Tasting the Highs and Lows of Ethiopian Honey Wine
Tej is Ethiopian mead—a honey wine flavored with a hops-like herb and often made at home or at tej houses. The stuff for tourists is sweet and smooth, but real-deal tej carries notes of diesel.
Photo by Franck Metois / Getty
The red and yellow paint of the tej house's walls were cracked and peeling, matching my sunburned face and the slightly effervescent contents of the bottle placed before my companion and me. The only other customers at the steel tables in Abekelesh's were a blind man with a broken radio and a doddering old drunk with half his teeth. Then again, it was 1 PM in Gondar, Ethiopia.
Tej is Ethiopian mead—a honey wine flavored with an indigenous herb much like hops. Often made at home or at tej houses, the drink could easily be mistaken for orange juice on account of its hue and slight viscosity.
"Tej?" said Dan, an Ethiopian-Israeli friend who happened to be on the flight to Addis Ababa, eyebrow cocked. "Just don't start drinking it in the afternoon. You'll lose the rest of your day." The honey wine runs anywhere from 19-percent alcohol upward, depending on how long it's left to ferment.
Days later, while watching a boxing match in Gondar's piazza, a group of young men insisted that Abekelesh made the former Ethiopian capital's best tej.
"Yes, Abekelesh!" one wide-eyed teen said. "Must try. Get fucked up!"
Around 9 PM, after 30-cent beers at a local brewery, a crazed tuk-tuk driver conveyed us to the narrow, unlit streets of a working-class slum a stone's throw from Abyssinia's 17th-century palaces. The African night enveloped us as we pulled up to a darkened, two-story building.
Despite our protestations, the driver shouted in Amharic and pounded on the door until the family proprietors were roused from their beds. Eventually a head popped out of a top-floor window and inquired in angry tones what could possibly be so pressing. In a testament to Ethiopian hospitality, the matriarch opened the door to us curious ferenjiz. Mortified, we beat a hasty retreat with most sincere English apologies, determined to come back during business hours.
On our return during daylight, we were met by the smiling, if confused, owners. Blades of long green grass were strewn on the crude tile floor, and simple wood benches ran along the walls. We sat a table once blue, its metal surface now exposed and gouged with several large holes. A girl poured dark orange tej from a used Coca-Cola bottle into what appeared to be a wizard's flask.
Bubbles formed on the bottle's curved sides. A fly floated on top.
"Go on, drink up," my traveling companion urged in a Mancunian mumble. The drunk geezer in the corner cackled something in Amharic and gestured to take a swing as well.
The sickly sweet of honey came first, with an untempered yeasty funk quick on its heels, which was rounded off by a faint whiff of formaldehyde or varnish. With a grimace, I took a second slug. Definite notes of diesel and foot fungus.
We paid the $1.50. Despite my friend's insistence that we didn't want the rest, it was poured into a plastic water bottle for the road. On a nearby corner, four guys sat on a stoop, passing around a two-liter bottle of what was either gasoline or tej. We offered them ours; one poured a bit into the cap and proclaimed, "Hey! This is great stuff, brother!"
Abekelesh may be a local favorite, but across town at the more tourist-friendly Four Sisters restaurant, the tej is different story altogether. On a shady verandah in a bosky corner of the city, visitors get a respite from the choking dust and smog and crushing crowds of Gondar's streets. Like many restaurants in Ethiopia, Four Sisters makes their own tej, theirs several shades lighter than that of Abekelesh. By comparison, it's a nectar of the gods: sweet and smooth, with a hint of apricot, lacking the funk of Abekelesh's brew. For a brief moment I was transported to my childhood, to memories of helping make honey at home from hives in our backyard and stealing a lick.
It may have been the heat and the altitude (Gondar is almost 7,000 feet up), but a half a bottle was enough to make the head a bit lighter and the knees wobbly.
Back in Addis Ababa, after beers in a bar featuring an attached unrefrigerated butcher shop and a toilet redolent of bubonic plague, we settled on Yod Abyssinia Cultural Restaurant. Locals and tourists alike recommended it as one of the top places to dive into a plate of injera topped with stewed wats, curried lentils, and vegetables. A bandstand at the front of the mock African hut interior featured a four-piece Ethiopian band playing jaunty tunes on traditional string and percussion instruments.
As the masenko zizzed and the begena twanged, and a troupe of dancers convulsed their shoulders, a waiter arrived with two flasks of tej and two perspiring bottles of St. George lager.
The tej had the appearance of mango juice, and a touch of must wafted over as the waiter set it down.
"Would you like me to mix it?" he asked politely. At last, I thought, perhaps this is the secret to enjoying tej the proper way.
"Is that how you drink it?" I inquired. Perplexed, he responded, "No."
Though the restaurant's food was excellent, its tej tasted faintly of old sock and unripe fruit. Heading out into the dark streets of Addis Ababa, we resolved that so long as Ethiopia has good beer for just 75 cents a bottle, might as well stick with that.