Bader Aljalajel and Ghassan Alhazzaa founded 12 Cups in Saudi Arabia to introduce specialty coffee quality and culture they experienced abroad to their home country. The 12 Cups brand quickly grew over time to serve the needs of their customer base. Their offerings now include fresh roasted coffee beans, commercial cafe equipment and accessories, and in-house technical services and barista training. On a recent trip to Saudi Arabia, our Director of Sales and Marketing Ryan Willbur sat down with Bader to hear his story in specialty coffee and learn more about the historic origins of Arabic coffee culture.
Ryan: You’ve told me that you first discovered specialty coffee not in Saudi Arabia, but while attending school in Portland, Oregon. How did your view of coffee change after that experience?
Bader: I was shocked that the culture of coffee is not just to pour a black coffee in your house. I started visiting different coffee shops and exploring this market where each place had its own signature and people. The communication between the barista and the customer is beyond just serving a coffee. There were questions like where did the coffee come from? What is the processing method? How did it arrive at our business and how was it roasted? Who is the producer and what are the varieties? And so on. I realized there are people focused on the business to make not just money, but also to make a good experience for the customer to try. They are trying to invent new ways of growing and treating coffee and finding better quality flavors as well.
Ryan: 12 Cups has been roasting specialty coffee since 2015 in Saudi Arabia; what inspired you to focus your business on quality versus low-cost commercial coffee?
Bader: I opened my own coffee business because all the popular commercial coffee in Saudi tastes the same. It’s all oily and dark-roasted coffee and nobody’s paying attention to the taste besides putting in sugar or milk to change the flavor. Our coffee was fresher and tasted better than our competition and gave us good potential for the business to grow. After that, we started exploring not just coffee but equipment as well. During that time people were resisting any new [espresso machine] technology because they felt it was too expensive compared to what they believed about quality. Once they tried our coffee on Synesso, it changed a lot of their beliefs about equipment. As they invested more in their equipment, they got better quality coffee in return. Nowadays, most Saudis know about the Specialty Coffee Association and follow the new trends of quality machines, equipment, and technologies. I think the market is exploding in Saudi right now! We currently have about 8,000 active coffee shops and the government has a plan to push that up to 11,000.
“We find Saudi cafe owners in their shops managing day-to-day operations and engaging people in conversations because they know specialty coffee is all about the people.“
Ryan: What is your approach to recommending Synesso equipment to your customers? Is it all about quality and technology, or is there something else that makes us stand out?
Bader: I believe the S-Series is one of the best machines we have bought from Synesso. Cafe owners like its unique design and lower height. It’s more accessible to the barista to see the customer and to engage him in conversation while making his coffee. The S200 and S300 will be the future of Synesso in Saudi Arabia, I think. They are more convenient and accessible pricewise for the market while offering similar features compared to the other machines we have.
Ryan: What are some trends unique to Saudi Arabia that might explain the growing popularity of quality coffee?
Bader: People in Saudi Arabia see coffee businesses as a good investment because it’s not a big investment. In fact, the government will give you a five-year loan of $80,000 to start up and grow your business. We see interest from the middle class, youth, as well as rich people in opening their own cafes. They’re also interested in trying to build an experience and an environment for their communities. I think the cafe space is a great opportunity to do that. We find Saudi cafe owners in their shops managing day-to-day operations and engaging people in conversations because they know specialty coffee is all about the people. It’s not similar to Arabic coffee but it’s something that people often prefer.
Ryan: That’s very interesting. For the sake of all of us unfamiliar with Saudi Arabia, could you describe what Arabic coffee is?
Bader: Arabic coffee is green coffee we have roasted to a light roast, when it changes from green to a dark yellow but not before first crack. We want it to be yellow or a little bit tan, and we call it shuqara’ in Saudi which means blonde. Saudis avoid overcooking the coffee because we think it’s cooking the caffeine out! After roasting, we then grind the coffee and add flavors to it like cardamom, cloves, saffron, or ginger to give it flavor. Families in different regions will have their own recipes to prepare Arabic coffee. In our house, for example, we grind it then cook it in a pot for 45 minutes before we serve it. We add our desired flavors or spices and then serve it in a traditional Arabic coffee pot.