To Bean or Not to Bean: Tests for Beirut’s Coffee Startups

Last Saturday morning at Aaliya’s Books cafe in Gemmayzeh a small group of people gathered around a variety of technical-looking instruments. Jan Schuitemaker tinkered with a glass bowl with a flame below and a cone-shaped device with a hole in the bottom. He is a Dutch coffee distributor and training consultant, and he was demonstrating how to make the perfect brew.

The free event had been organized by Nader Hamadeh, a 29-year-old Lebanese coffee entrepreneur.

Hamadeh owns a roastery named Coffee Dimensions and hired Schuitemaker to teach both his staff and those gathered at Aaliya’s how to improve their brewing.

Hamadeh is also setting up a concept store “selling beans and to market specialty coffee … and coffee techniques to improve the industry and to improve our wholesale business,” Hamadeh told The Daily Star.

At the “Third Wave Coffee” store, located in Gemmayzeh, clients will be able to sample coffees from all over the world before buying them. It is not, he insisted, a coffee shop: “We don’t want to invest in a coffee shop directly because all our clients are coffee shops.”

“Around the world coffee is booming,” Schuitemaker said, and Beirut is ripe for coffee enthusiasts like Hamadeh. “You have many outlets of coffee [in Beirut] and I think there is still room for more, especially for the better quality coffee.”

Hamadeh and Schuitemaker are passionate advocates of the new school of coffee, which is often more lightly roasted, with more rounded, less bitter flavors. “It’s very difficult to convince people to buy coffee that’s not roasted dark,” Hamadeh said. “It’s old-school.” As a result, much of Hamadeh’s efforts are about educating those involved in the coffee industry about the latest thinking – from the consumer, to the wholesale client, to the barista.

However, Schuitemaker pointed out that Beirut’s diverse, metropolitan population is the ideal market for the avant-garde of the coffee industry. “There are so many people from other countries visiting Beirut. … They all have seen different styles of coffee and they all are looking for better-quality coffee,” he said.

There are, however, also financial difficulties to surmount in what is a fairly specialist market.

“It’s a very small industry, equipment is very specific, focused on coffee, which makes it expensive,” Schuitemaker said.

Trying to match prices with the established market leaders, who have greater purchasing power, is a challenge. Hamadeh said that a direct purchase of $5,000 of beans would equate to approximately $15 per kilogram.

“If I order from [shipping] containers it will decrease to $5,” he said. This is not the only area in which the established corporations have an edge. “Cafe Najjar pays each month $100,000 on marketing,” he claimed. “We started our whole business with $10,000.”

Hamadeh said that those starting a small business can be under pressure to pay bribes to facilitate the bureaucratic process or be given permission to operate newly purchased machinery, or for businesses relying on imports to have goods released from the port.

It has taken Hamadeh three years to set up his business, a process he believes could have only taken one without the barriers he faced.

Nicolas Tueni, minister of state for combating corruption, told The Daily Star, “Corruption of this nature is often heard of.”

He advocates introducing electronic purchasing permits, which would reduce corruption among midlevel officials, but equally warned against paying bribes, as that too is a crime.

Despite the difficulties he has faced, Hamadeh is excited for his business. “What we want for the future is to make a difference to the local market in the coffee industry,” he said. As a specialist, he doesn’t harbor ambitions to go commercial.

“We would make a lot of money maybe,” he said, “but we wouldn’t be a specialist or happy about it. This is not us.”

 

By Finbar Anderson

 

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