Ethiopia has a rich coffee culture probably because it is the birthplace of coffee. Coffee is believed to have been discovered in Ethiopia in the 9th century by a goat herder. One day he noticed his goats exhibiting a strange behavior after eating some tiny wild fruits.
The herder took the strange fruits to a nearby monastery and explained what had happened. The chaplain was aghast with the story and quickly sought to get rid of the “possessed fruits” by dumping them in a fire.
To their surprise, the fruits emitted an amazing aroma and were quickly retreived from the fire. The tiny fruits would eventually be brewed to make coffee and over time, Ethiopia’s coffee culture was born.
What is the Ethiopian Coffee Ceremony?
It is an elegant coffee-making and drinking ritual that consists of numerous fascinating elements that enhance the mood, interaction, and harmony amongst the participants. The ceremony is also known as the Habesha coffee ceremony.
Drinking coffee the “Ethiopian way” involves an elaborate ceremony and is more than just making and drinking delectable cups of coffee. The Ethiopian traditional coffee ceremony is an important social activity that promotes sharing, socializing, and togetherness.
To better understand how the Ethiopian coffee ceremony works, here are some interesting facts that make it a memorable experience.
1. A Lady Hosts The Ethiopian Coffee Ceremony
Traditionally, it is the preserve of women to perform a coffee ceremony in Ethiopia. The matriarch or a young woman prepares the ceremony.
When making coffee for a special occasion such as a public holiday, the woman dresses in the traditional Ethiopian dress – habesha kemis – that reaches to her ankles. The Ethiopian traditional dress is a free-flowing hand-made embroidery with beautiful patterns and colored designs.
It is very rare to find a man preparing Ethiopian coffee except when the woman is sick or absent.
2. Burning Incense
Historically, Ethiopia has been a key producer of frankincense as well as myrrh. It is not surprising, therefore, that burning incense is an important aspect of Ethiopia’s traditional coffee ceremony.
The aromas of the incense create a mood of unwinding and relaxation that enhances the goal of the coffee ceremony – to socialize, relieve anxiety, and relax.
3. Laying Freshly Cut Grass and Flowers On The Floor
The host lays fresh aromatic grass and flowers on the floor to form a natural mat. The sight and the fragrance of the fresh flowers and grass accentuate the mood for relaxation.
If freshly cut grass or flowers are not available to you, especially in the cities, you may use an artificial grass mat or any kind of mat instead.
4. Coffee is Prepared from Scratch in Plain Sight
How would you like to drink coffee that has been prepared from scratch right in front of you – right from green coffee beans to the coffee in your cup? This is the spectacle that is Ethiopia’s traditional coffee ceremony.
The host washes fresh coffee beans and then dries and roasts them in a long-handled pan over a charcoal stove. Once the green beans are evenly roasted and ready for grinding, the woman uses a mortar and pestle or a modern grinder to make a medium-to-fine grind size. She then brews the coffee in a jebena.
The whole process from spreading the grass to making a small fire up to drinking the last cup of coffee unfolds in the full view of the guests. During this time, the guests engage in various topics including personal and social issues and banter.
5. Smelling and Savoring The Aroma of Roasted Beans
When roasting the fresh beans, the host meticulously shakes the flat pan to even the roasting. When the beans are smoking and emitting wonderful aromas, she brings the pan to the guests who fan the smoke with their hands to draw the delectable aromas to themselves.
Fanning and savoring the aromas of the roasting beans is one of the most interesting aspects of Ethiopia’s coffee ceremony. It promotes the feeling of togetherness among the people in attendance.
6. Ethiopian Coffee Brews In A Jebena
A jebena is a round-bottomed ceramic pot with a handle, a narrow neck, and a straw lid. It is a special pot for brewing Ethiopian coffee. It has a special stand to prevent it from toppling over.
The ceramic jebena keeps the coffee hot for a longer period.
The host adds the coffee grounds and water into the jebena. She then places the jebena on a charcoal stove and brings the coffee to a boil. Coffee is ready when it starts steaming from the pot. The lady sets the coffee pot on its stand for several minutes for coffee grounds to settle at the bottom.
Finally, she pours the coffee into the tiny cups in a single stream. She can add sugar or salt depending on the guest’s preference before serving it. The oldest guest is served first and young people usually assist to serve the elderly.
To make the second and third servings of coffee, the host adds water without adding grounds to the jebena. Therefore, the coffee gets weaker with every subsequent serving.
We wrote a separate article that details the steps to follow when performing the Habesha coffee ceremony at home
7. A Special Table (The Rekebot)
The rekebot is the centerpiece of the ceremony. It is a special box-shaped, wooden table. The host sits on one side of the rekebot and arranges beautiful coffee cups and saucer plates on the tray. The guests gather around it.
The rekebot’s sole use is the coffee ceremony and when the event is done, the entire set – including the jebena – is carefully put aside to be retrieved for another ceremony.
8. A Dozen Small Cups on the Table
Ethiopian culture promotes generosity and sharing. In particular, the tradition of the Ethiopian coffee ceremony is such that coffee is meant for sharing with family and friends. That explains the reason that there are always more cups on the coffee table than the number of guests to cater to impromptu visitors.
Depending on the number of guests, the number of cups can be more than 20. Arranging a large number of beautiful cups on the rekebot also adds to the elegance of the ceremony.
Culturally, even if you are performing the Ethiopian coffee ceremony alone, there should be several (at least five) cups on your tray.
9. Snacks are a must
You can have different kinds of snacks to embellish your ceremony. You can serve traditional Ethiopian snacks such as dabo bread, pop-corns, and kolo – roasted barley or regular snacks such as biscuits or your choice of desserts.
Coffee preparation takes some time so the snacks are available to the guests as they talk and bond while waiting for the coffee to be ready.
10. Three Servings of Coffee
The ceremony involves partaking in several rounds of coffee. Most Ethiopians can drink several cups of coffee in one sitting. Furthermore, the coffee is served in tiny cups, unlike the large mugs that most coffee lovers use.
The first serving of Ethiopian coffee, known as abol, is the strongest of the three servings. The second serving, tona, is weaker than the first but stronger than the third.
Berekha, the third serving is very weak and watery but probably the most significant of the servings. It is a sign of respect and it represents blessings. The guests applaud and offer their gratitude to the host and she reciprocates by appreciating the guests.
In rural Ethiopia, you are likely to offend the host and be regarded as disrespectful if you do not partake in all three servings. Nevertheless, the rural folks are very accommodating if you are new to the culture.
11. There is no Specific Timing for the Ceremony
There is no set time, duration, or occasion for Ethiopia’s coffee ceremony. The coffee ceremony is a social activity that takes a few hours from the start to the third serving.
The ceremony provides ample time to socialize and foster friendships as well as strengthen family and societal bonds.
It is common for Ethiopians to take coffee during breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Some people participate in multiple coffee ceremonies in a day.
Ethiopians derive honor and pride from hosting their families and friends over a coffee ceremony during festivities such as religious and public holidays, family reunions, and birthday parties.
The coffee ceremony also provides a great avenue to comfort and encourage each other in times of sadness and grief. For example, it’s common for neighbors and friends to visit bereaved families and make a coffee ceremony for them. They gather around the coffee table and create a sense of communal sharing in the loss and suffering.