Coffee is as integral to Ethiopian society as tea is in England, and the intricate coffee ceremony is a mark of friendship and respect that is performed all over Ethiopia. So important is the coffee ceremony that it has almost become obligatory to be offered it everywhere as a visitor, and accepting it just as important.
Ethiopia has a genuine claim to be the original home of coffee, and has become so important and so ingrained in the Ethiopian Psyche that there are countless idioms and phrases involving coffee in everyday language, and there are even various legends of fluctuating historical accuracy surrounding the discovery of the very first bean!
Knowing the importance of coffee to the average Ethiopian is essential before you visit this amazing country, as not only will you appreciate the ubiquitous coffee shops even more, where the Tamoca chain reigns supreme amongst a ton of local offerings (don’t even mention Starbucks!) You will invariably be invited to experience one of the best cultural experiences in the country too, the coffee ceremony, and knowing it’s importance beforehand will deepen your experience.
The coffee ceremony.
The ceremony begins either after a large meal when you are ready to sit back and relax, or just as you enter a new place as a form of welcome, and is certainly not for those in a hurry. It takes at least an hour to perform, and that is before you start drinking as many cups of the hot, black and sugary drink as you can handle!
The presentation and style of the ceremony is as important as the drink itself. The cups are all set up and ready on a tray next to the small, charcoal stove, usually on some form of mat or boxed area. Grass is usually symbolically scattered on the floor to represent nature and the pungent incense will be burning beside everything.
The host sits on a tiny stool next to the stove and roasts the coffee beans over the stove in a small pan. The aroma surrounding the roasting beans is sublime, and makes the long wait worth it!
Eventually when they are ready the host will walk around the gathered guests and let them smell the roasting beans individually.
The next step is to ground the roasted beans up with a mortar and pestle and then stir them into a clay pot known as a Jebena. The coffee is then strained through a fine sieve multiple times to get rid of any large bean fragments that have been left over from the grounding process.
Finally the coffee is poured from a height into the china cups and served.
Now tell me that isn’t infinitely better than a crappy five minute frothy hipster mocchachino latte?
Apparently, and I didn’t learn this until much later myself after I had experienced a few coffee ceremonies, it is polite to drink at least three cups when offered as the third cup is said to bestow a blessing on the drinker. (Apologies to anyone I only had one cup with, I didn’t know!)
Traditionally the coffee ceremony was performed at any home were guests had been invited or any public gathering were large or small groups of family, friends and neighbours would gather, talk and generally socialise.
And that is what coffee means in Ethiopia, it is a drink consumed with friends and family, it is a very social thing that invites conversation and builds communities, something that is still held in high regard in Ethiopia even if the West has lost a lot of it.
This is why coffee holds a special place in the heart of Ethiopia, but there is a more practical reason too.
Coffee as a commodity.
Ethiopia is the worlds 5th largest coffee exporter, and the beans earn the country over one billion USD every single year, a number that is rising steadily thanks to newer more responsible initiatives with local farmers and a focus on traceable origins.
And travellers can play their part in contributing to Ethiopia’s coffee income by visiting some of the responsible coffee plantations in the western highlands. Coffee tourism can be a huge boon to any tourism economy, and there are tons of tour operators in Addis Ababa and other areas who will happily arrange tours for you so shop around.
But these aren’t coffee farms as you would expect them to be. Many plantations are based in some of the largest forests in the country, and rather than use up vast tracks of farm land, the beans are picked direct from the forests themselves.
The Kafa Biosphere reserve is a UNESCO recognised biosphere reserve with a wealth of vastly underappreciated tourism attractions for the few travellers who head to the highlands, and even has a coffee museum and ranger station in Kafa, the birthplace of coffee.
So while you are in Ethiopia make sure you take part in the coffee ceremony if you can, if you don’t get invited to a personal one then any restaurant will do it for you too, and take some time to explore the coffee culture through the coffee tours and farms. It will give you a fascinating insight into this beautiful country and give you a caffeine buzz that will keep you energised for your entire trip!
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