Coffee has long been part of the social fabric of Kuwaiti culture. For centuries, people have drunk traditional Arabic coffee to welcome people into their house, facilitate negotiations, and more.
But specialty coffee is also present in Kuwait, and interest in it is growing fast. How does it fit into the country’s historic coffee culture? What does Kuwaiti specialty coffee look like? And why is it becoming so popular among the country’s younger residents?
I got in touch with Khalid Malallah, Co-Founder and Roaster of Kôfē Espresso Bar, to find out more about the exciting growth of speciality in Kuwait. Kôfē Espresso Bar is a small chain of three coffee shops based in Kuwait City, and one of the earliest proponents of third wave coffee there. Who better to tell me all about the country’s coffee culture?
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Specialty lattes to go. Credit: Kôfē Espresso Bar
Kuwait’s Traditional Coffee Culture
Arabic coffee, or qahwah arabiyya, typically refers to a style of coffee-brewing unique to the Middle East. “If you go back in history, all Arabic cultures used to get their coffee from Yemen. But this [style of brewing] coffee is unique to the region,” Khalid tells me. “It’s prepared in Turkey, the Middle East, Egypt, Syria… because it came through our culture during the Ottoman Empire.”
Yet depending on where you are in the Middle East, you might be served a slightly different cup. “The further south you move [into Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Region] the lighter the coffee [roast] is – it’s almost blond,” he says, chuckling. “But if you move north, the colour of the coffee is darker.”
Lighter roasts are a hallmark of Arabic coffee, one that has its roots deep in the past. “[Historically], they roasted it over an open fire,” Khalid says. “They roasted it very, very lightly, even lighter than the degree of a light espresso would be.”
Eurocentric roasting practices might result in it being labelled “grassy”, he tells me with a laugh. “If you are familiar with levels of roasting, right before the first crack comes this grassy [taste]. So, they just remove the chaff off it, and grind it by hand with mortar and pestle.”
To counteract the light roast, Arabic coffee would historically be mixed with spices, although what spices you taste could, again, vary depending on your location. Most Middle Eastern countries have their own interpretations of Arabic coffee. Khalid says, “In the south of the continent, they tend to mix it with cardamom.” But cloves and saffron could also be used, and sometimes the coffee is sweetened.
Discover more in Coffee Farms & Guest Rites: Exploring Arabic Coffee in Saudi Arabia
Third wave coffee, traditional Arabic brewing methods. Credit: Kôfē Espresso Bar
The Rise of Café Culture
“All of us drink Arabic coffee, the older generation and the younger,” Khalid tells me. But it’s not the only coffee you’ll find in Kuwait.
“[People in their] 50-60s don’t drink espresso too much, and are just aware of Turkish/Arabic coffee. People in their 40s became aware of ‘Americanised’ coffee, like Americanos, filters, espressos, etc., because this culture came to us when [people] were studying abroad in the United States. And our generation now, in our 30s and [younger]… we are very much in touch with specialty.”
Of course, it’s not only abroad that people encountered Westernised coffee culture. Khalid tells me that several multinational corporations made coffee shops trendy in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s. Starbucks opened its first Kuwaiti outlet in 1999 and was shortly followed by other large chains.
The third wave coffee shop. Credit: Kôfē Espresso Bar
Specialty Coffee Is in Demand
Khalid admits that when he started getting into specialty coffee, it was mainly restricted to small market shops and stalls for the avant-garde. However, the multinational coffee chains of the ‘90s and ‘00s allowed third wave influences to filter into Kuwait.
In fact, specialty coffee culture is growing across the whole region: according to Jamie Goodwin writing for Arabian Business in 2016, the Middle East represents 8%, or US $6.5 billion, of global spending on coffee. In the United Arab Emirates, for example, more than US $544.5 million was spent on coffee in 2015: this represented a 10% rise on the previous year.
In Kuwait, it’s easy to see the growing interest in third wave coffee. Khalid reckons that there are now more than 250 specialty coffee shops in the country, catering mainly to younger drinkers.
“Internationally, the third wave is booming, as you know, especially in Europe and the United States,” Khalid says. “[In Kuwait], we noticed these developments in coffee and, in general, young people… want to try new things. I think this is the reason behind the production of specialty coffee here.”
Filter coffee to-go. Or to-stay, with a good book. Credit: Kôfē Espresso Bar
The Kuwaiti Palate
“V60 and cold drip: those are the two major [specialty] methods that people prefer here in Kuwait,” Khalid tells me. With Kuwait’s long summers and arid climate, maybe this shouldn’t come as a surprise.
What is perhaps more surprising, however, is the fact that Kuwaitis also tend to prefer dark roasts profiles. While the spiced Arabic coffee may suit light roasts, when it comes to espresso and filter, consumers like something more developed.
And while specialty lovers are turning to V60, that’s not true of the general population. “There may be 10% out of the major coffee-drinking [demographic] who prefer straight black coffee, like espressos, V60s,” Khalid says, “but the vast majority, they like milky, sugary drinks.”
A latte and a hot chocolate: the perfect drinks for the average Kuwaiti consumer. Credit: Kôfē Espresso Bar
Two Coffee Traditions, Two Social Roles
Arabic and westernised coffee: is this a clash or a collaboration? For Khalid, the two simply fill different needs. Coffee has long been a social ritual in Kuwait, and this hasn’t changed. It’s just that there are new traditions being formed, with their own distinct type of coffee.
“We have this place at the end of the day, we call it a diwaniya or dewaniya,” Khalid says. Visiting or hosting a diwaniya was historically an integral part of a Kuwaiti man’s social life. Today, the term refers to a reception hall in which men entertain their business colleagues or male guests, as well as the actual gathering held within it. “Men and their friends tend to gather together, close ones, and the basic drinks that we offer are tea and coffee.”
Yet younger Kuwaitis also gravitate towards specialty cafés as a place to socialise. In a country where alcohol is illegal, the alternative of consuming caffeine in a social context has taken off massively – but not without some degree of debate. For example, certain Kuwaiti ministers of Parliament are calling for mixed-gender coffee shops to be shut down, deeming them “a moral menace”.
Khalid is also quick to point out how Kuwait’s specialty coffee culture compares to its neighbours in terms of coffee and socialising. “If you want to compare it to the Saudi Arabian market, Saudi Arabia is much more into [retail] coffee bags than in Kuwait.”
“[It’s] because most of them drink their coffee at home… and a lot of their population are women, who cannot go out every once in a while to coffee shops,” he adds. “If you prepare coffee at home, you tend not to notice [cafés] very much.”
Perhaps that’s also one of the factors shaping Kuwait’s café culture. “The market is booming more on the coffee shop side in Kuwait,” Khalid says. “You tend to find more coffee shops than roasteries, that’s maybe one of the reasons you find fewer roasters here than in Saudi Arabia, for example. They are far ahead of us in terms of roasting.”
Khalid estimates that about 5% of the coffee shops in Kuwait are either directly affiliated with a roastery or roast their own coffee.
French press coffee, ready to drink. Credit: Kôfē Espresso Bar
What’s The Future of Kuwait’s Third Wave Coffee?
Will Arabic coffee be consigned to the past as younger generations slowly turn to specialty? Is it possible to bring the two worlds of Arabic and specialty coffee into contact? And how can Kuwait’s specialty pioneers continue to interest people in the third wave?
“When it comes to coffee, no two single individuals can have the same taste,” Khalid reminds me. For him, this idea of individual tastes is key.
“In Western coffees, most… will have espresso as the base of the drink,” he says. “I found that each place I go, if I order espresso, they will give me a house blend. So, my idea was to have two single origins… It started with Sumatran versus Indian, Kenyan versus Ethiopian, then Mexico versus… Guatemala.”
This affords customers the luxury of choosing the strength of the espresso and the taste, he says. “If they want the light taste of coffee, they can go for the Kenyan… if they want the extra dark, I offer the Sumatran as an extra-dark option.”
Khalid is also optimistic about being able to marry Kuwait’s two coffee cultures. In fact, one of his side-projects is developing his own version of the flavour wheel for Arabic coffee. What will set this flavour wheel apart, however, is that it will focus on pairing complementary spices with different coffee flavour profiles.
“I want to make a guide to how each type of bean [complements] which type of spices we tend to mix into the beverage,” he says. “Like a Kenyan coffee might go better with cardamom than with saffron, for example, or a Sumatran might go better with cloves, that kind of thing. I want to push a third wave of Arabic coffee.”
V60 coffee, one of the most popular specialty brewing methods in Kuwait. Credit: Kôfē Espresso Bar
Kuwaiti coffee is full of promise. It has growing demand and market stability, a long history of coffee consumption, and a younger generation thirsty for a new type of coffee culture.
But specialty coffee here isn’t like coffee in New York, or London, or Melbourne. No, specialty coffee here has its own unique tradition, shaped both by Arabic culture and the Western third wave.
Written by Sierra Burgess-Yeo.
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