How Dubai’s coffee entrepreneurs are supporting sustainable farming

Vision talks to the founders of the UAE’s first roastery about their special journey into the heart of Myanmar to export the first batch of specialty coffee available outside the US

Burn the MBA handbook, for lack of business experience does not preclude starting-up the UAE’s first roastery. It’s ingenuity that brings beans from war-torn Yemen on a bus, two sacks at a time; it’s ethical mettle that supports a co-operative of 70 women to nurture the product; it takes guts and verve to compete in the World Coffee Championships and tattoo the result on your posterior for posterity.

Naivety was never a negative for IT and Tele Communications expert Matt Toogood, who moved with his family from New Zealand five years ago, with “absolutely no intention of going into the coffee business” and yet, going stir crazy setting up the humdrum of domestic life while his wife went to work as an air traffic controller in Dubai, found himself, “through a whole bunch of strange occurrences,” going into business with New Zealand-native Kim Thompson, the founder of RAW Coffee Company, now 10 years old.

“Instead of worrying too much about becoming a big fancy company we thought, ‘why don’t we try and get the product right’,” says Toogood, not long back in the Al Quoz Roastery having just travelled to exotic Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) with Thompson. Together, they traded with farmers who eagerly turned their former cash crop into a limited nano lot for the GCC’s first speciality coffee subscription service under the RAW brand. It will rotate 23 new and rare, hard-to-find coffees and there’s also a new app called RAW Refuel to allows customers to discover the 200 cafés and restaurants in the UAE that serve RAW.  

This really is first come, first served for unusual, delicious coffee. “Those coffees are limited edition – once they’re sold, they’re sold,” says Thompson. “We’re hoping we will have one coffee available for two weeks but if it sells in two days we will have the next coffee.”

Myanmar coffee beans
Thompson and Toogood journeyed to the heart of Myanmar for their coffee business

But before shiny technological progress and global visits, a slew of difficult issues had to be overcome. There still are numerous challenges, Thompson says. From securing trade licenses and visas, convincing the then small market of consumers to forgo over sized Starbucks-style mugs and heavier roasting methods, to creating osmosis units for counteracting desalinated water and finding alternatives to UAE’s lack of dairy farms. However, it’s not impossible, she says. “You have to know what those perimeters are, and create the coffees that work the best with what you have. At the beginning we didn’t know about those challenges, but its definitely better that way, otherwise we wouldn’t have done it.”

Slow burning growth paid off as the pair accrued a pot of first hand knowledge. “Our growth has been slow and organic and the perception might be we could have done more, faster, but as we gained that knowledge we could then apply it,” says Thompson. “We didn’t have the confidence initially to go directly to different countries. Now, every year we go to an origin country and we understand now what to look for.”

Instinct and confidence was everything when it came to sourcing coffee from the lush, pagoda-strewn landscape of Myanmar. Although the South East Asian nation has been growing commercial grade Arabica coffee for more than 170 years, it was a commodity C-grade coffee, says Thompson, in shrouded smallholdings at the backs of houses. There was no access to information, no idea of how to get the product to market, so it was being sold as a cash crop to local Asian buyers instead. The potential was sadly squandered when the altitude, the weather, the soil, the agronomy, everything was indicative of it becoming a very valuable crop very quickly, she says.

The business partners were already well versed in international travel, following the bean to Columbia, South America and beyond, and Thompson even owns a square of land in Bali – though she squashes any mention of growing her own coffee as “foolish.” We didn’t know Myanmar had potential, she says, but trusted Andrew Hertzal of the Coffee Quality Institute (CQI), who invited the pair to see the fruits of a US$27m project set up by the US Agency for International Aid (USAID) and Winrock International (a non-profit International Development foundation) in 2014 to help five small farming co-operatives to improve their harvest, processing and grading systems.

“Everywhere we went we were blown away by how clean the coffee was,” says Thompson. “They pick the coffee cherry and they dry it, and the fruit and the sugars is very concentrated so it has an unusual flavour. We first tried it nine years ago in Ethiopia and it wasn’t clean, whereas these farmers have imported the materials they need to dry and process that coffee with really good agronomy practices.”

So much impacts the flavour of the coffee. There’s wash process, honey process, and dry process; it depends on the rain, water, and if it’s the right time of the year.

Traditional local methods might be romantic and arcane, but also restrictive. “Agronomy practices are handed down generation to generation and can be quite isolated, so if a farmer’s grandfather has always used a dry processing system its quite likely they will still do that,” continues Thompson. “So much impacts the flavour of the coffee that we ask that it be processed in a certain way. There’s wash process, honey process, and dry process and it depends on the rain, water and if it’s the right time of the year. In South East Asia for example, if it’s really humid it might make it difficult to dry the fruit. You can have the right sunshine, the altitude, the trace minerals in the soil, the right variety of tree that grows, but if it’s not processed properly then it’s lost.”

With the help of Winrock, USAID, CQI and now RAW, the yield rapidly improved 15 points on the CQI scoring system, to a strong 88.5 –which places the coffee in the high grade specialty quality level and represents a 150% increase year on year in yield and grade. “We brought back 30kg and roasted it a couple of days ago just to do a marketing exercise and it scored 88 – that is amazing,” Thompson says. “With good roasting and focus on the quality of the water, we’re really excited about it. We’ve just bought a lot more from a farm that we really liked so we’re going to commit to 50 local small farm holders and we will buy it year on year if they can maintain that quality.”

RAW’s insistence on quality is literally ingrained in Toogood’s skin, who five years ago sent himself a personal goal to compete in the World Coffee Championships, and “spent three months focusing on nothing but getting the best I possibly could out of a particular coffee,” he says. “The first thing to get the product right is to learn how to make it correctly.

“You’re not a barista until you’ve got a tattoo – I’ve got a few now; I’ve got a company logo tattooed and the number 38 in Arabic which was my placing in the World competition of 38. I was really disappointed in that, for me, it reminded me that I had everything going but I had forgotten the major thing, which was the water. I didn’t think past what was directly in front of me.’”

coffee at raw coffee
The flavour of the water is as important as the taste of the coffee bean in a good cup of coffee

For those unpracticed in the art of chemex, cupping and cortado, “getting the best” out of a particular coffee in a competition environment is so complex that Toogood no longer competes – though what the international stage loses, customers at Al Quoz espresso bar gain. “There’s no way I’d ever compete again, the level of competition now is just so extreme and the quality of the coffees that people are using are just mind-blowing,” he says.

But before retiring from the scene that sounds as if it has much nail-biting performance potential as a televised serial to rival foodie favourite the Great British Bake Off, Toogood won the UAE Championships in the barista discipline and then sauntered off to Austria to compete in the World Championships where he “learned possibly the most valuable lesson in coffee.”

“That is, how important water is to the final taste of your coffee,” he says. “I took a coffee that tasted amazing in the UAE but when I got to Austria it just didn’t have any of its vibrancy because the water is so different.”

Taste and instinct is everything, he says, emphasising that there are over 800 different flavours that can be found in a coffee. Yes, 800. My coffee today, he muses – and this professional consumes up four or five double espressos by lunchtime and then two or three brewed coffees in a day – “smells like sandalwood and cloves and it tastes like blueberries and jam, it has this little hint of bergamo like you get in an Early Grey tea, it’s just stunning.” For the thing to remember about RAW’s philosophy its that, “It’s not coffee drinking; it’s awakening the senses.”