JEDDAH: Ali Al-Diwani’s career in agriculture “accidentally” led him to become the first licensed coffee evaluator in the Kingdom.
Originally from Jazan, he started his coffee career after he followed in the footsteps of his ancestors as a farmer and fruit trader who exported passionfruit from Hodeidah, Yemen, to Saudi Arabia.
“In 2010, I was invited to a coffee bean workshop in Sanaa, Yemen, presented by a group of Mexican coffee experts. Sadly, the translator faced issues in translating some agricultural terms. Based on my career as a farmer, I have a large agricultural English glossary and I became their personal translator for the rest of their journey,” he told Arab News.
It was the beginning of a journey that changed his life from one of a fruit farmer to a coffee investor, producer, evaluator, vendor, supplier and artisanal roaster.
Two months later, Al-Diwani was assigned to manage a coffee project in Yemen for three years by the same Mexican coffee expert he had translated for.
“There were a lot of inspiring details about coffee that intrigued me to redirect my career. Thus, I decided to specialize in growing coffee.”
Soon afterward, Al-Diwani became one of the leaders in the speciality coffee industry in Saudi Arabia and one of the founders of Caffeine Lab, a pioneer speciality coffee business in the Kingdom.
“My work in agriculture immersed me in great knowledge and gave me the power to start in this world and take fast steps,” he said.
Al-Diwani began to invest in the Burra region in Yemen — which has more than 5 million coffee trees — where he founded the first coffee-growing association and was joined by 500 farmers. “You have to walk for hours or days to reach the forest that contains coffee trees, and it is one of the places that I call coffee paradise — where the mountain turns into a white carpet after flowering, then red after fruiting.”
Science of speciality coffee
The Speciality Coffee Association of America (SCAA) defines specialty coffee in its green stage as “coffee that is free of primary defects, has no quakers, is properly sized and dried, presents in the cup free of faults and taints and has distinctive attributes.”
Al-Diwani, along with his friend Abdullah Bajabaa, established a speciality-grade coffee business called “Kal Coffee” — the first Saudi company to supply green coffee beans and local speciality coffee specifically from Al-Dayer Bani Malik in Jazan.
Three years later, he launched his own coffee laboratory, “Origins,” for green coffee beans, with roasters and training space in Jeddah.
Al-Diwani gained a profound experience in speciality coffee through exploration across the world and became one of the Saudi pioneers of the “science of coffee beans” as he calls it.
“In 2016, I became a licensed coffee evaluator for the Speciality Coffee Association of America,” he said.
Al-Diwani’s passion for coffee redefined the meaning of coffee beans for many young Saudi entrepreneurs by offering them an internationally certified course at Origins. It consisted of educational courses in a number of specialities within the coffee industry including barista skills, brewing, green coffee, sensory skills and roasting.
He trained more than 50 Saudi certified coffee specialists between 2017-2020. “There is absolutely an amazing growth and the performance is getting increasingly better,” he said.
He is also a coffee evaluator at the Coffee Quality Institute of America.
Roasting — from farm to coffee cup
According to Al-Diwani, it requires an artisanal coffee roaster to be able to prepare beans for the perfect cup of coffee. “During the training, I always tell roasters to observe how the beans are being roasted in the machine; it takes five minutes to either burn the harvest of a whole year or make an excellent outstanding coffee.”
There are several stages that coffee cherries pass through before they reach a cup of coffee, he said. A single coffee tree can provide more than six different types of coffee notes and characters, so in every step there are sensitive stages in expenses and risks before the product reaches the consumer.
“One of the most difficult stages in planting coffee is harvesting the appropriate coffee beans for speciality coffee. If the coffee cherries were harvested in a ripe stage, it goes to commercial coffee,” he said. “The harvest must be dried on the same day so that it does not ferment or become moldy.”
Coffee quality relies on several factors including the harvest of the crimson red coffee bean, good drying, storage method, roasting and presentation. Consistency in coffee is a “mark of excellence,” he said.
Speciality coffee business in Saudi Arabia
Al-Diwani said that many young Saudis share the same obsession with exploring the world of speciality coffee as the country is one of the few where such a diversity of coffee processors and types can be found.
“The future of the coffee business in Saudi Arabia is very promising at the level of production, and in the market it is considered as one of the fastest-growing markets,” he said.
As for those who are planning to start a coffee business, Al-Diwani said that passionate coffee entrepreneurs have to have a full understanding
of how Arabica coffee is evaluated and graded.
The high demand for coffee in Saudi Arabia awakened coffee companies around the world to the idea that Saudi Arabia is a huge market for speciality and commercial coffee. “Eighty million kilograms of coffee beans enter Saudi Arabia every year, and the demand is increasing as people here won’t accept low-quality coffee,” he said.
“We are dealing with a huge number of international green beans companies and most of them started to open branches in Saudi Arabia, so that is an indicator that the coffee market in the Kingdom is big and expanding tremendously.”
There are three main aspects for a speciality coffee business to consider in order to stand out from other coffee startups in the Kingdom, according to Al-Diwani. “First is the location, second is the consumer experience and the high quality of the coffee, third is to have a well-trained barista and a professional coffee roaster.”
Al-Diwani is currently developing a roasting machine line called DQ Diwani Quality.
In 2014, he won an Italian photography award for an image taken in Burra, Yemen, that showcases the variety of color in coffee cherries spread on rooftops to dry.