Often (quite wrongly) criticized for being a bling-bling fake world, Dubai is as ‘real’ and ‘raw’ as any other place, if you choose to discover it.
Take for example, RAW Coffee Company. Coffee doesn’t get more real than what is roasted, and supplied from this boutique roastery here in Dubai. What about then, the swanky, international coffee chain brand at the corner of your street that you patronize? Well, what if, for a moment you were told, that many of those household brands are well on the “dark side” of the coffee story? Do you think you could handle some facts here? Are you prepared to discover the real coffee story? Well, read on.
Walking into RAW I knew I was walking into a roastery. What I didn’t see coming was that it was much more. RAW is coffee institution actually. From the moment that you step inside this pretty little warehouse, every little detail, from the decor, to the chandelier, to the aroma, and even the T-shirts some of the crew wears, is reminiscent in some way to a coffee experience.
Since I happened to be there during Ramadan, I sampled a special cold brew that the team has especially concocted for Ramadan. It is a heady mix of vanilla, nitro cold brew, cinnamon, coconut sugar and black pepper corns. Nothing like any coffee I’ve ever tasted before!
So we got talking to Felix and Karim on the RAW Coffee Company journey. It all started in 2007 when a Dubai based New Zealander, couldn’t find the perfect coffee, to give her the flavours she was used to. What perhaps started as a personal mission to find herself a good cup of coffee spiraled into a business idea and the birth of the real coffee movement in UAE. It started as a small setup in Garden Centre. From 30 bags then to now producing a 3 tonne of roast a month, Raw Coffee Company has indeed come a long way, in their mission to supply to UAE homes and cafes, beautiful, high-grade, freshly ground coffee.
A little walk inside the warehouse goes a long way to show you, that this is a team that lives and breathes coffee and they’re passionate about it. The training rooms give you a peek into references and visuals of all kinds that they use to instill in every member in the team a very solid foundation about everything to do with the brew.
As part of the RAW team, everyone has been through an intensive training process through every stage of roasting, packing and brewing process that go on at the roastery. It is everyone’s job to know everything!
Karim explaining a bit about the intesive training that happens at RAW
The truth about most international coffee chains (and I have been a loyalist of one too) is that the coffee they use is 3-5 months old. Not freshly roasted. And when roasted coffee just sits around that long, it is constantly losing its flavour profile and taste attributes. Crema is frequently mentioned – so I ask what it is and why it is important? Crema is the golden to rich-tan layer of foam found on the surface of a shot of espresso coffee and as I’m told here by the team, is the result of several factors in the brewing – from the type of bean to the pressure employed by the espresso machine and so on. But what’s in it for a coffee drinker? Crema is by most standards considered an indicator of the coffee freshness.
So a fabulous cup of coffee all begins with a selection of the right coffee beans. And at RAW, the effort to deliver that fabulous coffee begins right here. RAW provides 100% locally roasted, 100% organic and 100% fair and ethically traded, fresh Arabica coffee.
Fair and ethically traded means, bean sourcing is done in a manner that allows farmers and their families to be treated fairly and eke out a sustainable living. RAW shares back money with their farmers – a fixed, nonfluctuating amount irrespective of the coffee price in the market. Also, RAW is deeply invested in helping farmers to improve their processing units and pumping back money into this eco-system in different ways such as building better schools for the children of farmers, helping them to pay their education fees and ensuring that children aren’t used as labourers on the farms.
Organically certified means that there is zero use of any kind of pesticides, chemicals or chemical fertilizers.
And when we’re talking about premium beans – well there’s an entire science to that! Beans are basically grouped into 2 main categories – Arabica and Robusta. What I picked up in conversation with Felix and Karim is that, Robusta beans are of a lower grade, as they are grown on lower altitudes, contain higher amounts of caffeine and have more of an astringent flavour. Arabica are on the other hand are the higher grade beans, grown at higher altitudes, with half the amount of caffeine as compared to Robusta and with more pleasing flavours and aromas. Needless to say at Raw Coffee Company, the specialty is Arabica. Arabica beans are grown in countries along the equatorial line – Columbia, Peru, Guatemala, Ecuador, Mexico, Brazil, Kenya, Uganda and Ehtiopia to name a few. More than three-quarters of the beans that are sold in the world today are Arabica.
Arabica trees are typically about 2.5 meters tall as opposed to the Robusta, which can grow up to a height of about 5 meters. Each tree grows for about 3-5 years before it starts producing beans and thereafter, can produce approximately 2000 beans annually in a harvest. Again, with harvesting, hand-picking rules over machine picking and that is one the most tell-tale differences between coffee at Raw Coffee Company vs. coffee that you would find anywhere else. What handpicking does is to allow for segregation – the green beans separated from the yellow beans and from the red beans and so on. Most giants in the coffee business will source machine picked beans. The different kinds of beans end up being mixed, which in turn dilutes the intensity and flavour of the coffee. Once picked, the beans are sent to the farms’ processing units, where the outer skin is removed and then sent to the RAW warehouse, where the beans are roasted by origin, and available to sample from the warehouse roastery either as single origins or blends.
Different beans from different regions are all stores in separate sacks. What’s incredible as you walk around here is – pick anyone from the team and they can tell where the bean is from and its flavour profile by simply looking at them! For example, African coffees are quite fruity and citrusy in flavour whereas coffees from the LatAm region tend to have a more chocolatey flavour.
Once at the warehouse, the beans now need roasting and the team here will tell you, that roasting, much like cooking a piece of steak, is science! Roasting time & speed depends upon the kind of bean and the flavour it has and every batch is treated differently. Even different batches grown in slightly different weather conditions, even if from the same region are differently profiled! First a smaller machine is used to define a roasting profile for a batch, and then the profile is bigger and more sophisticated machinery for large batches.
At this point, if you’re wondering how a lighter roast differs from a darker roast, there’s a bit of science going on there too! When a coffee bean is broken, what you get is layers, and oil sitting in between those layers. Darker roasts essentially means, the oils are exposed to heat, and moistures are being pulled out for a longer time period. This reduces the flavour that is locked in the oil layers in the coffee. You want to roast the coffee but also ensure to retain enough moisture, crema and flavour.
Felix explains why each coffee is treated differently when it comes to roasting.
Roasting is then followed by packaging and what a roastery is able to achieve all in a day’s work is even unbelievable.
Felix spills the beans on the RAW packaging story
And it still doesn’t end there! At RAW, there’s also a system in place for training and providing support to Baristas across Dubai. And wherever these Baristas are, customers can rate them through the RAW Refuel app. Why is this a unique one-of-a-kind ecosystem? Because, the feedback comes directly back to RAW for them to ensure that a minimum quality is maintained. And if you just want to sit back in the comfort of your home and enjoy your brew, RAW also sells coffee machines, ranging from the simple to the most snazzy, for your perfect coffee indulgence. Not only do they make these equipment accessible, but also provide training in how to use them, support and maintenance etc. but also, have a regular system if and feedback and follow up in place, and follows up to ensure that customers are getting the right coffee extractions consistently day after day. So, from the bean to the mug, RAW is about re-defining the coffee drinking experience, every step of the way!
A RAW tour is an incredible window into different processes and facets of the coffee experience. For example, there are at least 4 different kinds of coffee brewing methods.
Karim taking us through some of the different coffee brewing methods
The RAW team, demonstrating the Effusion method of coffee brewing
And of course, one never walks out of a coffee inventory without seeing some flourishy coffee art!
Felix demonstrating a basic coffee art design with much style!
You wonder then what brought these bunch of passionate and incredibly talented people, united in a common cause. I don’t know about them all, but I was able to scratch the surface to get Felix and Karim’s story. Its either about the flavour or the beans run in their genes!
Felix & Karim’s Journey into the coffee business