Ingredient Focus: Beverages
Challenges of quality and staff training are universal in the beverage industry
The beverage industry is incredibly diverse, though the challenges of quality and staff training are universal. But it is the alcohol sector that faces unique hurdles in its bid to gain the recognition it deserves.
What are some of the most popular flavours in the market at the moment?
As with all produce and ingredients, fashions and tastes change on a relatively regular basis. Angus McGregor, beverage manager, Frioul Bistro de Luxe, says gin is “big right now which is fantastic to see”.
“It’s just so diverse and fantastic to work with. I have noticed even tequila is pushing past its previously dubious image and people are actually realising it’s a fantastic drink to have”.
He adds that vodka, although still big in terms of volume sales, is slowly dropping in terms of cocktail presence on menus as a result of “bartenders improving their standards and understanding the classics and spirits more”. McGregor still loves using anything home-made with food fusion.
“Sadly the Bullfrog still remains; I intend to start a campaign outlawing this from the Dubai bar scene in general,” he adds.
Media One Hotel’s Felix Hartmann says honey, elderflower and apple, but also yoghurt, and everything mixed with tequila and rum are on trend. “This is due to many competitions and activations from brands such as Bacardi, Patron and Ocho Tequila. Jack Daniels Honey has become popular, as well as Aperol,” he reveals.
What are some of the challenges facing the beverage sector?
Sandra Husseini Norberg, Middle East & Africa, zone director, San Pellegrino says the main challenge “is the outburst of water companies claiming the title of ‘natural mineral water’”.
“Unfortunately a lot of customers fall for that, especially if they are price driven,” she continues. “Competition is becoming very fierce; there are over 1500 water brands registered at the UAE municipality excluding local water, and this is leading major water companies into a price war.
“Now with the new ESMA regulation taking effect, we should witness some of the small brands retreating from the market due to non-conformity of the UAE standards.”
Standards are certainly an issue as Nader Hijazi, sales director, Sparrow International explains further, adding that the main obstacle in the industry is “two-fold”.
“The first being the general lack of information to consumers about the products they are using and the second is the difficulty in maintaining high standards (particularly when related to tea and coffee) due to the high staff turnover.
“Even if properly trained, it’s not unusual for the barista to change employment or venue and hence the training is often lost in the process and the knowledge received during the training is not carried over by the replacement barista,” he asserts.
Andrea Fidora, Monin MEIA beverage innovation director, concurs, adding that the recruitment of good operators “especially in Saudi Arabia or Kuwait where getting visas is very difficult”, is a challenge.
Another area of concern is seasonal availability of products, according to Fresh Express brand manager — beverages Sasha Milovanovic, and its “effect on consistency remains one of the challenges the beverage sector is facing”. He adds that the “strict requirements of the municipality” often prove challenging; “product clearance can be a long process and causes extra challenges”.
Founder and director of Fling Bar Services Andrew Mullins explains the limitations on advertising or promoting alcoholic drinks due to cultural sensitivity “makes it difficult for beverage-led venues to get their message out to the public”. He adds: “I believe this is also a reason why there are still very few independent ‘bars’; by that I mean purely beverage-focused venues rather than nightclubs, lifestyle venues, or restaurants with a beverage element.”
Mullins says: “Another issue is the expense of purchasing alcohol. While there are now independent venues, many of these still fall under the umbrella licence of a hotel, which can add a handling fee of anything between 10 and 25% on top of the 30% government tax already paid.
Finally there is a statutory 10% municipality fee to be placed on the sales price before it reaches the guest and “considering the cost of importing the products and the margin the supplier needs to make, drinks have to be expensive in order for the business to be viable”.
McGregor continues the theme saying that ultimately “we will always be limited in what we can do within the region because really we cannot write about our roles, shout about them and get this out to the masses”.
In the US or UK, bartenders are being recognised not only within the bar community but in the public eye in general. “True bartending is now respected, it is a craft and to be truly good at it, it becomes a life-long love affair, much like being a chef was 30 years ago,” he asserts.
“The industry is fighting for legitimacy as a career and is slowly getting there. For us in Dubai, we are surrounded by the taboo of alcohol, and to a certain extent there is nothing we can do about that, but at the very least it would be nice to be recognised within the industry and the media supporting this.”
McGregor says that in the last four years, three bartenders in Dubai have ranked within the world’s top 16, “yet who here knows about it?”.
Hartmann adds that another challenge would be to unite the bartenders and beverage professionals more with each other, “a mission that I have put on my ‘to-do-list’ by creating www.uaebs.net,” he says.
What are baristas, mixologists and sommeliers demanding of suppliers?
Norberg says baristas, mixologists and sommeliers are asking suppliers for constant training on the products being supplied.
“As a partner that understands the needs of our customers, we have dedicated one resource to only conducting training on our full beverage portfolio in order to meet the demand.”
Concurring, Hijazi says industry professionals that are passionate about their products will demand the right tools and accessories to” perform their duties to the expected standard”.
“They will also monitor the quality of the raw materials used to produce the drinks and their demands are met with various results depending on the supplier selected, as well as how the internal management is involved in the decision-making process,” he adds.
“For example, a cost-conscious purchasing manager will rarely approve expensive supplies of a high quality, which then hinders the performance of the professional.”
Fidora believes a key word of success is innovation, “bringing new products and flavours help us to support baristas and bartenders in their daily creations”.
But he also adds that the product has to be consistent and available in the market.
“Today, being a bartender or a barista is no longer building an application but ensuring that knowledge and passion are shared with the consumers.
“Engagement is another key for success and knowledge of products and trends is a must,” says Fidora.
According to Milovanovic, special ingredients including a range of fresh fruits, vegetable and herbs are usually on high demand from the industry’s professionals.
“We are doing our best to meet these demands by delivering to the market rare products such as edible flowers, organic blue agave, etc,” he says. “Currently we carry more than 80 flavours in the portfolio, which is constantly updated and we have some special imports and exclusivity on some flavours for some of our clients”.
He says equipment is always in demand — from simple bar and barista tools all the way to sophisticated and pricey machinery.
André Biedenkopf, director of sales and operations at Ronnefeldt Trading says there is a strong demand for tea training programmes. “Tea is a very complex product with a 5000 year old culture and therefore needs ambassadors in hotels,” he says. “We also developed a tea book, which makes it easy to learn more about it.”
Are there any concerns regarding the sourcing of products?
Opinions are split on whether or not sourcing products is an issue. Hartmann says there are none, adding Dubai is a “great market and the demand is not higher than what bars are offering, or bartenders can sell”.
“I never had a complaint that a product isn’t on my back shelf, but you instead meet bartenders who don’t know what they have on their shelves,” he states.
McGregor argues the fact that “we work in a duopoly and with this we will face certain limitations”.
He continues: “Overall both suppliers do a very good job in trying to source new and interesting products, and in general they are always open to ideas, but on the flip side this does sometimes come with compromises such as stocking a product you might not want, just to get one that you do.”
“I have worked closely with both suppliers for years and I do understand the frustrations they have. Each look after their primary brands and with this sometimes the secondary brands don’t quite get the look in they deserve.” He says the only way to combat this is to allow more suppliers into the market or to allow greater decision making through the brands themselves.
Stating there is indeed an issue with product sourcing, Mullins says “we are all very aware that the brands rule the bars”, with the dominance of the big global players making it difficult for boutique or niche products to get a foothold in the market.
“The bar industry is still young in Dubai and with a small drinking population there is a lot of strategic positioning for the same audience,” he continues.
“As the city grows, hopefully the market will grow with it and there will be room to expand the product range available. The variety has come on leaps and bounds since I first worked here 12 years ago, but there is still a way to go if Dubai wants to emulate the social scene of some of the world’s other great cities.”