If the warrior Genghis Khan had to drink coffee, he'd do it right here. Ulaanbaatar, the icy capital city of Mongolia, has finally fathomed coffee in the form of UBean Coffee House and Roasterie. Out of the yurt and into the city.
The sprawling city, whose name means “red hero,” is surrounded by mountains that reach out to endless steppe. One of the least populated countries in the world is dotted with cashmere goats, wild horses, and nomadic families. Coffee culture here is a nonentity.
But that's changing. Cue UBean Coffee, named after the abbreviated name for the capital and the love child of owner and barista Erik Wahlen, who moved to Mongolia from the US to work for an NGO. After seeing that coffee wasn’t endemic to the culture here—salty tea is the local favorite—Wahlen decided to do language training and then start introducing coffee to curious locals. This move dovetails with the wider modernization efforts underway in Mongolia, where democracy has spread since the fall of communism and citizens are now allowed to travel more freely. “The market finally developed and has become more open-minded toward coffee,” Wahlen told me when I visited his cafe. “When we arrived, we couldn’t even find decent furniture to work with, never mind coffee drinkers.”
The cafe is rather nondescript; its location on the second floor of a building might be unusual for a coffee bar, but it offers a respite from the freezing temperatures and choking pollution that frequently
plague the city. UBean Coffee House and their on-site roaster initially opened in an NGO community center, with the rest of the building used for humanitarian aide and community development projects, and turned a profit much earlier than expected. So Wahlen turned the cafe into a fully fledged business with its own location, serving filter coffee with a concentration on Hario V60, Chemex, and AeroPress brewing methods, and training locals in this style of coffee service.
Training is how any new industry takes hold. In this multilingual city, hearing the cafe staff talking in Mongolian, Kazakh, Russian, and English interchangeably creates a totally unique energy. “We do try to integrate cultural elements into our cafe, some that work and some that don’t,” Wahlen tells me. “Hot sea buckthorn juice works, but fermented horse-milk lattes didn’t go over so well—with the foreigners at least.”
Coffee culture is catching on quick here. The country has its own organizations and guilds in place, including the Mongolian Barista Association and the Specialty Coffee Association of Mongolia. The barista guild has helped in initial espresso training for new staff at UBean, and aids in breaking down some of the cultural barriers. “We use a Victoria Arduino three-group lever espresso machine, the only one in the country,” says Wahlen, “and it does require a whole other set of training that a barista won’t have when working with automatics.” He adds that “new hires aren’t allowed to touch a lever for at least a month.”
Signs of change are everywhere here in Mongolia, a country that was politically and culturally isolated for much of the 20th century. From the first luxury chain hotel (the brand new Shangri-La) to Apple and Louis Vuitton arriving, for better or worse, this place is in flux. The country is landlocked, with Siberia to the north and the Gobi desert and China to the south, which means sourcing quality green coffee can be challenging. “Sourcing our beans requires major planning and cooperation from even our customers—and then there is all the documentation to be able to operate ethically,” says Wahlen. Since starting the business five years ago, Wahlen and his business partner, J.B. Hecock, worked with Passionate Harvest out of the US to source coffee; more recently, they found trusted relationships, and a willingness to go the extra mile, in sources much closer—Golden Future Trading in Hong Kong and Royal Coffee‘s office in Shanghai.
Although UBean originated from an NGO, they are now completely separate, with the cafe taking on a life of its own. It's a cozy space, with big windows looking out at the glass-and-steel newness of the city, filled up with youngsters, expats, students, young professionals, specialty-coffee lovers, television stars, the local version of hipsters, and just flat-out curious people from the neighborhood, all dropping by to meet, learn, and experience a taste of coffee culture. “Coffee education with a new awareness is a priority for us,” Wahlen tells me. “We can see the growth and adaptation of global creativity in Mongolian culture—and we’re right in the middle of all of that.”
For nomads, local or otherwise, Mongolia's flaming baton of coffee is now officially carried by UBean. As the locals say, “dahiad neg”—one more please.
Daniel Scheffler is an international freelance journalist whose work has appeared in T Magazine, Travel And Leisure, Monocle, Playboy, New York Magazine, The New York Times, and Butt. This is his first feature for Sprudge.com.