Coffee has a long history in Iran. Since the 16th century, coffee has been popular across the country.
However, as the nation’s cultural and political landscape has changed over the past few centuries, so too has its coffee culture. As a result, the Iranian coffee industry has a uniquely rich mix of the traditional and the modern when it comes to brewing and consuming coffee.
Over the past decade or so, specialty coffee has steadily become more popular. The number of specialty coffee shops opening in larger cities is on the rise – particularly in the capital city of Tehran. However, economic sanctions put in place towards the end of the 2010s have understandably had an impact.
To explore the country’s distinctive coffee sector further, I spoke with three Iranian coffee professionals. Read on to learn more about the history of coffee in Iran and where its coffee shop scene might be heading.
You may also like our article on understanding the Middle East’s flourishing coffee market.
A brief history of coffee in Iran
According to Encyclopaedia Iranica, it’s relatively unknown when coffee first came to the country. Historians believe it was most likely brought by returning pilgrims and merchants in the 16th century. At the time, Iran was known as Persia.
In other Middle Eastern and African countries around the same time period, coffee was often used by followers of Sufism (a religious practice within Islam) to help them stay awake during overnight prayer.
When coffee first came to Persia, consumption was mainly reserved for medicinal purposes. Prominent physicians at the time claimed drinking coffee could eliminate headaches and lower blood pressure.
Over time, however, coffee became more popular as a beverage for home consumption, as well as in the country’s coffee houses (“ghahveh khaneh” in Persian or Farsi).
Ali Heidary is a licensed Q grader and the CEO of Akam Coffee Company in Shīrāz, Fars, Iran.
“Historically, coffee used to be a popular drink at high social class gatherings,” he tells me. “After some time, it gained popularity among the rest of the population as well.
“People would meet in coffee houses and discuss political, social, and business matters,” Ali explains. “Iranians are renowned for their hospitality, so they usually prefer to be sociable while drinking coffee.”
However, Ali says that towards the end of the 19th century, tea became more popular in the country.
“For many years, there was a shift to drinking tea in Iran’s coffee houses,” he tells me.
This was mainly attributed to Russian and Chinese influences on the country at the time, as Russia and China are two of the world’s largest tea consumers. Furthermore, around the same time, Iran began growing its own tea, which made it much more accessible for domestic use.
Tea remains popular in Iran to this day. Per capita, tea consumption reached almost 3kg in 2013.
Ali explains: “Up until the last decade, coffee had started to become popular again.”
Changing coffeehouse culture
The first coffeehouses in Iran appeared during the Safavid dynasty – one of the most significant ruling dynasties in Iran, which ran from 1501 to 1736.
At the time, coffeehouses were lively and sociable gathering places, which often hosted poetry readings, religious sermons, and intellectual discussions.
Today, coffee shops play a similar role in Iranian society. However, modern café culture has attracted younger generations to socialise in coffee houses..
Fariba is a freelance barista trainer based in Tehran. She says: “Nowadays, because bars and clubs serving alcohol are not permitted in Iran, coffee shops have become a favourite hangout spot for young people.”
Since the establishment of the Islamic Republic in 1979, Muslim Iranian citizens have been legally prohibited from consuming alcohol. As such, coffee shops are an important social pillar for many of the country’s citizens.
There are many coffee shops nationwide, especially in the Iranian capital; the Financial Tribune reported in 2017 that there were some 250 licensed coffee shops in Tehran. Undoubtedly, this number has grown as specialty coffee has become more popular.
Ali points out that Covid-19 had some negative effects on the social side of Iran’s coffeehouses. “During the pandemic almost all cafés had to shift to take away services only,” he says.
That isn’t the only setback the country’s coffee sector has faced in recent years, either.
Many coffee shops, especially internet cafés, were forcibly closed by the Iranian government. A number of reasons have been cited for this, from a lack of control and surveillance over internet access to accusations of women not adhering to the Islamic dress code.
So far, thankfully, the closures have been short-lived – allowing coffee culture to thrive and diversify.
One of the ways in which Iranian coffee culture is changing is by becoming more inclusive.
Hossein Mirmohamadi is a researcher and trainer at Buno Academy in Mashad. He tells me how Iran’s employment law used to exclude women from the coffee industry.
“Women were banned from working in cafés until recently,” he says.
In 2014, Tehran’s police chief announced that women were unable to work or visit coffee shops due to gender segregation rules in Islamic law.
However, there has been recent progress towards achieving gender equality, as Ali tells me.
“Today, more women are participating actively as baristas, roasters, and competitors in the coffee industry.”
Shylee Mosali and Mahsa Niyayesh are two Iranian coffee professionals who have helped to push for more female representation. Shylee became the first female roaster in the country, while Mahsa founded the Iranian Woman Coffee Association – the first of its kind in the country.
Emerging consumer trends in Iran
Fariba explains how the specialty coffee market is thriving in Iran.
“There used to be several SCA courses available, including Authorised SCA Trainer (AST) courses, and various coffee events and competitions,” she tells me.
However, as a result of international economic restrictions placed on Iran, the country’s coffee courses are now largely held by regional or national coffee bodies, and the SCA is no longer present in the country.
Nonetheless, a growing focus on coffee education has had a positive impact on consumers by allowing them to make more informed purchasing decisions.
“Consumption of espresso-based coffee is still higher than other beverages,” Ali explains. “However, we can see that people’s coffee preferences are changing over time.
“For instance, interest in and consumption of single origin coffees are dramatically increasing in Iran.”
Fariba agrees that consumer tastes are starting to shift.
“The majority of coffee consumers prefer espresso and milk-based drinks, such as lattes and cappuccinos,” she says. “However, there is growing demand for single origin pour overs, often from coffee enthusiasts.”
The increase in consumer knowledge has led some to brew more coffee at home, as well as investing in better brewing equipment.
“The improved accessibility of higher-quality brewing devices has also allowed coffee consumers to prepare single origin coffees at home,” Ali tells me.
Hossein also notes that although the French press is the most popular home brewing method in Iran, pour overs are a close second – indicating a growing shift to specialty.
The future of Iranian specialty coffee
Although the specialty coffee industry is quickly growing in Iran, Hossein remains sceptical over whether the growth will continue at such a steady rate.
“Over the last ten years, the emergence of more domestic roasters and the implementation of fair trade laws in Iran have helped to establish the country’s specialty coffee industry,” he says.
“However, given the global rise in coffee prices and the economic downturn in Iran, I don’t foresee much of a bright future for specialty coffee in Iran, unless the government addresses economic pressures and sanctions.”
In 2018, former US President Donald Trump’s administration imposed sanctions on Iran’s energy, shipping, and financial industries. This caused Iran’s gross domestic product (GDP) to drop, as well causing unemployment rates to rise and the Iranian rial to lose half of its value against the US dollar.
Fariba believes these sanctions will hold back the Iranian coffee industry for some time.
“These sanctions hinder the growth of Iran’s coffee industry,” she says. “It simply won’t be able to keep pace with growing specialty markets in other countries.”
However, she points out how the international coffee community is providing support to coffee professionals in the country.
“Fortunately, good connections have formed between coffee enthusiasts and professionals both inside and outside of Iran,” she says. “This will lead to more growth and help us share knowledge.”
Fariba adds: “Hopefully, this support will also lead to more revisions and updates for SCA courses in Iran, as well securing the right to participate in international coffee events and competitions, which are currently impossible because of the sanctions.”
Ali believes that the future growth and success of the Iranian specialty industry will be attributed to its participation in leading coffee events and competitions.
“After Iranian coffee professionals enrolled in SCA courses, the number of people interested in specialty coffee increased,” he tells me. “Coffee championships involving World Coffee Event judges were held in Iran, which allowed Iranian competitors a chance to enter international coffee championships.
“Over the upcoming years, we will witness a new generation of baristas who will be more invested in driving innovation in Iran’s coffee industry.”
Although there are a number of unique and difficult issues ahead for Iran’s coffee industry, the country’s coffee culture continues to draw people in – on both a national and international scale.
If economic conditions improve for Iran, its coffee industry is poised to showcase the country’s growing passion for the beverage at an even greater level.
Enjoyed this? Then read our article on the history of mocha coffee and Yemeni coffee culture.
Photo credits: Dominic Vittitow
Perfect Daily Grind
Want to read more articles like this? Sign up for our newsletter!