by Sarah Assefa December 16, 2017
Welcome to Ethiopia, the birthplace of coffee. The discovery of coffee in Ethiopia dates back to the 9th century. Legend has it that a farmer named Kaldi discovered coffee after finding his sheep jumping with energy after consuming the wild berry. He curiously took the berries to some local monks. The monks considered the beans evil and sinful until they threw them in the fire. Suddenly, an amazing aroma filled the room, making them fall in love with it instantly. When they consumed it, they realized it helped them stay up all night to worship attentively and gave them an energy boost they never felt before.
Today, Ethiopia is the largest producer of coffee in Africa. Coffee is also the number 1 exported product in Ethiopia. However, half of the produce is consumed domestically, which is not surprising considering the love we have for coffee. The regions that are well known for producing the best export-quality coffee are the south-east and south-west parts of Ethiopia.
If you've never had a cup of magical black gold from an Ethiopian cafe, you haven’t had the authentic coffee everyone is raving about. Coffee is more than an energy beverage in Ethiopia; it is a symbol of friendliness and hospitality, and we have an entire ceremony that revolves around coffee. The ceremony lasts anywhere from 2-4 hours.
A coffee ceremony is one of the main highlights in our day. It is a time when friends and families gather together to cherish each other, catch up, or talk about various matters like politics or gossip. A coffee ceremony is also a common way of welcoming a guest. That is why we see coffee ceremonies held during major events in Ethiopia (when Barack Obama visited in 2015) as a "Welcome to Ethiopia" gesture.
The coffee ceremony is held in almost every household in Ethiopia, sometimes up to 3 times a day. These days, traditional coffee ceremonies are also held in malls, resorts, offices, and even tiny street vendors “cafes” with plastic chairs called Arkebet souqs. You can find the Arkebet souqs in every corner of the city. They are makeshift “cafes” usually ran by one lady where she serves fresh delicious coffee along with some snacks. These “cafes” are usually lined up around busy areas and you can find people from all walks of life enjoying a steaming hot cup of coffee during their break time or after work/school. The street vendors manage to make their small space a very hospitable place filled with amazing vibes and the unmatchable smell of Ethiopian coffee and the etan (Ethiopian/middle eastern incense).
Drinking coffee at an arkebet souq is definitely one of the most Ethiopian things you can do when you visit. In fact, many locals, including me believe the coffee is the most authentic and rich in these little “cafes”.
Now that we have a brief background on the history and importance of coffee and the coffee ceremony, I will guide you through the process and steps that are involved in preparing the coffee! The Ethiopian coffee ceremony is always prepared by a woman dressed in an Ethiopian cultural dress (Habesha Kemees), so first thing I do before preparing the coffee is get changed for the ceremony. Once I’m dressed, I start preparing the atmosphere by laying thin long leaves and flowers on the floor before placing a short table where the cups and the Ethiopian clay pot (Jebena) are kept. I also prepare the incense (etan) in a clay burner prior to the ceremony to keep the evil spirits away. Once the setting is ready and the room is filled with the incense's aroma, I sit to start the ceremony.
First, I pick through the raw green coffee beans to find any peels or a bean that isn't up to standards to out. The raw beans are then hand-roasted in a shallow pan over a charcoal stove until they turn dark golden-brown. I shake the hot, smoking pan near all the guests' noses to give them a generous whiff of the coffee aroma. The coffee is then pounded with mortar and petal into fine grounds. These days, some Ethiopians like me prefer to use small electric blenders to speed up the process. Finally, I pour the grounds into a long clay pot with a round bottom called Jebena.
Jebena is the star of the whole ceremony. It is the secret to the rich, dark and delicious Ethiopian coffee. The Jebena is filled with boiling water before the coffee is added in. Once the coffee/water mixture boils, I pour it out of the Jebena into small handleless ceramic cups called sini. The unfiltered, coffee grinds sink to the bottom. This thick, aromatic coffee is called "Ye Jebena Buna," which translates into "The Jebena coffee." Ye Jebena buna has an intense dark chocolate color and a delicious smell. The Jebena coffee is then distributed by me or the youngest guest/relative to the guests or family members, usually starting from the seniors or the guest-of-honor. Ye Jebena buna is typically served with sugar and a small plant called rue (Ten'adam in Amharic), giving the coffee a refreshing kick.
Overtime, Addis Ababa has seen the establishment of many non-traditional coffee shops that serve a wide range of coffee beverages. However, Jebena coffee is still heavily consumed and favored by the local population. Plenty of hotels, restaurants, coffee shops that serve non-traditional coffee and hot beverages still ensure to serve the Jebena coffee. Believe it or not, coffee ceremonies are also held in bars across Addis Ababa!
Ethiopian Coffee ceremonies consist of 3 rounds. The first one is called Abol. The coffee is the thickest and darkest in the first round, and it gets weaker and lighter by the second round, called Tona. The last and most important round is called Berekah, and it is considered impolite to leave before the final round. Berekah literally translates into "blessing." It is believed that the 3rd round is when you finally receive all the blessings of the coffee ceremony. Some snacks served during the coffee ceremony include popcorn, kolo (roasted barley), and Ambasha (a traditional Ethiopian bread).
The coffee ceremony has some variations across different parts of Ethiopia. It's common for them to serve the coffee with Ethiopian butter (Qibe in Amharic) in some regions. In parts of Addis Ababa, some workers and students drink their coffee with salt to get a stronger boost of energy. I never knew this!
By now, you probably figured out that coffee is more than just an energy drink or an agricultural commodity to Ethiopians. It is a drink that is engraved in our hearts and culture. Whether it is in an arkebet souq, hotel, or at a host’s house, make sure you attend at least one coffee ceremony, so you don't miss the divine experience and taste of Ye Jebena buna in the land of coffee.
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~Ethiopia's rising star storyteller~