Millennials and Specialty Coffee: a Story, a Saga and a Love Affair

Wednesday 14 March 201809:23 pm
"Sip" sits on Gouraud street in Gemmayze, a neighborhood brimming with hip, up-and-coming restaurants and cafes. The specialty coffee shop is hard to miss. Its pink exteriors stand in stark contrast to the heritage buildings in the area, making it both an architectural landmark and a place to stop by for some good quality coffee. "Sip" is one of a handful of specialty coffee shops that are popping up around Beirut and across the region. They are hip, young and niche, representing a social movement worth unpacking.

Morning Pick-Me-Up

Having a cup of coffee in the morning is one of life's simplest pleasures. Even Palestinian writer and poet Mahmoud Darwish agreed: "I want the smell of coffee. I want five minutes…a moment of silence and five minutes dedicated to coffee…For those of us who are addicted to its taste, the elixir is truly the key that unlocks the morning." Coffee is tied to many social, personal, and cultural meanings in society, making it an important symbolic marker within people's imaginaires and everyday practices. It has become an even more prominent maker of everyday life in an era of mass-consumption and hyper-capitalism. Starbucks and Costa Coffee cups dot the streets as passersby walk with their embossed paper cups, signifying both an aspired and real cosmopolitanism. A simple cup becomes the marker of social status; after all, the Starbucks elite can afford $4 cappuccinos. These large coffee corporations have recently become challenged by a smaller crop of speciality coffee roasters that emphasize traceability, transparency, and sustainable practices. "Consumers are more educated about businesses and what's good practice," says Maya Ghanem, general manager at "Sip". "They want to know where their coffee is coming from, and we sell fair trade coffee, prepared in small quantities. We source green beans and roast them here."

A New Format

Specialty coffee shops offer a different experience to customers, far removed from the coffee spaces of the past and those symptomatic of globalization trends like Starbucks. The coffee shop itself is not a new phenomenon, but an institution that has been around for around 500 years. It appeared in the Ottoman Era in the Middle East as a space for men to discuss and debate a host of different topics over a cup of coffee. Coffee beans were sourced from Yemen and Ethiopia and the drink was considered an intoxicating elixir. Coffee shops became such important spaces for political discussion and debate that authorities blacklisted them. Today, with the rapid development of mass communication, the personal and social needs of individuals have changed. This is has come to permeate all aspects of everyday life; individuals walk around on their phones, sit facing their laptop screens, so much so that social interaction appears -- at least on the surface -- to be missing. This "new media" condition has brought about new challenges and opportunities, even for coffee shops. How do you spot specialty coffee places? These institutions often have a decor that blends between traditional and modern design. "Sip" offers us the perfect example of such a space. "It used to be a carpentry store," explains Maya. "The walls and traditional tiles are all from the original shop. We added the pink paint, along with other details like the skylight and large windows." The pink that makes the shop so unique is actually a phenomenon with scientific explanation. Named "millennial pink", this color is an Instagram-ready shade that brightens up any social media feed. It is also one that evokes childhood nostalgia, playfulness, and an overall good time. "The atmosphere of Sip and that of the owner is positive and welcoming, so customers feel like they're at home," explains Maya. It is hard not to feel inspired in a shop flooded with sunlight. They are also spaces that accommodate new technological needs, offering reliable Wifi and laptop plugs, so individuals are encouraged and inspired to work there. They are thus transforming and adapting to new modes of social interaction.

Specialty Coffee in the Arab World

The Arab world is known for its high grade Turkish or Arabic coffee, prepared with quality beans and a little bit of cardamom. The drink has been a staple in our culture for centuries, but these specialty coffee shops are a new addition to the mix. Rather than providing a challenge to existing spaces, they are a new phenomenon that speaks to a younger generation that is undoubtedly geared toward a Western education and background. It is no surprise that specialty coffee spaces have menus written entirely in English. An individual needs particular "symbolic capitalism" -- a la Pierre Bourdieu -- to be aware of and fully experience such spaces. Omar, the owner of "Sip", is Lebanese-Australian. Based on his experience in the food and beverage industry, and his passion for speciality coffee, he brought his knowledge and expertise back home to Lebanon. The branding and marketing, however, remains entirely in English. So what does the future of such spaces in the Arab world look like? In a sense, they cater to a niche market and foster a culture that both appreciates and calls for sustainable practices and effective social engagement. "Sip" engaged in social and community work during the Beirut marathon and looks to work with NGOs to implement recycling in the store. Their aim and mission extends past the four pink walls.

An Affordable Luxury

Returning to Bourdieu, speciality coffee places offer consumers an affordable luxury. It is one that is available to middle and upper class consumers, creating new niche demands for a growing customer-base looking to be coffee connoisseurs. Will specialty coffee shops take over the Arab world or will their influence remain limited? Will they replace traditional ways of grabbing coffee, the "express" and back-of-a-truck options, or will the market be split between the two? Or will the situation be as as Darwish described it: "I know my coffee, my mother's coffee and my friend's coffee. I know it from far away and I know the differences between them. No coffee resembles another coffee. And my defense of coffee is a defense of these subtle differences. There is no taste that is the taste of coffee, for coffee is not a concept and is not one understanding. Each person has his own coffee…" The article main picture is The Liquor Coffee Store, in Hamra, Beirut.
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