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    Beirut baristas try to revive city’s once vibrant cafe culture

    In the years before Beirut was struck by civil war, the city was known for its vibrant cafe culture that attracted intellectuals from across the Arab world.
    The tables that spilled out on to the pavements of Hamra Street were a hub for academics, students, writers and artists, who would sip thick Arabic coffee and argue into the night.
    “It was a magical time,” says Cesar Nammour, 81, who was an art collector in the 1960s and frequented them often. “It was mostly about the companionship. We used to meet there after going to the movies in the evening, to talk and discuss ideas.”
    Back then, the coffee they drank was almost incidental. But a new generation of baristas is looking to recapture a piece of that past, and this time they are putting coffee centre stage.
    A wave of speciality cafes have sprung up around the city, catering to young connoisseurs who know their arabica from their robusta.
    “It came from a personal need to have good coffee here,” says Dalia Jaffal, the 31-year-old co-owner of Kalei coffee, in Mar Mikhael, an arty neighbourhood in east Beirut.
    “We consume a lot of it, but for us it has never been about the quality of the coffee, it’s always been about the conversation. There’s no reason we can’t have both.”
    Lebanon consumes more coffee, or kahweh, per person than anywhere else in the Middle East – about 4.8kg per capita each year – according to the International Coffee Organization. In the UK consumption is 2.8kg per person.
    Most of it in Lebanon comes in the form of Arabic coffee, which is similar to Turkish – small cups of thick, black, sweet liquid boiled on a stove, spiced with cardamom. It is brought out to visiting guests on ornate trays in homes, or more informally in offices and garages. When it is finished, the fine grounds form a substance at the bottom of the cup that is gooey and granular, and which some say can tell your fortune.
    Lebanon has always been renowned for Arabic-style coffee. Cafe Younes, in Hamra, is a Beirut institution that has been doing business since 1935.
    While this kind of coffee has a special place in the hearts of most Lebanese, the roasting process involves burning the beans which robs it of some flavour, Jaffal says.
    “In Arabic coffee, the beans are much darker in colour, which means they were roasted a lot more. It’s like overcooking a meal.”
    The last major jolt to the old ways of doing things came about 20 years ago with the arrival of Dunkin’ Donuts. Starbucks and Costa soon followed.
    In recent years, an increasingly internationally mobile generation of young Lebanese have acquired a taste for speciality, high-quality espresso coffee and have been disappointed with the options back home.
    “I was living abroad and I would come back, spend a couple of weeks here, and just crave the good stuff,” says Jaffal.
    She went on the road – to London, Rome, and Copenhagen – to learn how to be a barista and to roast beans, and to teach others. Jaffal opened Kalei as a roastery in 2015 in a converted 1950s house, selling single origin beans to restaurants. A year later, it opened its doors to the public. Today, it is a chic, bustling spot populated by young, well-dressed clients tapping away on laptops while Tunisian Sufi jazz plays in the background.
    Many of the baristas in Beirut’s new breed of high-end coffee shops learned their craft at Kalei’s roastery.
    Sip, which opened last year, was set up by Omar Jheir, 39, who got a taste for speciality coffee during the 20 years he lived in Australia. He saw a gap in the Beirut market.
    Wanting to create something that put coffee first, he also wanted to reach back to the glory days of Beirut’s cafe culture. “I’m nostalgic for that traditional Lebanese coffee shop, where people from all kinds of backgrounds come together over a sip of coffee. I want to rebuild that culture.”
    But for Nammour, born in 1937, that past is long gone.
    “Today it is different. They go there to meet, and joke, and have fun. In the 60s it was not really about fun, it was about discussing things and making plans. We were political,” he says. “Now our cafes are like cafes all over the world.”

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