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Ethiopia is fairly unusual among the coffee growing nations in that it is one of very few that actually is a major consumer of its own products. In fact, coffee is an integral part of daily life for most Ethiopians, and the traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony is still a daily ritual in many homes and villages. In the larger cities, coffee shops serving the tradtional jebena buna sit next to modern cafes and espresso joints. In a country where an estimated 15 million people rely on coffee as a major source of income – and where approximately 60% of foreign trade involves coffee, about half of the country’s coffee production is consumed domestically. No other coffee producing nation in the world comes close to that percentage.
It should come as no surprise to those who know coffee’s history, however. Tradition has it that the effects of coffee were first discovered in Ethiopia, and the oldest strains of coffea Arabica are still the only coffees produced in any great amount here. Each of Ethiopia’s three major coffee-producing regions — Kaffa, Harrar and Sidamo — produces a distinctly different coffee, and all of them are highly regarded within the specialty coffee industry.
It all started with a goat, or so the legend goes. According to the most popular tale of coffee’s origins, an Ethiopian goat herder noticed his goats behaving strangely after ingesting the berries of a particular bush. Curious, he at a handful of the berries himself and was filled with energy. When he shared his discovery with his wife, however, she told him that he should take the berries up to the monks, who regarded the beans as “sinful” and tossed them into the fire. Well, we all know what happens when you roast coffee beans. Apparently, the monks weren’t able to resist the heavenly aroma coming from the flames. They rescued the beans, ground them up and soaked them in water. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Of course, no discussion of Ethopia and coffee would be complete without talking about the jebena buna and the Ethiopian coffee ceremony. Like the Japanese tea ceremony, the coffee ceremony is a cultural touchstone, and one that is still observed today. In coffee shops throughout the country, locals gather to socialize and discuss current events while waiting for the proprietor – or a girl hired by the proprietor – to prepare coffee in the traditional way, using the jebena, a round-bottomed, thin-necked coffee brewer. The ceremony is nearly always carried out by a young woman wearing traditional Ethiopian garb, and begins with roasting the green coffee beans in a flat-bottomed pan over an open flame. The smell of roasting coffee blends with the with the scent of incense in the small shops. When the beans are properly toasted, they’re transfered to a a large mortar and crushed by hand with a pestle. Only then are they added to the jebena, which is heated over the fire before water is added. The coffee is brewed three times, with the jebena refilled with fresh water each time. Many patrons leave after the first round of buna, but those who stay partake of three cups, each weaker than the last. The final cup, the baraka, is said to confer a blessing on all those who drink of it.
In most parts of Ethiopia, the ceremony takes place three times a day, at the traditional meal times. The coffee is often drunk highly sweetened, though in some parts of the country, it’s traditional to drink coffee with salt or butter, and it is usually accompanied by snack foods, such as peanuts, popcorn or cooked barley. The beautiful, graceful ceremony marks the height of hospitality, and if one is invited to partake of it in someone’s home, they can consider themselves accepted and respected by the householder.
While the jebena ceremony is still very popular in Ethiopia, it’s not the only way that coffee is served or drunk in that country. The Italians made their mark on the country in the form of espresso machines, and espresso shops selling makyato – Ethiopian coffee poured through a thick froth of milk – are common in nearly every city and village. Another popular coffee drink is the spris, a combination of coffee and tea which, when poured correctly, layers in the cup, with the dark coffee sitting on top of a layer of lighter, more delicate tea.
Even if you can’t travel to Ethiopia, you can enjoy the peaceful beauty of the traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony in a growing number of U.S. and European coffee shops as immigrants and expats from Ethiopia open traditional shops and restaurants in their new homes around the world.