The true origins of coffee

Though the modern associations of coffee come from the proliferation of Western retail chains, Dubai's coffee museum celebrates the ancient history of the bean

The enticing smell of coffee hits us almost as soon as we enter the maze of gypsum houses and wind-towers of Dubai’s Al Fahidi Historical Neighbourhood, guiding us to a traditional villa with a quaint sign – Coffee Museum.

In a country besotted with its daily cuppa – the average UAE resident drinks the equivalent of more than 3.5kg of coffee per year – the museum has been built as a fitting tribute to the ever growing cult of coffee. Khalid Al Mulla, the Director of the museum, has spent the last 3 years scouring the world for rare coffee artifacts to realise this dream. Helped by Dubai Culture, and his partners Dr. Hessa Lootah and Dr. Muna Al Bahar, this unique museum will finally open its doors to the public later this month.

Each and every artifact on display, carefully curated from across the world, has a story to tell.

Clay ‘Jamena’ or coffeepots that were excavated in Yemen talk of an ancient time hundreds of years ago, when the Yemenis were the first people in the world to learn the art of brewing coffee. In another room, a coffee grinder tells the story of World War 2, when the high need for artillery led to an acute shortage of metal. The urgent need for coffee led to innovations of metal grinders made entirely of discarded bullets!

coffee museum
Dubai’s Al Fahidi Historical Neighbourhood is home to the Coffee Museum

Upstairs, a small library is home to rare manuscripts about the magical coffee bean; some extolling its virtues, others studying its dark effects. One of these books equates coffee with poison and quite possibly played a part in the invention of ‘Decaf’.

Adding to the power of these stories is the skill of the storyteller. Khalid al Mulla, the brains behind the Coffee Museum, is so passionate about his project that it reflects in each word he says.

As he regales me with the story of Khaldi, the Ethiopian goatherd who inadvertently discovered coffee when he noticed his goats acting strange after eating some beans, a small cup of dark coffee is slipped into my hands. It’s all so seamless. Sipping on the finest Ethiopian coffee while travelling back in time to where it all began.

So how is it that all modern images and associations of coffee are from the West?

Ethiopia discovered the coffee bean and The Yemen taught us how to brew it. However, according to legend, it was not until the retreating Turks left some of it behind during the famous battle of Vienna in the 1600s, that the West first got a whiff of this heady drink. After that, it was a matter of time before the first Cafés would come up in Vienna.

Soon, the coffee-shop culture swept the West. And eventually came back to the East.

Today, with the explosion of international coffee shops in the UAE and with each multinational brand from Costa to Nespresso targeting the growing UAE market, one almost tends to forget that here in the Arab world, coffee was a local tradition much before it became a coveted import.

The average UAE resident drinks the equivalent of more than 3.5kg of coffee per year

Al Mulla talks of the traditional Arab Majlis, where members of the community sat together every evening, roasting, brewing and drinking cup after cup of ‘Qahwah’ or Arabic coffee. In fact, here in the UAE, you’ll find odes to coffee in the unlikeliest of places – the next time you have a Dirham coin in your hand, flip it over and you’ll see an image of the ‘Dallah’ or traditional coffee pot!

The UAE is one of the fastest growing markets for coffee and is poised to be worth $112 million by 2017. Now, Khalid Al Mulla hopes this momentum will help the Coffee Museum restore the ‘wine of the east’ to its deserved place in the region.