World Tour: Ethiopia

World Tour: Ethiopia

At Propeller, we believe that coffee brings people and cultures closer together. Over the next few weeks, we will share a few of our favourite coffee traditions from around the world to highlight the ways in which coffee brings us together as both a local and global coffee community. 

We think an appropriate place to start this blog series is in Ethiopia - the commonly agreed to birthplace of coffee. According to Ethiopian legend, a goat herder named Kaldi (or Khalid) discovered coffee when he noticed his goats bouncing around energetically after eating cherries off of a tree. Intrigued by their behaviour, Kaldi decided to collect some cherries off the same tree to try. When Kaldi consumed the cherries, he found they had the same energizing effect on him and helped sustain him during his long days. Encouraged by his wife, he shared these cherries and their effects with the monks at a nearby monastery, where they were quickly declared “the devil’s work” and thrown into a fire. As the cherries burned away, the beans began to crackle and pop, and the sweet aroma of coffee filled the air. Noticing the scent, the monks pulled the beans from the embers and stored them in a pot of water to cool them down. They later drank this brew and began to consume the stimulating liquid to keep themselves awake during their late night devotions. We’re guessing the smell and taste changed their minds about whose work this was! And although the likelihood of this story is pretty slim, it’s fun to imagine it happened this way.

There is other more reliable evidence around the discovery and early uses of coffee in Ethiopia, including that the Galla tribe used to chew the cherries as a stimulant. No matter its origin story, people have consumed coffee for over 1000 years and it now permeates cultures worldwide.

Across Ethiopia, people make and drink buna, the Amharic word for coffee, in a number of ways. In urban areas especially, coffee has evolved into a quick break among colleagues during the weekday with cafes on every corner in major cities. Despite this shift, coffee consumption across the country remains steeped in ritual and tradition. The traditional Ethiopian way of making coffee, like many others practiced around the world, is a highly ceremonial occasion and is about more than just drinking coffee. It is an opportunity to show respect to visitors to the home, share news and information, and spend time with friends and loved ones.

Coffee is typically prepared three times a day – in the morning, at lunch time, and again at dinner, usually after six. It is most often women who are in charge of this important undertaking and the responsibility is taken very seriously. Excellent coffee brewers can gain a reputation within their families and their neighbourhood for their skill.

Preparing coffee in the traditional way takes time - on average, half an hour or more. The ritualized task starts with laying out fresh grasses and flowers along the floor, followed by lighting incense to ward off any evil spirits and cleanse the area. As the incense burns, green coffee beans are washed and then roasted in a pan over a fire, and like any good roaster, attention is paid to ensure the beans are roasted evenly. The sweet aroma of roasting coffee mixes with the scent of incense and fills the air as participants gather around.

Once the beans are roasted, they are tipped into tools much like a mortar and pestle where they are coarsely ground. As the beans are being ground, the water is set to warm. The ground beans are then tipped into the jabena (Ethiopian coffee pot) and left to simmer and boil as the flavours of the beans are extracted. Once the brew comes to a boil, the coffee is ready to be served. 

The coffee is traditionally served in small cups about the size of an espresso cup but without handles. Pouring the coffee requires a great deal of skill as the aim is to fill all cups in a single pour while keeping the coffee grounds safely in the bottom of the pot and out of your cup. The jabena is lifted about a foot in the air as the pot is tilted causing the dark rich coffee to stream down, piping hot into the cups below. After each person is served, second and third rounds of coffee are offered up. Though each round of coffee is progressively weaker, it is considered a blessing to be included in the third round of serving.

There are a range of snacks that accompany the coffee during the ceremony including popcorn (locally known as fendisha), bread, toasted grains and a green leaf called tena’adam thought to have mystical properties. Although coffee is commonly served black, it is frequently served with sugar, and in some parts of Ethiopia, it is taken with butter or milk. The original bulletproof coffee!

The cultural aspect of coffee preparation and consumption in Ethiopia goes beyond its use as a stimulant. In addition to serving as a platform for exchanging information, and displaying respect, it is about coming together, and enjoying the company of friends and family. When you brew and drink your next cup, whatever method you use, take a moment to reflect on how you are a part of this ancient tradition.


Written by: Alison MacDonald
With Contributions from: Aklilu Tafa

Coffee: By: Coren, Cina, MA, Salem Press Encyclopedia, 2020, EBSCO Online.

How to Perform an Ethiopian Coffee Ceremony, Goodwin, L. 04/11/2019. The Spruce Eats Online.

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