My previous exposé, “The Underbelly of UAE Coffee“, might have roused curiosity and maybe even pricked the conscience of some. It undeniably succeeded in more than merely nudging the conscience; it stirred the guilty, the weavers of deception, as it should have.
In its wake, my inbox burgeoned with confessions and testimonials. Communications flowed in from UAE’s green coffee merchants, international farmers and cooperatives that supply the UAE, local roastery owners, and a brigade of café owners, each one unfurling a tale of business turbulence, shedding light on the weighty toll this so-called ‘Barista Mafia’ has levied on their businesses.
Following several deliberations, I found myself digging deeper, posing the question – are the baristas simply casualties of their own doing? I arrived at a sobering realisation that Baristas may be considered as pawns, foot soldiers in a convoluted plot devised by a few, hell-bent on hoodwinking their way to short-term victories, while recklessly tarnishing the purity and future of the specialty coffee market*.
Is there a path to redemption that safeguards the barista vocation for the budding generations, ensuring a pay scale that genuinely echoes their skill and zeal to uplift the industry?
First, let’s draw the veil for some of our fellow besieged coffee suppliers. Proprietors from diverse UAE roasteries have surfaced, their accounts uncannily identical. They depicted encounters with certain wily individuals who stealthily undercut their sales and beguiled their customers by forging direct ties with baristas. The lure? Pledges of sizeable commissions to sway them to, in turn, trick cafe owners into switching suppliers.
Several café owners were far from mere silent spectators. They unveiled stories of intricate incentive schemes, devised by dishonest individuals to entice their staff. Achieving monthly coffee consumption targets by any means necessary, it was implied, would reward them with high-tech gadgets, and in some instances, the standout baristas over a 12-month span could potentially steer home in a shiny new vehicle.
The bitter irony of this skewed reality didn’t escape my notice. The chief architects of this scheme amounting to a scant seven ‘mastermind’ roasteries and the staff operating amongst them — each masquerading as social media crusaders, putting their ‘hard-earned’ laurels on display, pledging support for the advancement of specialty coffee knowledge, seen hand picking coffee cherries and exchanging cordial handshakes with farmers and producers alike. The spectacle is as rich as a well-brewed cup of irony. A sham, a show so grand, it could nearly deceive even the most discerning observer. Yet soon enough, this facade will collapse, inevitably exposing the unsightly reality beneath.
Coffee aficionados should hear of another discrepancy – coffee served at numerous sophisticated cafes across the nation may not be the same coffee these puppet masters fervently market or distribute as samples. Think again! A classic bait-and-switch tactic is all too commonplace, as aptly called out by a handful of well-established café operators in Dubai.
The limelight-loving, “marketing coffees” – perhaps available in more limited quantities – routinely bask in the public eye. They serve as the favoured prop in influencers’ hands or as co-stars in flashy social media advertisements nobly beside images of the hardworking producers, who speak passionately about their prized crops. Meanwhile, lurking in the backdrop, are the scheming baristas, secretly brewing your coffee from a forgotten stash of 3-year old harvests.
This makes for an apt segue into my dialogues with the green coffee traders, farmers, and coffee cooperatives that cater to the UAE. Their accounts painted a grim portrait of the past four years, marked by a disturbing shift towards a price-centric mindset, overshadowing the pursuit of quality. Their experiences echoed in unison— more roasters are consciously opting to secure older crops of esteemed coffees due to the significant cost reductions. It doesn’t take an entrepreneurial acumen to deduce that this troubling trajectory is an attempt to win back business or even recoup margins eroded by clandestine payments to baristas across the country.
Organised crime necessitates a leader to thrive, and with baristas reaping the bounties as beneficiary ‘associates’, it seems prudent to infer that the roasters sit atop this pyramid of deceit, effectively redirecting the global gaze towards a ‘Roaster Mafia’ lurking in the shadowy corners of this nation.
Label it as you will, the harsh truth is that the aftershocks of these factions are as unsavoury as an over-extracted brew. Coffee producers and traders dealing with UAE coffee businesses find themselves in a bind, compelled to shift their focus from the quality of their current harvests. The reason? Simply because they either can’t offload their produce within the same year of harvest or they can’t command fair pricing.
Ultimately, the unwitting victims in this game of deception, unfortunately, are the unsuspecting consumers. One local trader, much to his surprise, discovered his two-year-old green coffee, once celebrated with an 84-point rating, had been procured by a roaster earlier this year and now, it is being peddled at a Dubai café as a ‘fresh’ crop with an inflated 89-point rating.
As for which certified specialty grader assigned this rating, let’s not even venture down that rabbit hole.
In the broader picture, this masquerade imposes significant detriment upon consumers. Transparency, once a beacon for clarity in the specialty coffee value chain, now grapples with a fog of doubt. As more cafes succumb to the absurdly low prices and their employees bask in the glory of those unscrupulous commissions from ‘specialty roasters’, it pushes the principles of quality and sustainability to the sidelines. If we persist on this trajectory, we risk becoming a country where shiny packaging conceals a dearth of coffee knowledge and proficiency, a spectacle for the global forum of specialty coffee professionals to smirk at.
So, the next time a coffee brand flaunts their eye-catching packaging or their commitment to sustainability or transparency, pause to reflect. Are their cries for a brighter industry future authentic, is quality their main driver or is their sole focus on plastering their brand on every available surface and shelf?
The situation calls for the rise of a new breed of industry trailblazers – champions who prioritise ethics over infiltration, quality over quantity, and transparency over theatrics. It necessitates an awakening within the coffee-consuming community, a critical awareness that looks beyond the surface gloss of social media and examines the essence of what they consume.
As we untangle this skillfully crafted illusion, we confront an uncomfortable truth. Yet, it’s a truth that must be faced squarely, not only by those within the industry but also by every individual who savours a cup of specialty coffee.
It’s not enough to simply savour the subtle nuances of your brew; one must savour the truth behind it. The next time you sip your coffee, ask yourself this – Are you a mere participant in this grand deception, or are you ready to demand transparency, stand by the principles of ethics and join the battle for integrity in the specialty coffee industry? The choice is yours.
* For those among you, whose curiosity is stirred and questions brimming, I am merely a direct message away from illuminating the history and inner workings of this grand charade. Ready to unmask the culprits who thoughtlessly endorse this business model and aim to make a mockery of your patronage.