The roots of coffee culture lie deep within the Middle East, which is home to some of the oldest coffee-drinking traditions.
The region holds significant cultural ties to one of the most widely consumed beverages.
Notably, both Arabic coffee and Turkish coffee traditions are listed as Intangible Cultural Heritage by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO).
UNESCO established this list in 2008 to ensure better protection of important cultural practices and heritages worldwide, and to create an awareness of their significance.
In recent years, the specialty coffee movement has swept through the Middle East, gaining significant traction among its younger generation.
To understand more about Middle Eastern coffee trends, I spoke with the owner of Caffeine Kuwait, Mohammad Alhasan, and former sales manager of Kia Coffee Gostar in Iran, Alireza Arafati.
Coffee culture in the Middle East
The Middle East has played an integral role in the spread of coffee culture around the world.
Namely, the word “coffee” derives from “qahwa” – the Arabic word for coffee. It is believed coffee originated from Ethiopia before making its way to the rest of the world through Yemen.
During the 1200s, Sufi monks used caffeine as a stimulant to help keep them awake during long prayer sessions. Soon, it spread throughout the Arabian Peninsula and later across Europe.
Traditionally, coffee is enjoyed at home and in public coffeehouses, also known as qahveh khaneh, which first appeared in the city of Istanbul.
Serving coffee to guests is considered a symbol of hospitality and generosity within Middle Eastern society.
In addition to co-owning Caffeine Kuwait, Mohammad has almost a decade of experience in the coffee industry. He noted coffee as an ingrained part of Middle Eastern culture, with Arabic coffee being the starting point.
The arrival of Western coffee chains, such as Starbucks and Caribou Coffee, revolutionised cafe culture in the region. Furthermore, it introduced local consumers to cappuccinos, lattes, espressos, and a variety of other cafe drinks.
“Before the arrival of specialty coffee, consumers in the gulf region, particularly in Kuwait, were mostly familiar with commercial coffee which stemmed from the second coffee wave,” says Mohammad, who also runs a coffee school.
Then, in 2014, specialty coffee began appearing in the region. “We saw the trend grow from Kuwait to Saudi and Dubai,” he says. “At the beginning, people were mostly looking for either dark roast or sweetened drinks. As time went on, we saw more knowledge, awareness, and appreciation for specialty coffee.”
Alireza has 11 years of experience as a barista and says Turkish coffee, also known as Ibrik, is a culturally significant beverage within the country.
“However, we have seen a rising interest in espresso-based beverages and third wave coffee among the younger generation,” he says.
Notably, recent research shows the Middle East is one of the fastest growing markets for coffee consumption, in addition to a thriving specialty scene.
Middle Eastern coffee roasting trends
Consumers in the Middle East have been drinking coffee for centuries, and practice a unique way of coffee roasting.
In particular, the traditional Arabic coffee is roasted differently from specialty coffee. Mohammad explains coffee roasted for personal consumption is usually roasted over an open fire, relying heavily on sight, smell, and the experience of the roaster.
“Arabic coffees are usually lightly roasted – right around cinnamon all the way to just after the first crack,” Mohammad says. “But there are also some dark roasted Arabic coffees.”
To incorporate flavour, it is common to add spices, such as saffron, cinnamon, or cloves, to the brewing process.
Furthermore, each region has its own unique roast style and brewing recipes. For instance, coffee in the gulf region is typically lighter, brewed with cardamom, and served without milk or sugar.
Alternatively, Egyptian coffee is often served with a layer of foam, while Lebanese coffee is usually stronger and served black.
With the specialty coffee scene flourishing in the Middle East, more coffee roasters are adapting their roast style to appeal to local tastes.
Alireza explains that consumers in Iran tend to prefer bitterness and like their coffee to be strong, but not overly acidic.
“In Iran and Turkey, when it comes to single origin or specialty coffee, the method is fast roasting to keep the flavours within the first crack,” Alireza says. “For blends, things are done differently, as roasters usually aim for the second crack to present coffee with a stronger taste.”
Mohammad agrees that the majority of Middle Eastern are used to flavours that are darker, smokier, and with low acidity.
“Medium to medium dark is the preferred roast profile in the Middle East,” he explains. “There are few roasteries that offer light roasts, because there are fewer people who enjoy it.”
What can roasters learn from Middle Eastern coffee trends?
As an emerging coffee market, the Middle East offers attractive business opportunities for specialty coffee roasters.
However, there are a few things that roasters should note to ensure a successful market entry.
Mohammad recalls the challenges he faced when first operating in the specialty coffee space.
“The local market is used to the darker and smokier roast that has been widely available,” he says. “Coming in with specialty coffee, I noticed the difficulty in trying to elevate consumers’ palate to something more medium and fruity.”
Therefore, he points out the importance of staying open-minded and having a deep understanding of consumers’ needs.
“We have to respect that they have been drinking coffee for a while and like it in a specific way,” he says.
Mohammad’s advice to roasters is to listen to consumers to understand what they like, and why. “Then you can offer something that is close and take them through the specialty journey step-by-step.”
Alireza agrees, adding when roasters understand what kind of roast method fits best for each country, they can choose what is best to represent.”
That said, Middle Eastern consumers are becoming more receptive towards non-traditional coffee flavours.
Mohammad notes he has seen that an increasing number of consumers are able to differentiate between specialty and commercial coffee. Additionally, more consumers have preferences towards specific flavour profiles and coffee origins.
Therefore, other than modulating roast profiles, packaging will play an essential role in satisfying the curiosity of the Middle Eastern market.
In particular, including information on the story behind the coffee, its producers and farm, as well as brewing instructions, would be a sensible approach.
With sustainability being a central theme across the specialty sector, Alireza believes this is another factor that roasters should be mindful of. Packaging is made attractive not only through its design but also by how it is created with minimal impact on the environment.
At MTPak Coffee, we offer a range of sustainable coffee packaging made from eco-friendly materials, such as kraft or rice paper with a LDPE or PLA lining.
In addition to our water-based inks, which are low in volatile organic compounds, roasters have the option to digitally print custom coffee bags to showcase the unique story of their coffee.
Our printing technology allows a 40-hour turnaround with 24-hour shipping time and low minimum order quantity (MOQs).