A long time ago, before I really knew anything, I posted about food in Ethiopia. In that post I promised that I’d write something about the drinks found here. So here goes. I can’t promise that I know much more than I knew back then, but I’ll do my best.
Coffee, or buna, in Ethiopia is a way of life, both as its main export and its primary cultural ritual. It’s said that coffee was discovered here when a monk noticed his goats’ increased energy after consuming the red beans. Somehow that got turned into the warm beverage billions know and love today.
Most Ethiopians drink it several times a day, though it’s not the giant mugs and ventis and grandes we in America know. A traditional coffee ceremony includes the washing, roasting, pounding, and boiling in clay jebanas of the raw beans, all by hand. The coffee is served in small cups, called sinis, that hold about two shots. A full ceremony calls for the process to be repeated three times using the same grounds, causing the coffee to get weaker with each batch. Throw in a little grass on the ground and incense throughout and the ceremony is complete.
Coffee ceremonies are reserved for special occasions, which can be anything, really. “I haven’t seen you in a while, come have coffee” counts as a special occasion. The ceremony is an integral and wonderful part of Ethiopian culture, a chance to get to connect with neighbors, celebrate a holiday with family, take time in the day to relax.
Have I ever performed this ceremony? You betcha, but only twice and with help from my friend. It’s tricky to get the amount of grounds right, to know when it’s finished, etc. Making delicious coffee is a highly sought after trait in a woman. And it’s the women who make it, though I know some men who are able (and have even had one make it for me).
Along with this coffee culture comes the tea and coffee, or shaybuna, break. People take 15 minutes (or an hour in a lot of cases) in the morning and afternoon to have coffee or tea and conversation. It slows down the (already slow) pace of the day.
While I’m discussing coffee, I have to include the ubiquitous macchiato, a legacy of the Italian occupation of the mid-twentieth century. Delicious, frothy macchiatos – basically, coffee with steamed milk — are one of my favorite things in Ethiopia and are found in most cafes on non-fasting days.
Next up is the beverage that’s made my hometown (Milwaukee!) famous. Beer in Ethiopia is an interesting prospect. There are a lot of beers made here. The two most popular are St. George and Dashen. They’re like the Bud and Miller of Ethiopia. You can find at least one of the two most everywhere. Neither is great. In fact, they both wreck my innards, and I avoid them. Dashen is headquartered in Gondar, in the northern part of Ethiopia, and is named after the country’s highest peak, Ras Dashen. St. George is made in Addis Ababa, and is named after the patron saint of Ethiopia, who is famous for slaying a dragon.
St. George recently added a new beer called Amber, which is pretty good. It also has the highest alcohol content of any Ethiopian beer, a fact that every Ethiopian seems to know for some reason. Whenever I order it, someone seems to always remind me that it has 6% alcohol. Is that high? I don’t think I could tell you the alcohol content of any beer I drink in the US.
My favorite beer, and the favorite of many PCVs, is Hakim Stout, made by Harar (also a good beer) in Harar, which is in the eastern part of Ethiopia. Hakim Stout is dark and somewhat sweet (Is it malty? I’m not a huge beer consumer, so I don’t know the technical terms.) When I first arrived in Bahir Dar, it was only found in a few places, but it seems to have spread its reach, which is good for the PCVs around here.
Another favorite of mine is Bedele Special, made in Bedele, which is found in the Oromia region. In case you’re wondering, there is also Bedele Normal, though it can’t be found in a lot of places outside of Western Oromia, including Bahir Dar.
Tej, tella, arake. The big three of Ethiopian traditional drinks.
Tej is a honey-based alcoholic drink, or honey wine. It can be soft (weak) or hard (you guessed it – strong). It’s homemade, but we can buy it at tej bets, which are usually populated by old men. It can be a fun experience.
Tella is a more, er, acquired taste, if it is acquired at all. It’s a traditional grain-based (teff or barley) beer. Often, it’s not strained, so bits of twig, grain, whatever find their way into your mouth. It’s disgusting. I’ve had some really bad tella and I’ve had some that hasn’t made me want to throw up. For me, it’s a kind of run out the clock situation at holiday events. I drink as little as possible, despite attempts by my hosts to keep re-filling my glass.
The sign that someone is selling tella from their home is an upside-down cup on a large stick. They’re everywhere.
Arake. Fire water. I don’t drink it. It’s basically Ouzo, which is sold here, but there are regional variations. My landlady sold me a type she called catespil, which I gave to a PCV as a Christmas gift (he wanted alcohol). It was toxic.
Look, it’s not great. Gouder is a cheap red wine that wouldn’t pass muster for a couple bucks in the US. But I really like it. But I’m not much of a wine person in the States, so whatever. Some folks cut it with coke, and it’s delightful.
There’s Kemila, Awash, and Axumite, sweet wines (white, white, and red, respectively) that are also cheap. I haven’t had much of either, and I don’t know a lot of Ethiopians who drink it, but someone must, right?
I saved the best for last. The juice in Ethiopia is out of this world. For what is the equivalent of 50 cents, you can get a large glass of frothy, sweet juice in a variety of fruits. The most common are avocado and mango. There’s also guava, orange, pineapple, and banana, my favorite. Ask for a spris and mix and match your favorite kinds. In Addis, you can add strawberry to the mix.
Unfortunately, not all towns have juicebets (juice houses). I’m lucky enough to live in a large city that has fruits year round. It’s a fabulous, refreshing treat.
So that’s a brief summary of the beverages of Ethiopia, at least what I know of them. I hope it makes you want to crack open a cold one.