Coffee: Dubai's favourite drink

We visit local roastery Coffee Planet to learn more

Matt Wade demonstrates a sample roaster
Matt Wade demonstrates a sample roaster
A traditional Chemex filter
A traditional Chemex filter
An aroma kit can help to isolate the coffee’s scents
An aroma kit can help to isolate the coffee’s scents
Jones the Grocer
Jones the Grocer

Coffee traditions in the Middle East date back centuries. It is one of the most commonly imbibed beverages in the Gulf, and despite the vast regional variations (even from town to town), methods of creating the drink have changed little over time.

But that’s all set to change. An increasing number of outlets in Dubai are now looking to a new school of caffeinated thought, to give us a taste of another way of roasting and brewing coffee. With Dubai hosting the International Coffee and Tea Festival from Tuesday October 30, now is the perfect time to find out how coffee in Dubai is changing.

The Italian school of thought has dominated the modern coffee and café scene for some time, starting in Europe and spreading across the globe. The familiar and accepted setup of modern cafés has become dictated by the Italian style of espresso machines, creating a dark, intense and short coffee. To make this, coffee beans are roasted exceptionally dark and blended with other varieties, and this has become standard practice at most venues for years.

While Italian-style coffee continues to be popular (and will almost certainly remain so for the foreseeable future), over the past ten years a new style of coffee-making has developed in Australia and New Zealand, and has subsequently spread to cities such as London and Dubai. Here in the UAE, local roasteries are either Kiwi-owned (in the case of popular local brand Raw) or disciples of the Kiwi school. One such advocate of Kiwi coffee is 36-year-old Brit Matt Wade, roast master at local roastery Coffee Planet in Jebel Ali, who agreed to give Time Out a lesson in coffee traditions and trends.

Having worked in the coffee industry in varying roles for the past 12 years, Matt’s career has been influenced by time spent in cafés and roasteries in New Zealand. In one of the first cafés in which Matt worked, the precision and science that was changing the Antipodean coffee scene became evident: the creation of each variety of coffee demanded a different technique. The café owner wouldn’t let Matt lose on a paying customer for three months, until he’d learned the ins and outs of the different varieties.

Previously, the roasting of the beans had always been dark. ‘That hadn’t changed for years,’ explains Matt. ‘Then the New Zealanders and Australians came along and said they wanted to actually taste the coffee.’ A growing trend began for a lighter roast, where the coffee’s natural flavours would be more evident. ‘The lighter the roast, the more natural the flavour. The more you roast it, the more it caramelises and the more sugars you bring out, so the natural flavours are hidden,’ he continues. There has also been an increased interest in single-origin coffees (rather than blends), where the natural flavours are laid yet more bare. ‘If you make an espresso, the flavours are magnified a hundred times,’ Matt tells us. ‘With a single-origin coffee, if you magnified that flavour profile a hundred times, it would be too intense. Let’s say it tasted of lemon. Once that is magnified, it would be too much, and your mouth would pucker.’

As a result, single-origin coffees require a different brewing method to blended espressos, which has in turn lead to a trend for – or revisiting of – older, filter-style brewing techniques such as the Japanese syphon, and simple updates on the drip-filter system such as the Chemex. This simplistic, filter-over-a-jug-style method of making coffee was popular in the ’70s, yet recent coffee fashions mean that from Wellington to London and Tokyo to Dubai, the cooler coffee houses now consider this technique a more gourmet apparatus than the now-ubiquitous espresso machine.

At its factory in Jebel Ali, Coffee Planet produces both espresso blends and single-origin coffees. The espressos are created by mixing coffees of key flavour profiles that, when combined, will create a consistent product. ‘The aim of an espresso blend is to get a multi-layered taste profile. You need a base, middle and top note, so that when these flavours are magnified in an espresso, you have all the elements and it will be pleasing.’

To create that blend, Coffee Planet first sources the raw, pre-roasted green coffee beans. Coffee, in fact, begins life as a fruit, growing on a tree as a red cherry. The fruit must be picked when it’s perfectly ripe; the flesh is then removed to reveal a sort of parchment seed pouch containing green beans.

Before they arrive at Coffee Planet, these green beans are treated in one of a variety of ways. The ‘natural’ process involves leaving the cherry fruit to dry in the sun, with the flesh only removed once the beans have absorbed much of the fruit’s sugars and flavours. This process, Matt explains, can lead to coffee taking on unexpected flavours such as strawberry, and has occurred in much the same way for centuries. In contrast, the ‘washed’ process is nowadays considered progressive and favoured by many coffee purists. Here, the fruit flesh is immediately stripped away via washing with water, within an hour of picking the cherry, so that the bean’s flavour is more natural.

Once the coffee arrives at the factory, it is graded (and possibly discarded) according to whether there is any mould, insect damage, or foreign bodies in the shipments (Matt has apparently found bullets hidden within larger shipments of Kenyan beans). He then conducts a test roast, before carrying out a ‘cupping’ session (aka a tasting), where the coffee is graded by characteristics such as aroma, flavour, body and acidity in order to ascertain the blend.

Matt explains that time, temperature and turbulence (as the pressure) are the key elements required to make coffee. The process of cupping is standardised across the world, so in this instance, licensed coffee graders use the same four minutes of brew time, and the same four stirring strokes (aka turbulence) to make every cup. ‘It’s amazing to think that if I score this coffee 88 out of 100, another licensed grader, perhaps a farmer in Yirgecheffe, Ethiopia, or El Salvador, would be within two percent of my score. There are thousands of us across the world, and we all speak a standardised language.’

Aside from this sense of a global coffee community, it is still early days for the Antipodean new wave – and even earlier days in Dubai. But it is happening slowly, Matt tells us. ‘Coffee has a long tradition in the Middle East, and there’s no reason why we can’t take it a step further.’
Coffee Planet’s products start at Dhs18 for 250g, available at Geant, Carrefour and Park’n’Shop stores across Dubai.

Wake up at Make!
To try the new wave of Kiwi coffee brewing for yourself, head to the ReCaf promotion at Make Business Hub on Friday mornings. The team at Coffee Planet will be encouraging caffeine addicts to eschew their usual cuppa and instead sample special single-origin roasts, brewed using rediscovered filter techniques such as the Chemex.
Dhs16 per cup. Fri 10am-2pm. Al Fattan House, JBR (04 392 9216).

International Coffee and Tea Festival
At this part trade, part public event, caffeine fans can sample coffees and teas that have not yet appeared on the UAE market, as well as checking out the barista championships. Free. October 30-November 2. Meydan Grandstand and Convention Centre,

An extra shot…

More gourmet coffee options to try in Dubai
Jones the Grocer
The Australian café serves its own house blend espresso, as well as offering an award-winning range of single-origin coffees. Coffees from around the world are available: house favourites include varieties from Honduras and Guatemala. Try your coffee made with the new school of brewing methods, including ‘pour over’, ‘cold drip filtration’ and syphon. Honduras: Dhs140 for 250g.
Al Manara, Sheikh Zayed Road (04 346 6886).

Milk & Honey
The gourmet grocer stocks Byron Bay Coffee, a family-owned Australian brand that offers primarily organic and Rainforest Alliance certified products. Of the range available at Milk & Honey, the medium-dark roasted Nero Espresso blend has won several awards of excellence.
Dhs44 for 250g. Meadows Town Centre, Emirates Hills (04 435 6363). Other location: Palm Jumeirah, Shoreline Building 10 (04 432 8686).

Dutch café chain More imports fair-trade green coffee beans, which are then roasted in store. If you buy coffee to take home it will be freshly ground to your requirements, and customers can even create their own blend.
Dhs40 for 250g. Various locations, including Gold & Diamond Park (04 323 4350), Al Murooj Rotana (04 343 3779) and The Dubai Mall (04 339 8934).

This Kiwi-owned local roaster acts as a coffee supplier for some of Dubai’s top venues, including Table 9 by Nick & Scott, (Raw’s very first commercial customer), Lime Tree Café, Baker and Spice and the Ripe Store. All Raw’s coffee (including single-origin coffee and blends) is certified organic and fair trade, and customers can also visit the roasteries and try different varieties at the brew-bar café.
Dhs85 for 500g. Warehouse 10 corner of street 4a and 7a, Al Quoz (04 339 5474).

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