When Evan and I landed in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia three days ago, we really didn’t know what to expect. Heck, I had even done some Instagram sleuthing just to figure out if wearing a t-shirt would be socially acceptable (it is). I had been to the Middle East before, but neither of us had been to Saudi Arabia, and most of the google results for “travel to Riyadh” advise taking great precautions due to the region’s unstable political climate. We had no idea that we would be working in a very popular and rapidly growing specialty coffee community, but that is exactly what we met here.
On our first day here, Bader, one of our hosts and co-owner of 12 Cups Coffee, picked us up from our hotel and shuttled us around to a few of the city’s coffee shops. By the time we visited the third shop, I was starting to realize that the coffee scene in Riyadh is becoming something special. We weren’t walking into noisy, smoky, outdated cafes, but rather brand new spaces. Pristine storefronts with vaulted ceilings, entire walls loaded with all the coffee gear a home barista would ever need, pour-over menus featuring multiple single origin coffees prepared via one of up to five brew methods. We talked to café owners and roasters and baristas, and they all exuded the same excitement and passion for the industry that drives us and the rest of the Summit team back home. This was beginning to feel very familiar. Our last stop was 12 Cups’ new café + roasting facility. It’s a behemoth of a shop, with a roasting space in the back of the ground floor, a brand new espresso machine, grinders, and manual brew equipment up front, and even an upstairs that will soon feature a second bar. I was impressed.
Fast forward to 8:30pm tonight: the grand opening of the new space. Bader and Ghassan, the other owner, had passed our invitations to what they thought would be a small gathering to celebrate the opening of the new café. Sandwiches and pastries were loaded into the display fridge, the staff and I dialed in two espresso options on their new machine, and Evan fired up their new roaster in the back so that guests could get the full experience all on the first night. I think they were expecting 75 people or so to attend. That number ended up probably closer to 200. The guests poured in with much excitement and started trying all the new coffee options and exploring the shop. Before I knew it, there was a line of 25 people waiting for me to make them a pour-over, and the roasting space was packed shoulder-to-shoulder. We talked not only with the friends and family that you would typically meet at the grand opening of a business, but also with Riyadh’s other roasters, baristas, distributors, and other industry members. It became clear that members of Riyadh’s coffee community encouraged and supported each other much in the same way that the Charlotte’s does. The excitement in everyone’s voices and passion for specialty coffee made a distant place feel like home tonight. (Don’t worry Mom, I’m still planning on coming home.)
Evan and I have ten more days here. Ten days to train baristas and roasters, hold cuppings, write up checklists, and generally drink way wayyyyyy too much coffee late at night (coffee habits are very different here – more on that later). But also ten days to keep engaging with a community that is changing their city by elevating standards, crafting the best drinks, creating communal spaces, and growing together. We have ten days to instill as much of Summit’s spirit as we can. It seems like Riyadh got a head start.