Enjoying an Ethiopian coffee ceremony in downtown Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s rapidly developing capital city, means keeping up with the locals.
And locals can drink three black cups in a sitting.
I’m buzzing after my third coffee and my eyes are watering from the frankincense smoke wafting into my face. Arbol, the first cup, is said to be the strongest and best. My coffee is light yet full, earthy and oily at the same time. The second cup, Tona, is made with the same reused coffee grains so weaker and the third, Bereka, is known as the “one for the road.” For me, it’s the one too many.
An Ethiopian coffee ceremony, or jebena buna as it’s called in the local Amharic language, is not designed for someone in a hurry. The preparation can be excruciatingly slow.
Women, often dressed in traditional garb, first wash green coffee beans before roasting—some would say burning—them over hot coals. The charcoal black beans are then coarsely ground by hand in a mortar and pestle. The coffee and water are then mixed together in the earthen black jar called a jebena, which is placed directly in the hot coals until steam pours from the jebena’s spout.
The resulting coffee is dark, bitter, and typically sweetened with heaped teaspoons of sugar. Popcorn is almost always served as a side. Done well, jebena buna is delicious. Though the piping-hot and over-full handleless cups can be hard to hold without burning yourself.
No one I ask seems to have an explanation for the accompanying frankincense burning ritual. I wonder if it has anything to do with a belief that one of the three wise men is said to have been Ethiopian.
“It’s just the culture,” says 18-year-old jebena buna attendant, Tewabech Haile.
Speaking of culture, I ask why men never work coffee ceremonies when they’re often found in city cafes driving espresso machines.
“It’s more attractive when a women in a pretty dress makes coffee. A man in a dress wouldn’t fit,” Haile says earnestly, wearing a traditional cheese cloth dress.
Male barista (or “baresta” as his name tag reads) Murad Hayar wears an apron at Tomoca cafe just up the road. The 60-year-old cafe that looks every bit its age is a magnet for inner-city professional and tourists wanting to sample what’s considered some of Ethiopia’s finest coffee.
“I like jebena buna better than espresso machine coffee,” Murad says, to my surprise, for someone who pulls 30 to 40 kilograms of coffee a day through two old machines. “Espresso machine coffee is hard whereas jebena buna is full of flavour.”
The word “hard” pops up again when I ask a local man what type of coffee he prefers.
“Black coffee for me is very hard,” says Omar Hassen, perched on one of Tomoca’s standing only bars. “I have it with milk so it’s lighter.”
Omar is drinking a macchiato, something so common in Ethiopia that it almost feels like the national drink after jebena buna. It probably established its position on the national palette after the Italian occupation in World War II. Murad says Tomoca’s first owner was Italian.
Ethiopian macchiatos are served small and concentrated, like a piccolo latte, with the shot poured through crudely frothed milk. Tomoca’s baristas ask customers if they like their macchiatos “normal” or “strong.”
And while coffee obsessed Ethiopia proudly clings to its traditions and tastes, it’s not immune from modern influences. In the past few years, dozens of Starbucks-like coffee shops have sprung up around town.
The country doesn’t host any foreign owned fast food chains but the locally owned Kaldi’s is doing its best to fill the space. Popular legend says an Ethiopian goat herder called Kaldi discovered the coffee plant after noticing his flock’s behaviour change when they ate coffee cherries. In Addi’s modern Kaldi’s franchises, young, well-dressed middle class Addisinians come for burgers, fries, and of course, macchiatos.
“The coffee is nice and it’s a good place to sit” says 25-year-old e-commerce worker Anteneh Sime.
But why drink coffee here when you can drink Ethiopian jebena buna all around town?
“Most of the time we prefer jebena buna”, says his 25-year-old graphic designer friend, Yabsira Tesfaye. “I just like the change.”
When I query why Anteneh heaps two full spoonfuls of sugar into his macchiato, he smirks: “Sweet people need a sweet drink.”
It’s anyone’s guess where another popular yet odd Ethiopian drink comes from: Spris. Spris is a 50-50 mix of coffee and tea in the same cup. When poured well the black coffee separates and floats above the clear coloured tea. Serve with the obligatory heaped spoonful of sugar and you get a sickly sweet and bemusing drink.
According to the International Coffee Organisation, Ethiopia is unique in Africa for having a strong domestic coffee consumption culture. Other coffee producing countries, it seems, don’t drink their product.
The type of coffee you drink in Ethiopia probably says much about how much money you have. A Tomoca macchiato costs 12 birr ($0.60c) while a jebena buna will put you back about 5 birr ($0.25c). The cheapest coffee in Addis is sold by women walking the streets selling cups of coffee from a thermos, and costs about 3 birr ($0.15c).
A good thing it’s so cheap when you drink three cups in a row.