Ethiopia’s coffee ceremony is an integral part of their social and cultural life. An invitation to attend a coffee ceremony is considered a mark of friendship or respect and is an excellent example of Ethiopian hospitality. Performing the ceremony is almost obligatory in the presence of a visitor, whatever the time of day. Don’t be in a hurry though – this special ceremony can take a few hours. So sit back and enjoy because it is most definitely not instant.
Coffee is taken with plenty of sugar (or in the countryside, salt) but no milk and is generally accompanied by lavish praise for its flavour and skilful preparation. Often it is complemented by a traditional snack food, such as popcorn, peanuts or cooked barley. In most parts of Ethiopia, the coffee ceremony takes place three times a day – in the morning, at noon and in the evening. It is the main social event within the village and a time to discuss the community, politics, life and about who did what with whom. If invited into a home to take part, remember – it is impolite to retire until you have consumed at least three cups, as the third round is considered to bestow a blessing. Transformation of the spirit is said to take place during the coffee ceremony through the completion of ‘Abol’ (the first round), ‘Tona’ (second round) and ‘Baraka’ (third round).
You’ll find that each region’s coffee will taste slightly different, according to the growing conditions. Kaffa’s forested hillsides, at 1,500 feet, provide larger trees to protect the coffee plants from the harsh sun. Harar is renowned for its longberry variety with its distinctive wine-like flavour and sharp acidic edge. And Sidamo’s beans, known as Yirgacheffes, have an unusual flavour. The coffee Arabica strain is Ethiopia’s original bean and the only one still grown and drunk there today. It does not have the excessive pungency or acidity of the neighbouring Kenyan brands and is much closer in character to the related Mocha variety of Yemen. The composition of its delicate and strong flavour can be lost if it is high roasted.
According to national folklore, the origin of coffee is firmly rooted in Ethiopia’s history. Their most popular legend concerns the goat herder from Kaffa, where the plants still grow wild in the forest hills. After discovering his goats to be excited, almost dancing on their hind legs, he noticed a few mangled branches of the coffee plant which was hung with bright red berries. He tried the berries himself and rushed home to his wife who told him that he must tell the monks. The monks tossed the sinful drug into the flames, an action soon to be followed by the smell we are all so familiar with now. They crushed the beans, raked them out of the fire, and distilled the stimulating substance in boiling water. Within minutes the monastery filled with the heavenly aroma of roasting beans, and the other monks gathered to investigate. After sitting up all night, they found a renewed energy to their holy devotions. The rest, as they say, is history.
Coffee holds a sacred place in their country -just the growing and picking process of coffee involves over 12 million Ethiopians and produces over two-thirds of the country’s earnings. The best Ethiopian coffee may be compared with the finest coffee in the world, and premium washed Arabica beans fetch some of the highest prices on the world market. In a world where time has long become a commodity, the Ethiopian coffee ceremony takes us back to a time when value was given to conversation and human relations. Perhaps an ancient proverb best describes the place of coffee in Ethiopian life, “Buna dabo naw”, which when translated means “Coffee is our bread!”