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The Cafe Stage
Exploring Coffee in Dubai: A Traveler's Diary from Cup to Cup
Author: Tim Wendelboe
Posted: March 22, 2007
Article rating: 8.4
feedback: (18) comments | read | write

Sunday (Prologue)

A 5 oz double espresso

I am sitting in the airport in Kuwait, having missed my flight from Frankfurt to Dubai due to a smoking engine on my flight from Oslo to Frankfurt. Of course, bad luck never seems to end when it first hits you, so now I am sipping the biggest double shot of espresso I have ever had in a coffee shop inside Kuwait International Airport.

The reason that I am actually drinking this horrible 5 oz double shot is that I did not make the flight from Kuwait to Dubai either. Although I am surrounded by Starbucks, Pizza Hut, McDonald's, KFC, and other American franchise feeding stations, American efficiency seems to be the only thing that has not influenced the culture in Kuwait. After three hours of waiting to get a new ticket, I finally caved and ordered this huge black drink of death along with a biscotti hard enough to break a windshield on a car.

I keep thinking that I have probably reached the lowest point of my trip, and everything has to get better from here. I hope to get at least a decent cup of coffee in Dubai... if I ever get there.

Monday

After sleeping for two and a half hours, I am actually happy to see that the Holiday Inn serves coffee from Starbucks. At least this time, the double shot came in a fairly small espresso demitasse. The quality of the shot is not the best, but with the addition of two sugars, it seems to give me the fix I need before leaving for the airport to fight my way onto the plane, so I can reach my final destination, Dubai.

The horrible experience from the previous night gets me thinking that espresso is not always a good thing, especially when the quality is as poor as it was yesterday. I board the plane hoping to see some more traditional brewing methods when I arrive in the Emirates.

When I arrive in Dubai, I cannot help but notice that there are far fewer American and European stores along the road as compared to Kuwait. But this is not my first impression: by looking at the architecture and the roads, I can tell that this city is not very old. Dubai City was just a small village until Dubai, along with Abu Dhabi and four other emirates, formed the United Arab Emirates in 1971. Today, there are seven emirates that make up the United Arab Emirates, and Dubai is considered the principal city.  This is not only due to the high population of 900,000 or so people, but also because Dubai is a centre for tourism and the fastest growing city in the world.

Dubai skyscrapers under construction.

I can barely believe my eyes when I see the number of skyscrapers being built and how clean and beautiful everything looks from the inside of my taxi window. The driver tells me that 35% of all the building cranes in the world are located in Dubai and that there are around 3 million people in Dubai in total every day. (This number varies from 1.4 million to 3 million depending on what you read and who you talk to, but judging from the number of tall buildings I saw, I believe my driver is right.)

I ask my driver if there are any good coffee shops in the city - thinking that taxi drivers probably drink a lot of coffee to stay awake. He instantly replies in an Indian-English accent: "Yes sir, but they are all located inside the shopping malls."

As I do not feel like shopping, I decide to go visit the Gulfood trade show, which is the reason for my trip anyway. At the trade show, there are numerous coffee brands present, and most of them are Italian. After walking around for a half hour, I finally reach the stand where I am supposed to work for two or three days promoting 1883 syrups for the distributor in Dubai. The distributor, La Marquise, is also an importer of Caffe Vergnano, Gaggia espresso machines, Macap grinders, and more. After a brief introduction to all the people at the stand, I put on my apron, and equipped with my new CoffeeGeek tamper, I start making espresso for the visitors.

After a couple hundred shots, it seems that the rumour that good coffee is available has spread around the floor. The local coffee is definitely no good, judging by the number of Italians and visitors lining up to see my rusty latte art and try the espresso from a overheated Gaggia machine. The locals simply can't get enough of the espresso and flavoured cappuccinos I am making for them.

Five hundred cups later - half of them straight espresso - I feel satisfied that 50% of the coffee drinkers in this country actually prefer straight espresso, although the exhibition is probably not the best place to get a representative estimate of the locals preferences. As I head for my hotel to get some precious sleep, I wonder if it is the long tradition of drinking Turkish coffee in this country that makes people order caffè espresso.

Tuesday

I am invited to visit French Bakery to have breakfast and get an introduction to the Arab way of making coffee. In the café, I am asked to show the barista on shift a couple of tricks on the espresso machine, and after struggling with a worn-out grinder and some coffee roasted way back in 2006, I finally get to serve four decent espresso shots.

A barista in Dubai preparing Turkish coffee.

French Bakery is known to serve good coffee, and I start to understand why people were so ecstatic about the reasonably fresh espresso I served yesterday. Maybe they had never tasted anything like it before. After a couple of espressos and delicious croissants, I receive instruction on how to make proper Arabic coffee, or Turkish coffee, as they call it in Dubai. This is the way most people in the Mediterranean drink their coffee, except when they are visiting coffee shops - which is becoming more and more popular. I am taught that there are hundreds of different ways of preparing Turkish coffee and that they will show me the way they normally make it in their restaurant on the second floor.

Here is the recipe:
- Add 1 tsp of sugar to about 100 ml (about 3.5 fl oz) of water in a Briki or Ibrik.
- Heat on a hot plate.
- When the water is hot, add 2 tsp of any finely ground coffee of your choice and stir.
- Bring to a boil and serve.

Some people like to boil the coffee three times, others bring the coffee just to the point of boiling  without actually boiling it. The coffee I was served was flavoured with cardamom. A quite nice brew, but a little bit too strong for me to drink early in the morning. The barista had mixed ground cardamom pods with the ground coffee and told me he sometimes liked to add cinnamon and fennel seeds, depending on his mood.

After serving another 600 cups or so at the trade show, I am invited to go to La Marquise restaurant in the evening for a Lebanese dinner. The only thing I need before dinner is a nice cold beer, but to my surprise, they do not serve alcohol in any restaurants in Dubai. You can drink as much as you like in the hotels, but not in the restaurants. Strange, since most of the customers in the restaurants are tourists anyway. Instead I order a nice watermelon juice and await the feast of the day.

Tim Wendelboe smoking shisha while in Dubai.

As we enter the outside section of the restaurant at La Marquise, I can smell a sweet aroma reminiscent of dried fruits or candy gummy bears. As I look around, I am told by the owner, Marc Hijazi, that Dubai is famous not only for their food but also for their shisha. They even have two dedicated persons to light up and look after their customers' shishas. A shisha-barista, if you like.

Around me are about 60 to 100 locals and businessmen smoking water pipes containing fruit-scented tobacco. I guess this is their drug of choice and can't wait to get my hands on one of the pipes to check it out. After a delicious meal, I finally get my own shisha and take a few puffs. The tobacco is very mild due to the filtration in the water, and I detect nothing but the pleasant aroma of grapes as I puff on. (Please forgive me for not choosing the cappuccino-scented tobacco.)

Instead of being offered coffee, as one might expect after a heavy meal, I am served Moroccan peppermint tea, an infusion of peppermint leaves, green tea, and sugar. I would have preferred some Turkish coffee after all the food, but since it is late at night, the tea is a very tasty substitute for coffee indeed.

Wednesday

When I finish my last day at the food exhibition, having served yet another 600 cups of coffee, I find myself in the neighbouring hotel with a pint of delicious beer. We are a group of four people that have been working at the exhibition, all in businesses related to coffee. As we hang around the bar, we start talking to a British guy sitting next to us. He tells us that he used to be a butcher, but now he is importing fine foods and is in Dubai in order to open a chain of coffee shops. He tells me that he wants to install fully automatic machines and have as few employees as possible.

The reaction from my three fellow coffee people is a bit funny. They start laughing and tell the guy I am a barista. I instantly reply that if it weren't for the super automatics and the Starbucks of the world, I would not be doing what I am doing.

After I leave the bar, I continue thinking about our the conversation. I suddenly remember the Third Wave article that Trish Skeie once wrote, and how we discussed the role of the barista and the super automatic machines. I guess my opinion is still the same as it was back then. The relationship between the corporate world and the barista is somewhat like yin and yang. Even if one day in the future super automatic machines come to make better coffee than we do, we will still have one thing that the machine will never have: a free-thinking mind with the ability to communicate our knowledge to our customers.

I can't wait to tour the coffee shops in Dubai tomorrow.

Thursday

Second Cup coffee shop in Dubai.

Spending the day at the beach is not the worst thing one can do in Dubai, but it gets a little boring in the long run, and I am starting to get tired of the cool breeze from the sea.  So I pack my belongings and head for the Mall of the Emirates, one of the biggest shopping malls in Dubai and possibly one of the biggest in the world. Just to give you an idea of its size, inside the mall, there is a 400-meter long (about 1200 feet) indoor ski slope.

The mall is packed with people, both local and tourists. I decide to walk the bottom floor first to see if there are any coffee shops worth visiting. To my surprise, the floor is packed with coffee shops, and the coffee shops are packed with people. Most of them look like they are part of a chain. Some of them I already know, like Barista (India), Seattle's Best Coffee, Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf, Second Cup, Costa, and of course, Starbucks. Most of them have both table service and bar service.

I order a double espresso at a place using a three-group La Marzocco, something that is often considered a sign of quality among baristas. Five minutes later, I get a big, tall 12 oz cup, half full with brown liquid. I ask the waitress if she made a mistake, as I ordered a double espresso. She looks into the cup and replies, "No sir, no mistake." I take a sip of it and find that it is not really that bad, but to call it an espresso is not polite to the Italians. A strong cup of coffee is what it is.

I look around in the fully packed coffee shop and notice that most of the guests are local. The coffee shops seem extremely popular in Dubai. It might be due to the fact that local people do not go to restaurants that often. They prefer to eat at home late in the evening. Also, the fact that there are almost no bars serving alcohol in Dubai makes me believe that the only places locals can meet are the coffee shops. No wonder it is big business in Dubai.

After my fourth visit to a coffee shop without getting an espresso of the quality I am used to, I decide to leave the mall. My vision of Dubai being an exotic coffee destination is shattered to pieces by the aftertaste in my mouth. Maybe my expectations were just too high, or I was naive.

At least there is only one way to go from here. I have already heard rumours that the first local speciality coffee roaster is opening in Dubai soon. With this in mind, I decide go to the nearest shisha club to have a taste of the cappuccino-scented tobacco, because when in Dubai . . .

Tim Wendelboe

After working for seven years in Oslo-based Stockfleth�s coffee shops as head of training and quality control and co-managing their six branches in Norway, Tim Wendelboe decided to quit in 2006 to start his own company. He is now in the process of opening his own roastery, espresso bar, and coffee school in Oslo, Norway. The place will be named after him and the estimated opening date is June 2007. Today, he spends a lot of time roasting, blending, and experimenting with the coffees he is going to sell. Tim has also been travelling around the world as a coffee consultant, trying to make the world drink better coffee. He became the fifth World Barista Champion in Trieste, 2004. More surprisingly to himself, he also took home the World Cup Tasters Championship title in Athens, 2005. Even though he never wanted to be a politician, Tim is now enjoying his commitment as chair on the World Barista Championship board of directors. For more info, visit: www.timwendelboe.com

Article rating: 8.4
Author: Tim Wendelboe
Posted: March 22, 2007
feedback: (18) comments | read | write
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