somebody thought it was good enough to put a label on it! There was so much focus in the press at that time on the famine, and here was something positive that had come out of Ethiopia. Coffee wasn’t “pretty” before this,’ Orit continues. ‘But Starbucks made it fashionable to drink coffee. Now people are more aware of coffee, and where it comes from. Saying that... in this region, it is far, far, far from that awareness.’
Exporting directly and only from Ethiopia, which Orit argues is geographically one of the closest coffee-producing regions to the UAE, she points out that Boon’s carbon footprint is lower than that of local roasters who source from further across the globe. Once in Dubai, Boon Coffee roasts at its facilities in Dubai Investment Park. The company roasts little and often, delivering coffee to their stockists on average once a week (sometimes more frequently), allowing two to three days after roasting for the coffee to ‘de-gass’. We see the minimal stockpile of bags ready and waiting for companies such as La Serre, and Orit explains that coffee loses its flavour if kept in storage for weeks after roasting. She shows us a bag of stale, year (or more) old coffee as a point of comparison, and the lack of aroma and oily beans make her point clear. ‘This is why supporting the local roaster always makes a lot of sense,’ Orit adds.
Within Ethiopia, Yirgacheffe, Harrar and Sidama are among the most notable agricultural areas for coffee. Orit describes typical washed coffee beans from Yirgacheffe as having clean, tangy, citrusy flavours, and jasmine notes. Harrar beans, in contrast, which tend to be unwashed (sun dried with the coffee cherry intact) have flavours akin to chocolate and grape. The profile of beans from Sidama are often more subtle and balanced, and floral, although this region’s coffee is often seen in washed as well as unwashed form.
‘These are very small farmers, there are no plantations [in Ethiopia]. It’s very difficult for small farmers to make any money out of the coffee.
I think it is accurate that farmers do not make enough from growing the coffee, especially when you think how much it costs to buy a cup,’ says Orit. While Boon is not officially Fairtrade accredited, she is clear that the company operates with the same ethical principles of fair sourcing behind it: ‘I am from Ethiopia, for me it is my obligation to pay the farmers correctly for their coffee. It is not part of the company, it is part of who I am.’
Even if companies do not necessarily boast a Fairtrade accredited stamp of approval, Orit feels that attitudes towards sourcing, and the importance of doing so ethically, are still changing for the better. ‘The problem with Fairtrade is a foreign company comes in and says “yes, you are paying the farmer correctly,” but you also have to pay that company to certify you. It’s the same thing with organic. So the smallest [farms] are not going to be the ones that benefit from this.’
In response to growing concern over fair sourcing and no doubt, as a result of scandals such as the attempt by Starbucks to trademark the names of Ethiopian regions for use on their branding (‘They had nearly finished the trade-marking process, before the Ethiopian government realised. It was like they were attempting to trademark the name of African cities’).
Seven years ago the Ethiopian government set up a coffee exchange. As a result, coffee is now sold through the exchange, and the prices are set by the government in a bid to protect the farmers. ‘This creates another problem,’ Orit argues, ‘which is that you lose traceability, because the farmer cannot sell it directly to you. But overall, because of the exchange, the farmers have a much better income than they have ever had before.’ email@example.com, www.booncoffee.com (04 421 4500).