When I asked Debbie Rogers of CoffeeCakesandRunning.com blog to take me to some cafés, she took me to Dubai’s best Specialty Café hubs, a distinction from what baristas call “commercial coffee shops.” It used to be that cafés serving espressos and lattes were referred to as specialty or gourmet. Not anymore. There is a new category, not third wave as the US and Pinoy coffee geeks call it. So the choice now comes down to either the Dubai Specialty Coffee or the “commercial”—these are the coffee chains from the USA, the United Kingdom, Italy and Australia.
Our first stop was in a wellness center, where the high ceiling affords a pretty setup of communal tables and a long bar. This is the location of The Espresso Lab. There, we were engaged by not just one but three Pinoy baristas (or baristi)—Mark Uy, Mai, and the current UAE 2016 champion Lyndon Recera. Mark suggested that I take a Gibraltar using Sulawesi coffee. My companion Rommel had a Carmen Cecilia Montoya Colombia, also in a Gibraltar, and Debbie chose a cold brew as the weather was getting warmer outside.
The Espresso Lab was opened by Ibrahim H. Al Mallouhi, a barista and a coffee connoisseur. He sources all his beans from farms he has visited and had them roasted in small batches. This was the first coffee bar where I found out they do not serve sugar. Not that I asked for some, as I also do not use sugar in my coffee unless it’s unbearable. But that’s the rule in Dubai’s specialty coffee scene: NO SUGAR.
They are apt to be floored if you asked for any sweetener as the coffees have their natural sweetness, given the careful selection of beans and degree of roast.
A Gibraltar is served in a small rock glass and espresso is slowly pulled using state-of-the-art Synesso machines, which can control flow rates, temperature and pressure. A lot of things come into play in the machine and what you get is a sweet espresso that is further enhanced by a free pour of steamed milk.
Our second stop was The Stomping Grounds, where a one-kilo Probat roaster sits in one quiet glass-encased corner and coffee geek Ryan Godinho, a roastmaster and an SCAA licensed instructor, runs the show. We sat at the bar to watch the baristas do their thing with all sorts of coffee machines, such as a Steam Punk, a cold brew drip and an aeropress used by different baristas for each different order of every customer. One of us ordered a Cascara (coffee pulp that is dried and made into tea), and Ryan started the computers for the Steam Punk so the water just heated up to a maximum of 98 degrees—never to boiling point. It was a feast for the eyes and ears, and finally for the palate.
Ryan let me try a Nitro—a cold coffee mix that is a step up from a cold brew. Cold brews are just slow drips that are cooled in the icebox. The Nitro slowly releases Nitrogen into the brew for eight hours! Now, that is some geek coffee drink, so cool and refreshing with a twist of lemon that makes it just right. I do not like acidic tea or coffee, but this lemony brew was just right for me. It must be the nitrogen. Who knows?
We broke for lunch at Al Fannah for some fish fry and shrimps. It’s a hidden treasure by the harbor and Debbie suggested a lunch fare of Sherry fish with Pratha and some chicken biryani.
On to our final stop: The Café Rider. Mixing his love for motorcycles and coffee, UAE champion barista Dmitri opened this warehouse type of café with a display and repair shop for Harleys and Ducatis, among many special bikes. He also holds Warehouse yoga once a week and the place is packed with locals with a discerning taste for specialty coffee. His coffees are air flown from Sight Glass in San Francisco, which are so freshly roasted that, Dmitri claimed, he sometimes has to let them “rest” a couple of days more before use. Specialty coffee beans are normally allowed to exhale for a few days after roasting before they are used.
The staff at The Café Rider are Pinoys from Manila, Zamboanga, and Sultan Kudarat. Peter Festin, Reagan and Marvin alternate making latte art while engaging customers with their coffee knowledge as passed on by Dimitri. They can explain the degree of roast and how even their latte should be made with medium roast coffee to make the mélange sweet, naturally. “There is a bit of caramel in the Guatemala,” Peter shared. “And for V-60, better use a light roast,” he instructed. Of course they also do not serve sugar! We were entertained while drinking our specialty coffee, with the information these guys shared about each type of coffee.
But we had to have the latte. They all made their own masterpieces using the end of a probe thermometer as a pencil, or the end of an ice pick-looking instrument. Pouring steamed milk and creating art on top of the latte is a new art form these men have mastered. The added information of where the coffee came from was a “seemingly useless” bit of knowledge, but it made my AED20 cup of latte worth every sip. As one of them said, “Sometimes you can taste what the barista suggests for you to look for,” Well, It’s good entertainment while getting your cup of joe.
I am mighty proud of the Pinoys and Pinays who are making their mark at these café bars. I told them to take that knowledge home and to open their own cafés using our own coffee. A Benguet Arabica latte? Maybe sometime soon, a Matutum Gibraltar will be served by Marvin in GenSan when he comes home.