For years Dubai’s coffee drinking public have been forced to slurp mediocre brews at coffee chains that care more about making a buck than a quality cappuccino. This year, however, has seen a fortunate shift. The calibre of coffee beans has risen steadily in the emirate, thanks to a couple of dedicated, perhaps even obsessive, companies. Coffee Planet and Raw Coffee Company both roast their coffee locally, the importance of which can’t be underestimated.
‘Some companies will claim roasted coffee has a shelf-life of three years, but really it’s more like six weeks,’ says Rosco Franklin, the roastmaster at Coffee Planet, a firm that not only distributes coffee and coffee machinery but trains its staff on the science of the prized beans. ‘Coffee starts ageing pretty quickly, especially in humid weather,’ says Franklin. ‘When it dries up, it starts to lose flavour.’ Franklin travels frequently to Ethiopia and South America to source his coffee, and he’s a tad anal about designing his own blends.
‘There are more than 800 characteristics that can come through a single coffee bean,’ he says, recalling one plant that produced beans that tasted so strongly of strawberry, the entire plant smelled of the fruit. Flavour, he explains, is also determined by the speed and length of roasting. Given the pains he takes, his disdain for the idea of holding on to the beans past their shelf-life is understandable.
An ethical cup
‘There is a lot that the average coffee consumer doesn’t know about their favourite drink. They’ll consume several brews a day, but give little thought to how the beverage gets into their cup. ‘The politics of coffee is quite messy, and the consumer knows nothing about it,’ says Kim Thompson, the managing director of Raw Coffee Company. She tells us proudly that the hers is the only coffee firm in Dubai that uses fair trade and organic coffee beans.
It’s easy to imagine that consumers, facing a global recession, will see ‘fair trade’ and ‘organic’ as luxury labels they can do without. But Thompson disagrees: ‘It’s in times like these that fair trade is the most valuable,’ she says. ‘The price of coffee is negotiated by a stock exchange in New York. When prices are low, as they are now, importers make up the difference by shirking on what they pay their farmers.’ Often, farmers receive Dhs1.05-Dhs1.75 per pound of coffee, not even enough for many to cover their production costs. Fair trade guarantees at least Dhs4.41 a pound, or, as Thompson puts it, ‘it guarantees them a living wage’.
Thompson supplies to several restaurants around Dubai, including Verre and Rivington Grill. She also has a storefront in the Dubai Garden Centre. Fortunately, Dubai’s coffee connoisseurs seem similarly unfazed by the downturn. ‘We’re busier than we’ve ever been,’ she tells Time Out.
Big coffee drawbacks
Ethics aside, the main problem with buying from coffee giants is their business model often means beans sit around a while, which ultimately translates into a weaker cup. ‘The only way a franchise can make money is to buy in bulk,’ says Franklin. ‘First off, they have to ship their product to this country, which means by the time it gets here it would have deteriorated. Also, they usually buy lower grade products to keep costs down.’ Some businesses might be even more tempted to use lower quality coffee.
Traditionally, five grades of coffee were sold on the open market. In Ethiopia, says Franklin, the lowest grade, grade six, was kept in the country. ‘The government never used to allow grade-six coffee to be exported, but because things have slowed down they’ve recently put the lowest grade on the market.’ If you’ve noticed your favourite coffee shop serving up bland brews that may be the reason.
How to time it
According to Franklin a lot of folks over-expose their coffee when brewing at home, meaning they’re not going to get the most out of their beans. He’s put together the following pointers to ensure our readers aren’t ageing their coffee unnecessarily
• When buying coffee, get a bag of whole roasted beans from a company that roasts locally.
• After your coffee is bagged, it has a six-week shelf life.
• Once you open a bag of coffee beans, the shelf life goes down to 10 to 14 days. Therefore it’s best to buy only enough coffee to last two weeks.
• Ground coffee has a shelf-life of five to seven minutes. So only grind enough coffee to get you through the morning.
Raw Coffee Company (050 553 6808; www.rawcoffeecompany.com), Dubai Garden Centre. Coffee Planet (800 263 333 (800 COFFEE); www.mycoffeeplanet.com). Coffee Planet coffee is available at several locations, including Dante Café in the Green Community.