As a child, Ibrahim Al Mallouhi would sit fireside, watching his grandmother roast green coffee over the open flames. Once the beans were a rich, dark brown, she would cool and grind them, immediately adding hot water and spices, then offer the freshly brewed coffee to guests or family members who had gathered.
This type of coffee service is typical in the United Arab Emirates, where Al Mallouhi grew up, so when he tasted a cappuccino at Fika in New York City, he implored the barista to explain why the coffee was so much better than anything he’d had before. “He explained they were serving specialty coffee,” Al Mallouhi recalls. “I immediately started searching specialty coffee on Google.”
Al Mallouhi came across companies like George Howell Coffee, Intelligentsia, Stumptown, and Blue Bottle. What began as an internet query turned into a full-fledged coffee tour: he began visiting coffee shops all around the United States, including a road trip from San Diego to Seattle. “I started my coffee journey out of curiosity, love, and wanting to understand the mechanics behind that cup of joe that changed my life,” he says.
That desire led Al Mallouhi to take classes at the American Barista & Coffee School, complete barista certification courses with the SCAE, and undergo more training with the SCAA. As Al Mallouhi built his coffee knowledge, he began to form plans for the Espresso Lab. He recruited and trained baristas, visited farms in Ethiopia and established trade partnerships, imported additional coffee from Cafe Imports, and rented space in a roastery. Al Mallouhi hired roaster Freddy Warrens and they began to prepare coffee on a five-kilogram Probat.
The Espresso Lab opened in May 2015 in a residential area of Dubai. The neighborhood setting encourages one-on-one interaction with customers, as if guests were stepping into Al Mallouhi’s home. The warm tones of the long wooden bar are soft and welcoming, inviting customers to interact directly with baristas and explore the plethora of brewing methods offered in the shop. A single community table accounts for the shop’s seating, a dining room–like arrangement that prioritizes service and guest interaction.
“When I opened the Espresso Lab, my main aim was to educate people about specialty coffee,” he says. “When customers come in asking for a latte or cappuccino, we explain that we serve coffee in a different way: in sizes of four to eight ounces, and single origin. When people ask about the differences, we’re able to start giving them more information about the coffee: the growing altitude, the tasting notes, what part of the farm the coffee comes from.”
Armed with abundant patience, a full stock of manual brewing gear, and a two-group Synesso, Al Mallouhi and his staff are equipped to deliver whatever coffee experience customers request. “It’s a space for you to unwind, learn about specialty coffee, and enjoy my version of a perfect cup of coffee,” he says.
The etched wooden menus illustrate offerings and brew methods, serving as a visual guide for coffee newcomers. Guests looking for a curated experience can order Fika—served on a custom-designed tray—which allows customers to taste an off-menu flight of espresso neat, espresso with milk, and brewed coffee.
The meticulous training and planning that went into creating the Espresso Lab has been reflected in the success outside the shop: Espresso Lab baristas claimed victory in both the 2015 and 2016 UAE Barista Championship, as well as the 2016 Latte Art and Brewers Cup Championships.
Though the Espresso Lab serves to inspire a new movement in Dubai, Al Mallouhi hopes to influence change across the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), a union of Arab states which border the Persian Gulf: Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. Each month, Al Mallouhi meets with coffee business owners from member countries to share knowledge about specialty coffee and promote industry growth within the GCC. “We’re working together to come up with ways to assist and support each other and raise awareness about
—Ellie Bradley is Fresh Cup‘s editor.