Located in eastern Saudi Arabia across the Arabian Gulf from Bahrain, Al-Khobar is the country’s ninth largest city with a population of just over 600,000 people. South African Keaton Nicol is on the town’s baristas at Avant, an example of international talent in specialty coffee. In this interview, Keaton outlines that past four years in coffee and how his skills and responsibilities have developed in Saudi Arabia.

When did you start your career in coffee and how did you come across the  industry?
A bitter-sweet cup of instant coffee (takes a sip). My coffee journey started in  December 2016 at Nespresso South Africa as a coffee specialist. This is where I was first introduced to different types of single origin coffees from all around the world, the flavour profile which each coffee provides and the story behind each cup. I was very new to this whole coffee scene, even though I had my daily dose of instant coffee. As time went by, I became familiar with each coffee.

One day a friend of mine visited me at work and told me that I should meet a guy  named Winston Thomas (current 3-time South African Barista Champion and SCA  Trainer). I searched the internet and this was where I discovered what a barista is. I was fascinated with the trade, so started doing research on what a barista is. I then asked myself the question: “What is more to coffee?” I need to know more. I started coffee courses to improve my knowledge and skills.

In 2017 I started my first job as a barista for a company called Vida e Cafe. The  following year a friend of mine offered me a small space to serve coffee in a hair salon that she owned. In August 2018, I was offered a job at Kahve Road to work as a barista. This was where I was officially introduced to speciality coffee and what it has to offer. On 28th of December 2019, I left Cape Town to start a new coffee journey in Saudi Arabia. I started in a cafe called Wogard Coffee Roasters. I was head barista, trainer, manager and monitored quality control of coffee. In August 2020 I was offered the opportunity to open up a new coffee bar called Avant Coffee Bar. We have just passed a successful year in operations.

What's the status of specialty coffee in Al Khobar?
The coffee scene in Saudi Arabia is possibly the largest I have seen thus far.  Everyday a new cafe is opening. The specialty coffee scene is a growing industry all over the world. Some confuse the differences between premium coffee and specialty coffee. This is where we as baristas fill in the gaps to educate existing and new customers.

During the past two years, Saudi people started to recognize the difference between  specialty coffee and regular coffee. In the past they used to drink coffee for the sake of caffeine, but now customers are introduced and have an understanding of specialty coffee, being able to distinguish between flavour profiles and different  types of brewing methods while sustaining their daily dose of caffeine.

Saudi people like to try new things and experience new things especially if it’s trending. Most go for sweet drinks like Spanish Latte which is the most popular seller. In actual fact Saudi is known for the Spanish Latte according to Perfect Daily Grind.

What types of people are suited to working in coffee?
Well, anyone can learn and work as a barista. Many people think being a barista is just standing behind an espresso machine and serving you a cup of coffee. At the same time there is so much more that the coffee industry has to offer as a whole. Whether it is being a barista, a coffee roaster, green bean supplier, a Q grader or even a cafe owner. It all depends on the person on what he/she would like to achieve in this particular industry. There is always something new to learn and to improve knowledge and skills.

If someone is new to coffee and looking to start out, what would you  recommend they start with?
Start off with the basics, get to know the equipment and become comfortable using it. Many new baristas, even home barista immediately want to jump straight into pouring fancy latte art. Miracles don’t happen overnight. With this practice makes perfect and the more time you spend practicing the better you will become at  anything. I remember my trainer Winston Thomas sharing a quote with me; “The key to achieving true expertise in any skill is simply a matter of practicing for at least 10 000 hours.’’ It might seem frustrating in the beginning, but as time passes, you are able to see yourself improving and growing each day. The job as a barista is the frontline of a coffee army. We are the face of every cafe and the face of each and every coffee farmer that has produced this wonderful and delicious product  called coffee.

Are there some central blog posts or websites that you go to gain more  knowledge, develop further skills?
Yes, there are many resources that are useful. There is the Specialty Coffee  Association that provides numerous courses as well as Barista Hustle. There are many free online YouTube channels that you could search up such as James  Hoffman, Sprometheus, Whole Latte Love just to name a few. Everything is easily available online these days. At the end it all comes down to he/she and how they  would utilise all these resources and implement these practices.

What's next for your career? What's on the horizon and what goals do you  have for the coming three years?
This is a question I ask myself daily. I still have so much more to learn. I have  been investing in SCA courses. I already completed my SCA Barista intermediate skills course and my SCA Sensory foundation skills course. I am working towards becoming a certified barista trainer. Recently I have been given an opportunity to develop, operate and manage a cafe called Maze, now two or three months old. One of my goals is to share knowledge and experiences throughout Saudi and to develop the industry and implement competition standards and professions throughout each cafe that I will work with in the future.

Find Keaton on Instagram via @_barista_keatzz_