Ethiopia’s coffee ceremony is an integral part of their cultural and social routine. So entrenched is coffee in Ethiopian daily life that the phrase ‘Buna dabo naw‘, has been coined which translates as ‘Coffee is our bread!’
Coffee holds an important place in Ethiopia and accounts for more than two-thirds of the country’s total earnings. Around 13 million Ethiopian people are employed as a result of either growing or picking coffee so not only does it act as a social catalyst, but it also prevents many from going below the breadline.
My first experience of this ancient process was a bastardised western version in a London Ethiopian restaurant, but even then I was impressed with the roasting of the beans, smoky aromas, and the actual process for something which has become made so commercially exploited by the likes of Starbucks.
Photo credit: New Shrub
How Coffee Was Discovered
There are many stories that circulate around the history of coffee in Ethiopian folklore, but the most popular concerns a goat herder from Kaffa. The herder discovered his goats had excessive amounts of energy, to the point of almost dancing on their hind legs. Upon investigation, he noticed the trampled branches of a plant which grew wildly in the forested hills (the Coffee Plant), and suspecting the goats had sampled the bright red berries, picked some before rushing home to tell his wife and the monks.
The monks tossed the berries into the flames which resulted in the smell which greets us today when we walk into a coffee shop. What followed was the birthing of coffee. They crushed the beans in a pestle and mortar and roasted them over the fire before cooking them in boiling water to produce an intense and unadulterated coffee. With the air of the monastery filled with the smoky aroma of roasting beans, they sampled this dark concoction. What they discovered was accelerated energy which kept them awake through the night; the rest as they say is history.
The Coffee Ceremony
Each region’s coffee tastes slightly different which is dictated by the conditions where the beans are grown. The best Ethiopian coffee is rated as some of the finest in the world so being invited to attend a coffee ceremony should be considered a deep sign of friendship or respect. Don’t think you can have a cheeky glass and then bow out, it is a drawn out event and also highlights Ethiopian hospitality which should never be underestimated. An Ethiopian coffee ceremony can take hours given the right company and conditions so get comfortable and remember, you’re not dealing with instant coffee granules; it is a process and one which is thoroughly enjoyable.
A traditional coffee ceremony is taken extremely seriously and draped in tradition. Typically conducted by a young female wearing a white dress, it begins with this lady washing a handful of coffee beans before beginning to roast them on a flat pan over a charcoal fire or stove. As they heat, the husks separate and are removed. The coffee beans slowly turn black and shiny, and the sweet smelling oil is drawn out of them, before being ground by a pestle and mortar. Throughout this whole process, the air is filled with smoking beans and aromatic incense which are always burned throughout the process.
The ground coffee is stirred into the black clay coffee pot known as ‘jebena’, which is round at the bottom with a curved straw lid. This is not a rapid process and stirring too rapidly can affect the end result flavours. The black liquid is then typically strained several times to avoid the larger chunks and impurities. The youngest child will then announce when the coffee is ready to be served and the lady in white pours each cup from a height of one foot without an interruption, before passing the small china cups to the child who dishes them out. It’s worth noting that elders are serviced first, before working through the generations to the younger folk.
How Ethiopian Coffee is Served
Traditionally in Ethiopia, coffee is served without milk but with a hefty dose of sugar (or in the countryside, salt) and traditionally happens three times a day — in the morning, at noon and in the evening. Coffee drinking forms part of the main social events and it can be viewed as rude to leave without drinking three cups, the third is considered to bestow a blessing. Frequently the drink is accompanied by snacks such as cooked barely, popcorn or peanuts.
Today we live in a world where coffee is typically sipped on the go, from disposable cardboard cups. The Ethiopian coffee ceremony takes us back to when tradition and process was as important as the drink itself.
Finally here is a video I made of my time in Ethiopia, hopefully you’ll enjoy yourself as much as I did.