I love coffee. I have drunk coffee in many, many countries with varying degrees of appreciation. Well now I have found coffee heaven. It’s in Ethiopia and there is a whole ceremony wrapped around the making and drinking of it.

Ethiopia is the home of coffee. The coffee plant originated in Ethiopia and the beans were first brewed in the 11thcentury. So, they have had a lot of practice doing stuff with coffee. The coffee ceremony is an integral part of Ethiopian culture and hospitality. It is an important social occasion.

Ethiopians have a delightful story around the discovery of the benefits of coffee. A goat herder noticed his goats acting excitedly and ‘dancing’ on the hind legs after eating bright red berries. When he tried the berries himself, he felt energised. He grabbed some berries and rushed home to tell his wife who told him he must share these “heaven sent” berries with the monks in the nearby monastery. The monks did not share the goat herder’s elation, believing the berries to be sinful; to be the work of the Devil. They tossed the coffee berries in the fire. However, the smell of the roasting coffee beans had the monks rethinking their view of this sinful drug and removed the coffee beans from the fire. They crushed the coffee beans to put out the glowing embers and covered them with hot water to preserve them. The aroma of the coffee had all the monks wanting to try it. After which, they vowed to drink coffee every day because they found the uplifting effects of the coffee helped to keep them awake during their holy devotions. And so, history was made.

I loved the ceremony as much as the coffee itself. Unlike Italy where coffee is drunk quickly whilst standing, making and drinking coffee in Ethiopia is not to be rushed as no step is to be missed.

Wherever I travelled in Ethiopia, the coffee ceremony was always the same. There was something reassuring in this familiarity and about the smell of fresh grasses that were invariably laid on the ground.

First, the raw coffee beans are rubbed together in water in a pan to remove the skins on the beans. Then they are roasted over a charcoal brazier. This releases the aromatic oils out of the beans. The hostess – I never saw this ceremony conducted by a man – brings the pan of smoking, roasted beans around for you to waft the smoke towards you; to draw in the aroma of the roasted beans.

Once roasted, the beans are ground with a mortar and pestle. Traditionally, the mortar and pestle are made of wood.

Jebena (coffee pot)

The jebena I bought in a local market in Bahir Dar

While this is happening, water is being boiled in a “jebena” – a traditional Ethiopian clay coffee pot with a bulbous, round bottom; a long narrow neck topped with a wooden or straw stopper; and a handle.

Once the coffee beans are ground, they are added to the boiling water. The combined water and beans are boiled for a couple of minutes and then rested to allow the coffee powder to sink to the bottom of the pot.

By this stage, if you are a coffee lover like me, the smell of fresh brewed coffee will have your mouth watering in anticipation of what is to come.

Finally, the coffee is poured into small, handleless china cups (very much like Turkish coffee cups). The pouring is done from as high as possible above the cups – from about a foot above the cups. The coffee is usually served with popcorn or peanuts.

Ethiopian coffee is drunk sweet and black. In fact, very sweet – 2 to 3 teaspoons of sugar. Mind you, the teaspoons are minuscule. I learnt to enjoy black coffee. However, by the time I left Ethiopia, I was drinking the coffee with a bit less sugar.

When partaking of coffee in Ethiopia, etiquette requires you to have three cups of coffee. The first cup is to welcome you, the second cup is about friendship and the third cup is to say goodbye. Remember, these are very small cups, so having three is less in quantity than a mug of coffee.

Ethiopian coffee is the best I have ever tasted. The two women I was travelling with told me I said, “Oh, that’s good coffee” every time I have a cup of coffee. This must have driven them mad because we had lots (and I mean lots) of cups of coffee. Finally, one of my travel companions told our diver/guide that Ethiopia needs to change its tourism slogan from ’13 months of sunshine’ to ‘Oh, that’s good coffee’. He just laughed.

For more posts on Ethiopia: Lost in Translation – Is that the heating?