How long does it take you to make your first cup of coffee? How about your 2nd? Coffee in western culture has always been encompassed in convenience and a tool for production. Often times, coffee is used as a means to an end- the end of your paper due at 7am, the project you will be presenting to your manager and colleagues in the morning, or the fuel to get the kids dressed, fed, and out the door.
Although coffee works wonders for all of the aforementioned obligations of day-to-day life, when was the last time you really sat down and enjoyed your cup of coffee in your own home? Therein lies the beauty of the Ethiopian Coffee Ceremony.
In Ethiopian culture, the Coffee Ceremony is three rounds of coffee in what generally takes two hours with the host and other attendees. Often performed by the matriarch of the family, the ceremony is almost always performed with guests in the home, special occasions, and after church. In my household, we had a coffee ceremony every day as a means of bringing us together and unwinding after long days.
The coffee ceremony is usually performed in three phases:
1) Roasting the coffee
2) Brewing the coffee, and
3) Cupping the coffee.
The host accomplishes all three phases in front of the attendees while remaining at her station and simultaneously entertaining. Let’s dig a bit deeper with each step of the ceremony.
The green coffee beans are roasted in a long handled pan called the menkeshkesh. In Tigrinya, menkeshkesh literally translates to “the shaker”. The name speaks to the roasting process as the menkeshkesh sits on the stove for a short period of time and every few seconds is shaken to rotate the beans.
While going from green to brown takes a bit of time, the beans must be watched closely from the first to the second crack to ensure they do not burn. As is customary in Ethiopian style roasting, most roast their coffee beans to a dark roast. Once the second layer peels off the beans and they begin to glisten with natural oil, the coffee is ready to be removed from the stove top and is poured onto a woven mat made of lakha reeds called a meshrefet. The beans are spread out on the meshrefet and set aside in to cool.
A ceramic, hand-made pot called the jebana is the coffee brewing apparatus in the Ethiopian Coffee Ceremony. The jebana is filled with water, not surpassing the stout, and set on the stove to boil. As you wait for the water to heat, the freshly roasted coffee is ground and poured into a small cup with a handle. Once steam begins to rise from the opening of the jebana, that is when you know it is time to add the coffee. The boiling water is poured in the small cup containing the coffee grounds and the host transfers the thick liquid back in the jebana. The host continues to do this back-and-forth motion until all of the grounds have been swept into the jebana. The jebana is then carefully placed back onto the stove top to allow the flavor to be seeped from the grounds.
As the coffee begins to heat up in the jebana, steam will again rise from the top and the host much be careful to ensure the contents do not overflow. As the steam builds and the coffee rumbles, the host will again do a manual transfer from jebana to cup and back into the jebana. This is to ensure that the coffee is sufficiently mixed into the water rather than sunk to the bottom. The jebana will then be placed back onto the stove top until the steam rebuilds and it is ready for serving.
The piping hot jebana is then placed on the kofmobelee jebana, which literally translates to the chair of the coffee pot. The jebana is tilted at an angle to ensure the grounds sink to the bottom and are not included in the pour. The host prepares the small cups called finjals for pouring as she asks her guests whether they would like sugar or not. A teaspoon of sugar is often times the standard, unless stated otherwise by the guest. Once a few minutes have passed, the host gently lifts the jebana using the handle and pours coffee into each cup holding the jebana a few inches from the to showcase the dark coffee pouring from the stout. The host stirs each finjal of coffee and places them on tiny serving plates as to not burn the finger tips of the guest.
As each guest sips the coffee, it is customary to compliment the host on the taste by saying “tu-uhm buna” (translation: “delicious coffee”), as the host response “tu-uhm yi hav kum” (translation: “delicious for you/ you deserve”).
The first round of coffee is called Awel and is usually the strongest. If there is enough coffee still left in the jebana, the host will pour another cup for her guests. If not, she will go onto the next round called Kahleye (translates to “another”). The host will add water to jebana and place it back onto the stove for the second round and will go through the brewing process again. This round will be less strong than the first. The third and final round is called Bereka (translates to “to give blessings” as you are supposed to give blessings to the host for creating the ceremony). This round is the lightest of all and the final bit of coffee soaked from the grounds.
During the ceremony, guests often snack on ihmbaba (popcorn) and kolo (roasted barley), as they chat, laugh, and socialize with the host and other guests. As the coffee station is not to be left unattended, a household member or close guest will assist the host in grabbing her what she may need during the process.
The Ethiopian Coffee Ceremony, while long and strenuous, is truly a time to show your respect, wind down, or socialize with your friends and family. The ceremony is a vital part of the Ethiopian diasporic experience that gathers generationally and culturally separated family members to share in their time together. There will always be a need for coffee to be quick and readily available, but taking a moment (or 2 hours) to slow down with the people you love most is coffee’s greatest flavor.