“Coffee is a part of the habits and traditions of Arabs,” explains Ghanim Al Qassim, the Emirati co-founder of Drop Coffee. “Drinking it originated in the Middle East, starting in Yemen and then Mecca, Egypt, and the Levant, before migrating to Turkey in the mid-16th century. It’s a social drink; it makes me think of my childhood. Arabic coffee is always served at weddings and holidays, so it reminds me of celebrations and happy times. Coffee and family go hand in hand.”
Al Qassim isn’t alone in loving the “social drink” – roughly one billion people drink a cup of coffee every single day. Globally, according to Euromonitor, that equates to US $85 billion spent on coffee a year. The Middle East alone accounts for 8% of that spend, and its popularity shows no signs of slowing down, with high-end and artisanal coffee shops more successful than ever.
Specialty coffee joint Drop Coffee Dubai is a case in point. Launched last summer by Al Qassim and Mahmood Al Khamis, it’s on a mission to “inspire the world to love great coffee, down to the last drop.” It’s already causing a stir among aficionados, after hiring a team from all corners of the world – including several champion baristas. “That makes it culturally diverse, right? Pretty much like Dubai,” Al Qassim quips. “We believe in delivering quality coffee and an authentic experience.”
Of course, like most new coffee shops, your options go well beyond black or white, sugar or cardamom. Today, the choices are somewhat mind-boggling, with customers able to choose flavors, pouring techniques, and even the harvest. The new attitude to coffee is referred to as the “third wave,” following the first wave of appreciating co ee as a quick and delicious caffeine hit, and the second as a shift to viewing it as a gourmet item.
One thing is for certain: coffee is no longer simply a commodity. It has great complexities and a wide spectrum of flavors. In our digital generation, this isn’t a drink, it’s a lifestyle. It has more than 1.6 billion results on Google, has its own emoji, and has been hashtagged more than 78 million times on Instagram. It even has its own international day – October 1. Not bad for a drink that’s centuries old and had more incarnations than Madonna and Britney combined.
While the hipster coffee scene is relatively new in the Middle East, as Al Qassim says, it’s here that savoring it began. Although the honor of its discovery is apparently reserved for a goat herder from 9th century Ethiopia (what could be more hipster than that?) who noticed that his herd was full of energy after eating berries and leaves from an unknown shrub. Our hero herder tasted the fruit himself, feeling an incredible high provided by the natural stimulant. The first caffeine hit had occurred and there would be no looking back.
It wasn’t until around the mid-15th century in the Sufi shrines of Yemen that coffee was roasted and brewed into the drink we’re so familiar with today.
“Traditional Arabic coffee does not actually contain any sugar,” explains Al Khamis. “It’s often served along with something sweet like dates or chocolate. Other ingredients would detract from the taste of the coffee; even milk and cream are frowned upon. Arabs like their coffee to be bitter. Depending on where you come from, the bean and the lightness of the co ee would also di er. For example, in the Gulf, we like our coffee to be light, whereas in the Levant they drink darker coffee.”
Coffee beans and their special effects meant it spread rapidly across the Arabian Peninsula, eventually also reaching the Ottoman empire. While Arabs liked coffee, the Ottomans and Turks loved it and truly revolutionized the drink, with co ee houses becoming key meeting hubs for high society.
From the Middle East, it spread to Italy – thanks to the thriving trade between Venice, North Africa, and Egypt – and even survived a banning order from clergymen of the time. thankfully, they didn’t get their way – no espresso equals depresso – as Pope Clement VIII took one sip of the black liquid and loved it. Refusing to ban it, he decided instead to baptize a bag of coffee beans and deemed it not a sin to consume. With papal blessing, its appeal increased, and in 1645 the first European coffee house opened in Rome.
The benefits of coffee go beyond keeping you awake at your desk, hipster trends, or excuses to catch up with friends. According to research published in the Annals of Internal Medicine academic journal, drinking three cups of coffee per day could decrease the risk of heart disease. The liquid hit of caffeine is also thought to help reduce depression, with a Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health study claiming that women who drink four or more cups of coffee were 20% less likely to suffer depression. By that theory, French writer and philosopher Voltaire must’ve been the happiest man in France, as he was rumored to have drunk 40 to 50 cups per day. Not to be outdone, Beethoven would count, by hand, 60 beans per cup for each coffee he drank.
Today, second only to oil, coffee is the most valuable legally traded commodity in the world. And with stylish new coffee houses on the rise, who would bet against your morning cuppa being the new fuel that takes the Middle East on to future glories.
Originally published in the March 2018 issue of Vogue Man Arabia