ONE ON ONE with Ibrahim by Barista Magazine
Weaving Specialty into the Fabric of Arabic Coffee
by Sarah Allen
ONE BRIGHT MORNING in New York City in 2011, Ibrahim Hamza Al Mallouhi and his traveling companion had set out on foot to explore, as tourists do. The pair were on holiday visiting from their native Dubai, United Arab Emirates, with the intent to absorb all the famous metropolis had to offer. Ibrahim had no idea, however, that the trip would change the course of his entire life.
The weather in New York suddenly turned, he remembers, and rain fell in sheets. Shivering and seeking cover, he and his friend ducked into a restaurant for a cup of coffee but were told they couldn’t stay for just a coffee. Had it not been for that experience, they might have missed seeing Fika, a tiny café right across the street. Coffee had always provided the comfort of familiarity to Ibrahim—it’s a time-honored ritual in his native country and had been part of his daily life since he could remember. The coffee he and his friend were served at Fika, however, couldn’t have been more different from what they had understood coffee to be until then.
“It was a ‘wow’ moment,” says Ibrahim today, seated at the bar of one of The Espresso Lab’s cafés in Dubai. That moment in New York inspired his entire business, one of the first specialty-coffee companies in the UAE. He remembers thinking to himself, “‘How can a cup of coffee be so sweet and rich?’ I still remember tasting pumpkin in it and asking the barista about it, and he told us, ‘This is specialty coffee.’ At that moment it became my life mission. It was the most amazing flavor experience—I could identify every flavor and tasting note! That experience became my first introduction to specialty coffee and I have never looked back.”
A dedicated student, Ibrahim had earned a degree in computer science and went on to work in that field before his coffee experience in New York focused his interest in business administration, which he wisely understood would guide the work he dreamed of doing within the coffee realm: opening a specialty-coffee company in Dubai.
Given the universal culture of coffee in the UAE, you might think such a pursuit would have been relatively easy, and it might have been if the word “specialty” was removed from the mission. While coffee is ubiquitous in Arabic culture, the traditional practice is to buy and roast green coffee at home, grind it right after it has cooled, brew, and serve. In most Arabic households, coffee is brewed morning, noon, and night, and serves as a welcome to any guests, dispensed from a dallah—a long spouted jug—black and sometimes spiced with cardamom and saffron.
“I considered it something special when I was child,” Ibrahim says of coffee with fondness. The ritual of coffee preparation and service— which he learned by watching his grandmother, the head of his household, each day—remains an incomparably beautiful and special custom to Ibrahim, even today after he has studied specialty coffee throughout the world. “I frequently saw family and guests enjoying coffee, which made me understand that it is important especially when around people.”
Ibrahim loved that traditional coffee so much that as a child he hoped to incorporate it in some way throughout his life. So perhaps that fateful day in New York was serendipitous. How Ibrahim pursued his coffee education and business after that, however, was due to his inherent capacity to seek excellence in all things.
He earned certifications through the Specialty Coffee Association, attended the American Barista & Coffee School in Portland, Ore., visited cafés around the world for five years, and won the UAE Brewers Cup—all before The Espresso Lab was officially off the ground.
“I remember planning my trips around specialty-coffee shops and we would tour the city on bikes to see as many shops as possible. I would sit for hours at coffee shops, taking notes on their coffee and the experience,” he says. “I used to travel a lot with my father and I owe my entrepreneurial spirit to him, which set off my business thinking.”
Presently specialty-coffee cafés and roasteries in the UAE are everywhere and very much ingrained into the social culture, especially among young people whose Muslim culture prohibits the consumption of alcohol. But in 2015 when Ibrahim launched his company, it was virtually nonexistent. Back then, he says, “The second wave of coffee dominated the market with commercialized coffee at that time, and a true specialty-coffee experience did not exist. The Espresso Lab was effectively the first specialty coffeehouse to go against the grain, and to drive people away from commercialized coffee and consider true specialty coffee, its value, and its sustainability aspects,” he says. “We were also the only ones who did not serve sugar and espresso to-go, which became part of our DNA to maintain the quality of the coffee.”
Today, there are specialty-coffee shops everywhere throughout Dubai, some so popular there are constant queues out the door and stay open until as late as 11 p.m. Ibrahim is delighted to think that The Espresso Lab’s pioneering of specialty coffee in his native Dubai helped inspire the current culture, but he’s not one to rest on his laurels. Between taking source trips with luminaries in the industry such as Australia’s Sasa Sestic; forming relationships with some of the most celebrated growers in the world, including the Lamastus family of Elida Estate in Panama; participating in coffee competitions as well as encouraging his employees to take part; earning his Q Grader certification and supporting his baristas to do the same; and more, Ibrahim is thoroughly invested in the propagation of specialty-coffee culture and appreciation on both local and global levels.
We had the pleasure of talking with Ibrahim about the past, present, and future of coffee in the Arab world, what he has learned about educating consumers, the social culture of coffee in Dubai, and much more.
Sarah Allen: Ibrahim, we have talked about the important role that coffee plays in Arab culture. Can you share with us some early memories of your childhood and coffee intersecting?
Ibrahim Hamza Al Mallouhi: I grew up at my grandmother’s house, and during that time I saw her buy green beans, roast it the traditional way with love and care, and brew an authentic cup with a delightful aroma that one could never forget.
We prepared coffee every morning, noon, and night for ourselves, guests, and everyone else. My grandmother used traditional brewing methods and tools passed on from generations to roast and brew, and she had calibrated her entire process to perfection. Her signature Arabic coffee had no match. Day after day, she would cook, clean, garden, paint, all with love while taking care of us. She did it all so effortlessly, and unconditionally, as she was a great giver. Everything I know about Arabic coffee, eating right, and being passionate is an inherent trait from her.
One of the things I learned from her in particular is to add a bit of spark and joy into our lives and to do small things that make a big difference. “Do what you love and do it with love” was her motto.
SA: What did you aspire to do in your life when you were a child?
IHAM: My grandmother had a big influence on me and I drew inspiration from that. I knew from the beginning that coffee would be a permanent part of my life. I had great interest in the field of business, coding, information technology, and digital security, and I pursued those strongly during my career. The movie The Net made me fall in love with information security. I still have those interests and it has indeed helped me when I conceptualized The Espresso Lab, and it continues to help me to this day as I build the business. Eventually the love for coffee took over and The Espresso Lab was born.
I always dreamt of being the first Arab to present my unique creations to the Muslim world and beyond, and I set my intentions to create a legacy so that the next generations will benefit from them in the long term.
SA: You are an academic by nature, right? How did you approach education in coffee and how did you prepare yourself to open The Espresso Lab?
IHAM: I spent about five years traveling and visiting coffee shops around the world in search of the best specialty coffees. The next step for me was to apply at the American Barista & Coffee School, and I subsequently graduated with a diploma in coffee. I also got my membership from the Specialty Coffee Association and received my official barista certification. Thereafter, I traveled to Vietnam and Ethiopia, where I visited coffee farms and worked closely with farmers to get a holistic insight into the trade of coffee. I concluded my last step by obtaining an executive EMBA from Cass Business School in London so that I could prepare myself for running a successful business.
At that point I knew I was ready to launch my brand. I had a three-year roadmap ready and a clear vision of what I’m going to offer to the world. I had already come up with the name, The Espresso Lab, and logo, and had them trademarked. Within that same period, in May 2015 The Espresso Lab began operations at a small space in Jumeirah. I had also set out a strategy and an expansion plan (which included opening in Abu Dhabi—Qasr Alhosn—and at Dubai Design District as well as a roastery in Al Quoz. I also developed a mission to elevate specialty coffee in our region.
SA: In the absence of alcohol, what role does café culture play in the lives of young people in the UAE?
IHAM: I believe alcohol comes into use because of the absence of better alternatives. Coffeehouses are not a replacement for alcohol bars but are better alternatives to spending one’s time. It appears that the intoxicating experience of alcohol cannot be challenged, but finer things exist in life that can easily compare and exceed it. Many beliefs and religions including Islam forbid or limit the use of alcohol; with that I can roughly estimate a big portion of the population lives out entirely happy lives without a drop of alcohol. The limiting of alcohol is rightfully justified as it can easily get out of hand and alcohol abuse is prevalent. This is especially saddening when it affects the youth.
… Alcohol is easily available throughout the UAE. The only enforced restriction is the age limit. One can literally walk into a bar and drink as long as they are over the age limit, no questions asked. Therefore, I believe given the correct knowledge and understanding, alcohol has no place in a long happy life, and this is the preference of young people here.
SA: In your experience, do Emiratis like to learn about coffee—the stories of the farms, the producers, flavor notes, etc.? And if so, how do you educate them?
IHAM: Yes, and I am very proud to say that they are very interested to learn about coffee farms either via our social media or through a conversation with our team. Some are quite advanced and have developed their tasting senses and they even started to recognize the varieties we introduce.
And it’s not just Emiratis but everyone. We make it a point to fully inform them about their cup. The farmers we work with go to extraordinary lengths, and we make sure to highlight their efforts and their dedication. We educate at many stages—for example, at the order point through cards that we always have at all of our locations. During service the baristas fully explain the coffee and its flavors to the customer. On our website and social media we go into even more detail with videos and informative posts about the origins and processes used in the coffee production. Overall we aim to provide knowledge any way and anywhere we can.
SA: You buy some of the most exclusive and sought-after coffees in the world, including Geshas from Panama as well as the coffee that sold for $4,535/pound from Ninety Plus in 2017. What about those super high-end coffees is exciting to you, and why is it important to you to showcase those phenomenal coffees to your customers?
IHAM: The experience and the privilege to share it with everyone makes it very exciting. The unrevealed (Batch 2105) by Ninety Plus Coffee was the most intriguing coffee I have tried in my entire life and I will never forget the tasting notes, which were a rare combination of persimmon, baby jackfruit, cloves, agua panela, and tamarind. We hosted a special event at The Espresso Lab to showcase this amazing lot along with Ninety Plus founder [Joseph Brodsky] and his team to our exclusive patrons. Following that, I purchased the whole lot to share that astonishing coffee with everyone.
SA: Regarding competitions, how have you and your baristas participated over the years? And what is your personal philosophy about competitions?
IHAM: We started to compete in 2015 and we always placed at the top three rankings. Also, we had the pleasure to represent the UAE during the past World Coffee Championships around the globe. However, competitions for us are mainly a place to gather and meet other champions and experts in our field. That’s why we always attend coffee events and world competitions, as we get the chance to explore and network with great minds and discover new developments. I have learned throughout the years that you don’t need to be a champion to make a change or a title to be a leader. Over the past years I have met several champions and tasted their truly unique competition coffees backstage, yet despite this fact when I visit them at their cafés that same winning competition quality seems to be missing. I believe that we should serve competition coffee to our guests and patrons at our coffeehouses and introduce it to them so that the coffee and the farm receives the credit they deserve, and that people in the UAE and everywhere else have the chance to try it.