Ethiopian coffee ceremony

by Almaz Böhm

Extract from the book: „Kein Weg zu weit – Mein Leben zwischen Afrika und Europa“ (Please note: this book is only available in German.)

Every day Ethiopian women prepare coffee the same way my grandmother used to: following an elaborate ceremony. In Ethiopia coffee is not simply drunk but celebrated.

Ethiopia is the undisputed home of coffee. However, there are varying legends as to how coffee was discovered. The most common is that humankind discovered coffee thanks to the strange behaviour of Ethiopian mountain goats: more than a thousand years ago shepherds in the Abyssinian highland of the Kaffa region are said to have observed that their goats went wild at night, and their bleating disturbed the herders’ sleep. They sought the advice of monks in the nearby monastery who discovered tree-like bushes with green, yellow and red fruits resembling cherries where the herd grazed. They tasted the fruits and they, too, were put into high spirits. No one can affirm the truth of this story but it is persistently passed down through the generations.

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In any case, the most beautiful preparation of coffee was developed in Ethiopia. Coffee is the national drink, incidentally the only important export article Ethiopia has, and an integral part of everyday life – in the city as in the country, in the north, south, east and west.

The preparation is clearly woman’s business; men drink along but they just don’t have a clue about coffee ceremony. Immediately after getting up, the day is welcomed with the first coffee ceremony, giving the lady of the house an almost meditative calmness before she has to face the hardships and hassle of everyday life. If you ever walked the streets of Addis Ababa or one of the many small towns in the country at dawn, you will forever remember the delicious smell of freshly ground coffee beans.

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Coffee ceremony is also an important sign of hospitality. Whenever there’s a visitor, a coffee ceremony will take place. To not offer guests coffee, or in the reverse case, decline a host’s coffee is considered impolite. Furthermore, coffee ceremony carries important social meaning, especially in the lives of women. If conflicts arise between neighbours or relatives, between friends or colleagues the disagreement is discussed and dissolved over coffee ceremony. During coffee ceremony people talk more openly than at any other time. Mostly with success because it is rare to not develop some sort of understanding while having coffee. This makes coffee ceremony not just an everyday tradition but a very important gesture of reconciliation and peace.

The raw material for the coffee ceremony is green coffee beans with their red skin removed. This is how the coffee farmer delivers them to the retailer. Raw coffee beans are first washed in water, and then dried using a soft cloth or bare hands. The clean beans are kept in a curved bowl made of tin or iron.

Roasting is next, using the bowl as pan. It is put on the metal stove filled with glowing charcoal, in front of which sits the hostess (mostly the lady of the house or a daughter, sometimes a maid) on a stool. On the floor surrounding her fresh grass is spread out that can be bought in bundles at the market. The grass on the floor symbolises the inhabitants’ attachment to nature. And the desire for it to always be green.

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The women put the Netala, the traditional scarf made of finest cotton, around their head and shoulders, and get to work. Air is fanned to the flames in the small stove with a straw fan. Now the green coffee beans are moved back and forth on the hot metal support using an iron hook, until they have reached the right dark colour. One needs to be patient because it takes some time for the beans to roast.

In the meantime, a delicious smell spreads throughout the room. Once the roasting is done the hostess passes around the bowl of hot coffee beans so that everyone can absorb the fragrance. Following this, the hot coffee beans are put into a wooden mortar and rhythmically pound to fine coffee powder. At the same time water is boiled in a Jebanna (the Ethiopian coffee pot) on the stove. The Jebanna is a rounded clay pot with a narrow, pulled-up open ended neck and a long, beak-shaped spout. As soon as the water is boiling coffee powder is spooned into the opening of the pot.

Depending on one’s habit, the first coffee is now boiled up one to three times until the brew has reached just the right strength. During this time a few pieces of glowing charcoal are put on a jar-like open clay pot, and topped with some chunks of incense that now develop their unique scent. This underlines the solemnness of the coffee ceremony. The room is now filled with the very special potpourri of roasted coffee, charcoal and incense, along with the steam of simmering water – a sensual pleasure. At the end popcorn or kollo (a mix of pounded barley grains and dried chickpeas) is roasted on the charcoal. In some areas of Ethiopia women add spices such as cardamom pods or cloves. But also salt, a bit of butter or milk are added to the cooking process.

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The small, handleless mocha cups – often featuring pretty ornaments – are at the ready on a wooden tray. They are washed again with hot water and then filled with a generous amount of sugar (at least two heaped small spoons). Now the moment has come for the coffee to be poured from the Jebanna – from a height of about 20 centimetres and, most importantly, in one go into all cups until they are all filled.

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While everyone contently sip their coffee, the hostess boils up the second brew. Three cups are a must at an Ethiopian coffee ceremony – and each has its particular significance. The first cup, the strongest, serves pure pleasure. During the second cup imminent problems are discussed. And finally, the third and last cup blesses those present. Each cup is served with popcorn or kollo.

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The important thing about coffee ceremony is undoubtedly not pure coffee pleasure but coming together and talking with each other. The coffee aroma floats through the house for hours – this is the epitome of comfort and community.

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