The first time I visited Dubai three years ago I was on the way back from a holiday in Melbourne, where I had been spoiled with amazing coffee from independent shops and small-batch roasters. I didn’t look for coffee back then, as coffee options in downtown Dubai at the time were mostly from chains. But things were starting to change.
In 2013, Tom Arnel and Sergio Lopez, an Australian chef and a Spanish restaurateur, respectively, who had been working in Dubai for several years, opened their Tom & Serg cafe in the Al Quoz neighborhood, bringing some of that Melbourne-coffee vibe to the city. Tom & Serg was one of the first independent shops offering good food and coffee in a modern environment, and their aim was to create a cafe culture in the UAE.
The success of Tom & Serg indicated that the market was ready for a specialty coffee scene to grow in Dubai, so last year Tom and Sergio opened The Sum of Us: not just a restaurant and cafe, but also a bakery and coffee roastery.
I had the chance to visit The Sum of Us last month on a busy Friday morning (Friday being the first day of the weekend in Dubai and a popular day for brunch). The space is impressive and beautiful, tucked away from the main road at the bottom of a residential building, housed in a two-story warehouse with 1,000 square meters of indoor space plus an outdoor seating area. The restaurant has an industrial look and feel, with concrete floors, exposed pipes, and wooden tables. Two large dining rooms occupy most of the space on both floors. There are two bars stocked with La Marzocco Linea PB and Strada EP machines and Nuova Simonelli Mythos grinders. On the ground floor there is a takeaway bar, a bakery, and, behind a glass wall, a cupping room and the roastery.
The company currently roasts 250 kilograms of green beans a week (sourced by Raw Coffee Company) for immediate consumption and sale at their four cafes (Tom & Serg, The Sum of Us, Common Grounds—a mall site that launched last September—and the just-opened Brunswick Sports Club, more a sports-and-food spot; yet another Arnel/Lopez production, Muchachas, will open this year).
The customers are a mix of locals and expats, and the demand is mostly for espresso-based drinks made with a house blend of Colombian, Guatemalan, and Ethiopian beans. Their tastes have changed over the years: “Two years ago about 30% of the orders were for extra-hot cappuccinos,” says Antony Papandreou, head of coffee at Bull & Roo (the company that owns The Sum of Us), “but this has changed now, and only about 10% ask for extra-hot milk.”
While espresso drinks are still the biggest sellers, filter coffee is becoming increasingly popular, especially on weekends, when customers have more time to sit down and enjoy a Chemex. Seasonal single origins are available on V60, Chemex, AeroPress, and syphon; Mahlkönig EK 43 grinders are used at the brew bar.
During my visit, I met Kersti Rahamagi, the Estonian head barista and coffee trainer who has been working at The Sum of Us since its opening. While Rahamagi prepared me a Chemex with Kenya Kiriaini Teresia AB coffee from Doubleshot (a Czech roaster—the beans were left over from the recent Cezve/Ibrik Championship in the city), we talked about Dubai’s coffee scene and how it is changing.
“The coffee scene in Dubai is growing fast, and the customer awareness is growing fast as well, with more and more people showing an interest in learning about coffee origin and brewing,” says Rahamagi. “Rather than just ordering an AeroPress or other pour-over methods, our customers ask for a specific single-origin coffee to be brewed with a specific brewing method. They are very aware of which coffee they like and how they like to drink it.”
Rahamagi runs public cupping sessions twice a month, which are both a way to educate customers on specialty coffee and to taste different varieties, usually between 10 and 14 coffees from all over the world. Rahamagi also runs one-on-one and group-brewing workshops for customers who want to learn how to improve their coffee-making at home.
Today Dubai is becoming a hub for specialty coffee in the Gulf region, as new independent establishments open and coffee competitions such as the aforementioned Cezve/Ibrik World Championship and the premiere UAE AeroPress Championship take place in the city. The choices for independent coffee shops have increased over the past three years, not just in Dubai, but in the other Emirate states too.
“Working in coffee in Dubai is very interesting: the local coffee scene is still young, so to be part of it and to see the changes as they take place is a great experience,” says Rahamagi. “Of course, all that glitters is not gold, and a lot has to be done before Dubai reaches the level of Europe. But I believe it will soon get there.”