For the Love of Java

Specialty Coffee Builds on Growing Saudi Demand for Caffeine Kick
Having traditional Arabian coffee with friends. (Getty)
Gentleman sitting in café. (Getty)

“The coffee shop industry is booming. Despite the pandemic, 2 or 3 new coffee shops or restaurants are opened every week. We, Saudis, are coffee lovers by nature. And ‘specialty coffee’ is the newest trend in the Kingdom”, said Mohammed, a young Saudi coffee lover, who works at a marketing company in Jeddah, a Saudi Arabian city to the West of the Kingdom, known for its Red Sea coastal vibe.

From picking up the best coffee grains to brewing, roasting and preparation, specialty coffee is known for high quality, great aroma unique taste. This coffee is gaining more popularity among Saudi coffee drinkers, who have turned drinking coffee from just a daily habit into an immersive social experience.

This does not mean all coffee drinkers love specialty coffee. Some criticize the high price and believe the taste is no different from other regular coffees. However, pro-specialty coffee people think it is worth every single penny – or should we say Saudi riyal?

Let us get into the world of specialty coffee and explore how it is made and perceived by coffee lovers in Jeddah.

HOW IS SPECIALTY COFFEE DIFFERENT?

Specialty coffee is the one that is graded 80 points or above on a 100-scale by the UK and USA-based Specialty Coffee Association (SCA).

But how is the coffee graded?

“The grading is made for the green coffee beans via visual inspection by experts. This means it happens before brewing and roasting”, explained Hani, a Saudi barista in his mid-twenties, when speaking to Majalla English.

“Specialty coffee has the best harvested beans ever. They are defect-free. Defects include black, immature or sour beans. Experts are so accurate that they consider broken beans a defect. All beans are the same to ensure highest quality beans are processed and poured into cups!”, he added.

Specialty coffee beans are imported primarily from Ethiopia (more that two-thirds of the coffee consumed in the Kingdom come from there), Brazil, Kenya, Yemen and Colombia. Salvadoran, Rwandan, and other Latin America varieties are also present in the Saudi coffee shops.

COMPLICATED PREPARATION PROCESS

The preparation process of specialty coffee is very interesting. This process is standard. Baristas who prepare specialty coffee need to pass an educational program and get certified. Some baristas learn by observation and practice.

“Unlike other coffees, specialty coffee beans undergo a careful process of roasting and brewing. We prepare the specialty coffee according to strict standards of the process”, the Saudi barista explains, “After customers decide on the variety they prefer - whether strong, a bit sour or lighter -  the beans are first weighed on a scale and ground. We set the perfect water temperature and prepare using a special coffee-making equipment and filter. Water is gradually added in specific amounts. The perfect water temperature is 90-95 degrees Celsius, i.e. below the boiling point of 100 degrees Celsius”, he explained.

The average time for preparationfor specialty coffee is 10-12 minutes, which is a bit longer that other coffee varieties preparation.

COST AND TASTE

The cost of a cup of specialty coffee in the Kingdom ranges between USD 5 to USD 9. It is double the price of Arabic or Turkish coffee.

The barista told me the cost for each cup does not exceed USD 1-1.5, meaning the profit margin is good. Some coffee lovers believe the price is reasonable.

“We pay more for the highest quality coffee. It takes more time to prepare at the hands of an experienced barista. Not every barista can prepare specialty coffee”, said Najwa, a Saudi interior designer and a big fan of specialty coffee.

However, other coffee lovers disagree with Najwa. One of them is Khalid, a government employee in his forties, who said:” Specialty coffee is both overrated and overpriced. I find the taste average or below average”.  

KICK OF CAFFEINE

According to 2019’s stats, the total value of coffee imported to the Kingdom is around USD 302 million with more than 22,000 licenses for coffee shops and restaurants. Coffee kiosks have grown exponentially after the pandemic.

Saudis are proud of their own Arabic coffee (Qahawa Arabiya), a light roast variety. However, younger generations are more open to trying other varieties like specialty coffee.

“I badly need a kick of caffeine to wake up and get in the mood for work. Specialty coffee satisfies my passion; I love to watch the barista preparing my cup. It looks like an enjoyable chemical experiment. I enjoy the smell before drinking. It is a drinking experience beyond description!”, exclaimed Sawsan, a Saudi salesperson in her thirties.