Yes, you read that right and before you get the geography books, Riyadh is the capital city of Saudi Arabia (aka KSA). About a year ago, I started a job there as a Director of a Think Tank, which I did for 9 months – now why wouldn’t you take a job entitled Director of Think and where you are asked to think about how to change the world leveraging AI and robotics to solve healthcare and environmental problems – well, I did. If you want to know more, check my LinkedIn profile here for all the other serious stuff I talk about.
Before I delve into coffee, you’d be amazed to learn that KSA has got fantastic scenery, with the famous “edge of the world” a few hours outside Riyadh, a must go see. Here I am at another location.
As this is about coffee and love, you’d be amazed to know that the coffee scene is thriving in the heart of Arabia – after all, the Arabs named the best coffee variety “arabica” after themselves. Reportedly, the Saudi population spent an estimated US$300m in cafes alone in the first half of 2021 – now, that’s a lot of coffee – US$1.6m per day in a city of over 8m people – you could have lots of fun with these facts. Before I move on, I should add that Saudi Arabia have their own coffee culture too. After all, the first officially recognised coffee shop in the World was in Mecca. Now, here’s a summary of what I saw for myself based on what I should say “third wave” coffee;
- there’s a coffee shop almost on every corner or shop cluster
- people queue for coffee shops even at 10pm at night
- people go to cafes to drink coffee even at midnight and beyond
- the La Marzocco distributor must be happy as these machines are in the majority of coffee shops
- there are many speciality coffee shops, serving hard to get Yemeni coffee
- Saudi’s love Ethiopian coffee, importing three times more than the UAE (industry insight)
- Even one of the local chains pays a great attention to detail in preparation
- Yes, cold coffees are very popular, after all in the summer, 45C is normal for weeks
- I visited one of the largest coffee shops in the World
So, here’s a quick summary of my coffee shop experience – drink on….
I’m starting with probably my favourite. You may easily get distracted by the impressive muriel but the coffee on offer is also quite impressive. First up, you can order their normal selection of coffees, which range from espresso based, cold brew and filter too, BUT upon close inspection at the till, you will be ecstatic to learn that they offer Cup of Excellence (CoE) coffees too. Yes, CoE are highly rated by world experts and naturally these coffees cost a lot more but if you want to treat yourself, you can pick up a really special coffee for about $65 for a 250g bag of coffee.
I, on the other hand, opted a for a special Yemeni coffee for about $24 for a 250g. Also on offer is food but the main reason that Brew 92 is one of my faves is the quality of coffee on offer and their attention to selecting coffees and preparation.
Another one of my faves, recommended by my former colleague, as it’s his fave is Camel Step. They have a few locations but I only went to one – it was after dinner and I really wanted my after dinner coffee, so I opted for a V60 Ethiopian. To continue the experience at home, I bought a bag of coffee for my travels and to take back with me. Wow! I really enjoyed brewing this coffee at my hotel room every night during Ramadhan and upon my return to Dubai, where I shared it with my friend, Naveed. In short, the coffee was roasted in a way that really showed their attention to detail in their selection process and their roasting profile.
A bit difficult to pronounce but before I arrived in Riyadh, this was top of my list as a friend of mine had visited and said I had to go there. It was a bit far from my hotel but worth the wait and I’m grateful for my friend who took us there at night. As I entered, I couldn’t believe the size of the place, not to mention the number of La Marzocco espresso machines they had, including the latest, LEVA – see below.
It was like a factory. I’m sure if they were in the middle of any major city like London or NYC, they would be able to serve an espresso based drink very quickly with a lot of baristi to work the machines like clockwork. Watch video below to grasp the size of this place.
As soon as you pass the la marzocco gallery, you can spot a very large Loring coffee roaster to your right – definitely the biggest coffee roasting machine I’ve seen in my life. As you walk to the back, there’s tons of tools galore, right from the entrance on your left, all the way to the back with la marzocco linea machines, brewing gadgets and of course coffee. There’s also a little sitting area at the top. Again, definitely the largest coffee space I’ve ever been and a must if you visit Riyadh.
Now, this is unusual for me, as I hardly ever feature a coffee chain BUT this was my go to every morning or at lunch time, as one of their shops was located within my work vicinity at the digital city. Of course, the first time I went, I was skeptical but once I tasted the depth of the coffee flavours packed with cocoa, berry, caramel and a long lasting finish, not to mention exquisitely poured latte art, I thought, “this is actually good”. It is no wonder that I went there often not just for my daily cortado or flat white fix even in 45C but to hang out with my former colleagues too – and yes they too used a La Marzocco Strada machine. I have to say, 8OZ may be my fave coffee chain in the World to date.
Located at the bottom of the Panorama Mall, I first heard about the place from Dubai as the owner of this space called HUNA (it means here in Arabic), also owns one of my fave cafes in Dubai, Qahwaty. However for Brew Bar, he invited Huda, who was already famous in Saudi for developing a unique secret recipe for her home made cold brew coffee. Ahmed invited Huda to open up a cafe in Riyadh, serving coffee from Cypher of Dubai as well as other roasters. What you have here, is an unusual arty and intimate spot, stacked with Arabic literature, coffee, history and self help books. I went a few times and met friends here because I knew that the coffee would be good.
Newly opened in June 2021 but with a keen attention to detail, is this new spot, near the new King Abdullah Financial District (KAFD). My friend took me here as I was craving specialty coffee all day and we just beat the crowd, as literally once we entered, a queue of about 10 people formed. Now, I knew that people queued for coffee in Riyadh but at that time of the day I was lucky that I didn’t have to, as I was literally “coffee” starved.
Other spots I visited and worth mentioning
Very well respected with coffee lovers and winner of some awards is Elixir. They’ve got many locations too and I bought a really good but rare to find Democratic Republic of Congo arabica coffee here, which I brewed at home to the delight of my taste buds.
Situated opposite the very popular U-Walk, is Equal, where they serve Sulalat coffee, have a selfie mirror that attracts instagrammers and cool decor (top of the page).
Yes, I know that the name doesn’t sound very creative, but if you happen to visit U-Walk, which hosts some international restaurant brands, and you are craving coffee, then here’s my to-go- spot – I usually avoid chains. For coffee machine enthusiasts, you’ll be glad to see that they’ve got one of the most advanced espresso machines ever made, the San Marco OPERA along with other cool gadgets for brewing coffee.They also roast onsite and have ample seating area.
Another coffee spot that roasts it’s own coffee, with a great selection of coffee to take home.
I never got to visit this shop as it recently opened but the owner is a World Ibrik Turkish coffee champion and she will offer Turkish coffee as well as Third wave coffee too.
This list is by far not exhaustive and I’m sure since I was last in Riyadh (October 2021), more high end, speciality coffee shops have opened, where queues are forming even at midnight, but I’ve tried to give you a summary, so that when you are craving speciality coffee, you have options.
To find the locations, check instagram and google maps.