Outside of Ethiopia, there’s no place in the world with as long or storied a relationship with coffee as the area that comprises the Arabian Peninsula, including parts of the Gulf Cooperation Council: Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Oman, Qatar—all places where the first brewed coffee beverage became a strong part of culinary and religious culture as early as the 16th century.
With such historic ties to traditions and the tastes of centuries past, it’s easy to overlook the innovation and development that has happened in coffee there, but the past few years have seen a meteoric rise in specialty throughout the Middle East—not simply due to rising Western influence, but also as an organic outgrowth of interest in the characteristics, community, and craft that specialty coffee brings.
“The scene has grown incredibly quickly, with most [specialty-coffee] companies not existing for more than two to four years total,” says Dan Jensen, Cafe Imports’ international-sales representative based in our U.S. office. One of the most exciting aspects of Dan’s focus on international sales is his firsthand experience watching the emergence of new markets, and his ability to help nurture them from first bloom: He noticed a marked increase in inquiries from the area in and around the Gulf Cooperation Council, and it inspired curiosity and enthusiasm in him about the development of a whole new coffee landscape.
As with any brand-new business model, there are naturally some obstacles, which remind us of the dynamic nature of coffee and the nuances of a very complex global industry: “We’re seeing a lot of the same issues that we see in new markets in general,” Dan says. “Customs is very strict, import requirements with regards to documentation are complicated, and in general, costs are high. There aren’t really any green importers there, so everyone is trying to figure things out on their own, and are having to bear the costs as a result.” Beyond that, the climate throughout the area makes cold storage necessary—another financial and logistical burden for small companies in a new market.
Before long, it became apparent that a strong partnership based in one of the GCC countries would go great lengths to bridging the gap—logistically, culturally, and caffeinatedly—between us in the United States and the burgeoning roaster community there. By forming a close exclusive relationship with Nukhbat Al Marabih and their specialty-coffee distributing company, Kafa Coffee, in Khobar, Saudi Arabia, we are able, says Dan, “to provide the same level of customer service in the GCC that you would expect in the U.S., along with easy access to excellent coffees.”
Truly excellent coffees, actually: Kafa has 20 current Cafe Imports offerings available spot in their warehouse, a range of offerings—from tiny top-shelf microlots to regional selections to versatile “workhorse” coffees—represent not only what Cafe Imports does best when it comes to creating and offering value to our customers all over the world, but also representing the particular preferences in a brand-new consumer market that is seeking new, interesting, and vibrant flavors in coffee.
Which is not to say that the old coffee traditions are—or even should—fade away.
On a recent weeklong trip to Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates to celebrate our new partnership with educational and cupping events, Dan, along with La Bodega manager Omar Herrera, partook of plenty of the customary brew, which has an appeal of its own.
“Arabic coffee is everywhere, and when you sit down to talk business or share a meal in someone’s home, it’s usually the first and last step,” Omar says. “The coffee is roasted light, producing a milky-green beverage that is poured from a traditional dallah into small ornate cups without handles that are filled halfway. It is highly ceremonial; you serve it with your left hand and drink it with right hand, sometimes dates on the side to curve its bitterness. If offered Arabic coffee, a guest should always accept at least one cup (although you will usually end up drinking three or four).”
On their tour, Dan and Omar were curious but not surprised by the passion with which specialty coffee has been embraced by a small but highly motivated group of both professionals and consumers alike, and how quickly it has caught on. “Specialty-coffee consumption in the GCC is off the charts,” Omar says. any coffee houses stay open as late as 11pm on weekdays, and even later on Friday and Saturday. We regularly found ourselves in packed coffee houses at 8pm, having our millionth espresso of the day.”
Omar was also particularly touched by the diversity of coffees he experienced during the week: “One of our first days there, I had bitter Arabic coffee poured from a dillah; Saudi-grown coffee from Al Dayer that resembled a sweet and nutty Brazil; and I honestly had the best espresso in recent memory from a roaster called Three Seeds in Al Khobar. It was one of our Colombia Regional Selects, and that flavor is still burned into my memory,” he says. “Thinking about how diverse their coffee drinking habits are is really stunning.”
Both Dan and Omar came back to the U.S. office excited by the coffees they tasted, the people they met—many fast friends, some already practically family—and truly inspired by the culture they saw coming into its own in the GCC. “I’ve always had this idea in my head that coffee professionals were bound together by kindness and motivated by a desire to improve on their work. Traveling throughout the KSA and UAE has only strengthened that idea for me on a global scale,” Omar says. “What I saw in the coffee professionals of the GCC was a willingness to learn from each other, to try new things, and to cultivate a specialty-coffee culture that is uniquely their own. The coffee people I encountered were all incredibly curious – pushing for more information in a collaborative way, which I think really helped me think critically and learn more about these subjects that I consider myself kind of an expert on.”
The entire Cafe Imports family is eager to watch the coffee cultures of Saudi Arabia, UAE, and their neighbors grow and thrive, and we are pleased to have even a small part to play in nurturing the development of a whole new world of specialty coffee.