ADDIS ABABA, ETHIOPIA – Welcome to the center of the caffeinated universe. In Ethiopia, coffee is much more than a cup of “joe;” it’s a key element in social life, a cultural cornerstone and a daily ritual. According to legend, this is the land where coffee was born. Ethiopians love their caffeine, and what strikes me as amazing is that most of the time, the coffee here is made from scratch. I’m talking about the traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony, where raw green coffee beans are transformed into a deep aromatic brew before your eyes. This isn’t an occasional practice; it happens multiple times per day. In Ethiopia, inviting someone to share a cup (or three) of coffee is the equivalent to extending a hand in friendship. If you’re a visitor like me, be prepared to accept many caffeine-laced invitations. Chances are, you’ll be jacked up for days.
Ethiopia is the birthplace of coffee as we know it. The beverage’s origin story is a colorful legend. As it was told to me, a goat herder named Kaldi from the country’s Kaffa region observed some strange behavior coming from his goats. The normally docile animals were bouncing down the hill and dancing on their hind legs. Kaldi investigated and found them eating strange red berries. When he tried these berries he felt…energized, and shared his find with the local monks. Initially they rejected the berries as the work of the devil, throwing them on the fire. The smell of the toasting berries was so intoxicating, the monks changed their mind and called the beans a gift from God. The crafty monks figured out a way to brew the beans and drank the “coffee” to stay awake for their long-haul prayer sessions.
To begin the coffee ceremony, incense is burned — usually a lump of frankincense over coals in a small clay brazier — to cleanse the area of any bad spirits. I love the smell; it creates this thick, heady atmosphere and a feeling of anticipation. A bed of green grass is laid out on the floor to symbolize abundance. Sometimes the grass is plastic, sometimes it is fresh and fragrant, but it is always there.
Raw green coffee beans are produced, cleaned and sorted. They are placed in a small pot with a long handle and cooked over the red hot coals. The pot is continuously shaken, the beans creating a distinct rhythmic sound, to make they’re evenly toasted. Eventually, the coffee beans take on an oily, dark brown sheen and the roasting is complete.
At this point, the still-smoking beans are brought around to each guest to sample the aroma. The custom is to waft the coffee-scented smoke towards your face then praise the delicious smell of the beans. Everyone takes a moment to breathe in the smoke and complement their host.
The coffee drinkers are presented with small snack, usually popcorn or toasted seeds, because it’s considered unhealthy to drink coffee on an empty stomach.
The toasted beans are then ground by hand with a mortar and pestle and brewed in a traditional, long-necked coffee pot called a jebena. When it is finished, the coffee is poured from a height into handleless espresso sized cups.
In Ethiopia, the coffee is served to the oldest person first, as a sign of respect. It is usually served pre-sweetened – with several spoonfuls of sugar.
As soon as the first round of coffee is drunk, the cups are returned to the coffeemaker who washes and fills them again. You’re expected to have a second cup (blessing), and then a third. The third cup is the most important – it symbolizes true friendship. As a visitor to Ethiopia, everyone wants to offer you coffee. Accepting this generosity and extension of friendship is the polite thing to do, even when it’s your ninth cup that day.
The Starbucks Influence
If you’re craving caffeine and on a time constraint, Kaldi’s Coffee is an Addis Ababa chain with a distinct Starbucks vibe. The familiar round green logo, green aprons, comfy chairs and rows of muffins stacked behind a shiny glass counter were all inspired by the international coffee giant. If the store’s name sounds familiar, Kaldi was that coffee bean-popping goat herder of legend. Originally opened in 2004, Kaldi’s Coffee has expended into eleven branches throughout Addis Ababa. The store offers everything from caramel macchiatos and cinnamon mocha lattes to ice cream coffee shakes.
Learn more about Kaldi’s Coffee at: http://kaldis-coffee.com
How coffee is traditionally made in Addis Ababa, from beans to brew: