New Zealander Kim Thompson of the RAW Coffee Company is on a mission to import – and then roast – the best coffee in Dubai. After finding flaws with the Fairtrade process, she set out to go one better...
What’s your story, Kim?
I moved here 21 years ago for my then-husband’s job at Emirates Airlines and I ran a café for a few years at the Jebel Ali Sailing Club. I became interested in coffee, and realised there was no one here who was roasting their own beans. I figured there was a gap in the market.
What were your goals?
We wanted to offer coffee that was locally roasted, organic certified and ethically traded. We tried Fairtrade, but that process was getting a bashing in the media at the time and we looked into direct trade with small farms instead. It means they don’t have to spend money on Fairtrade accreditation, and it also means we can source the very best beans from the farm owners themselves and ensure they get a good price that goes directly to them.
What’s the supply chain from typical bean to cup in a “less responsible” coffee shop?
The supply chain is totally price-driven for most chains and hotels and restaurants, because it’s all about profit margins. It also usually means lower-quality coffee. For us, the key driver is quality and you only get that when you’re buying the best quality green beans. When we started out, we didn’t have enough knowledge to source directly but as we learned more about the industry and had the chance to travel to the places where coffee is grown, we developed relationships with farmers and cooperatives, for example in Ethiopia, Yemen and Myanmar.
What’s it like to visit one of the farms?
It’s very third world; these are seriously poor countries and coffee is often the number one export. What we’re looking for is the best-quality plants with the healthiest coffee cherries and communities where the people seem happy, have access to fresh water and hopefully infrastructure and schools for the children. When we see that everything is OK and depending on the quality of the pre-shipment sample, we then commit to buying, which means they no longer have the risk of not being able to sell their crop. It’s symbiotically really good for both parties.
Do you have to pay top dollar?
Usually, yes, because buying the best typically means more work for them – it takes more grading, and we ask for traceability, too. If we can see there is one particular farm where the cherries are healthy and the agronomy practices are really good, we can ask for traceable green beans to roast and cup from that farm.
When you’re scouting for new beans out in the field, how do you make an assessment of what’s going to give a good brew?
You can tell a lot by the health of the plant – you have to make a decision on which part of the cycle you want to see; it could be the flowering, the fruit being picked when it’s red and ripe, the pruning or the drying. We’ve got a roaster that we can plug in and we can roast 50g there and then, grind it and make a cup to see what it tastes like – although we prefer to bring samples back to Dubai so that we can control the variables with the grinder and water quality.
Why are beans roasted – and what makes a good roast?
The bean is the green thing inside the fruit and you just can’t grind it and drink it. There are 800 chemical compounds in coffee: It’s really dense, hard and you can’t bite it at all. You have to roast it to get the chemicals to change, the sugars to caramelise; it creates different flavours and aromatics that you need for the coffee to taste good and also to be something you can grind.
Can you tell an African coffee from a Colombian one by taste and smell?
Yes. You’re looking at the aroma, the acidity, the body of flavour, and the aftertaste. Different origins have really distinctive flavours – assuming they’re processed in the same way. If they are, a Colombian has usually got quite a good body and is rich-tasting with sweet, citric acidity and has a nice chocolate finish, whereas an Ethiopian will have a lighter body and is quite floral and fragrant. It could even be tea-like in its flavour.
If I was coffee mad, what kind of gadgets could I buy right now?
I asked the team about this recently and there’s a German hand grinder called Commandante that we all love. A lot of us have hand brewers at home such as one from Japan called the Hario V60. It makes a beautiful cup of coffee.
Also read: South Indian coffee in the UAE
What do I need to make great coffee at home?
A grinder. You should buy beans that are roasted near to you so that they’re fresh, and then grind them for the best coffee – that’s the single most important thing. You lose a lot of the quality of the aromatics and the taste of the coffee within a few minutes of grinding because the coffee oxidises, so pre-ground coffee stored in an airtight container will never be as good.
What is your personal coffee ‘pet hate’?
It used to be when people asked for extra-hot milk; the milk in a coffee should never be heated over 65°C because it thins and impacts the flavour, but I don’t get annoyed about that any more. If a customer likes their coffee hot, that’s their preference – but I can’t help trying to explain why it will taste better if it’s not.