Coffee Ceremony, an Ethiopian Ritual

—Khristian Yurchak, Green Buyer

In January of 2017 the Sisters Coffee green buying team had the privilege of traveling to Ethiopia with our importing partner Sam Demisse of Keffa coffee. Accompanied by coffee professionals from around North America, our group visited wet mills, dry mills and farms all over the country. Our main goal was to visit the location where the Ardi Anasora originates—a natural processed Ethiopian coffee we have worked with for the past three years. We also went to experience coffees from all over Ethiopia and see how they are produced.

In our travels from mill to mill, we crossed large swaths of Ethiopia. As we traveled to the different regions of the country there were many aspects that made an impression on me: the beautiful landscapes, the constant construction, the people, their lives and their animals (which will actually strike you if you don’t move). Of these, the ingrained nature of coffee and its consumption in Ethiopian culture stood out as most paramount.

The people of Ethiopia consume a vast quantity of coffee. In Addis Ababa, lovingly referred to as just Addis for short, there are a host of coffee shops stuffed with locals and sojourners alike. Brands like Caffe Tomoco have been around for over 50 years and were completely full when we visited. Tomoco boasts multiple locations, while roasting their own coffee which they distribute all throughout the city and country. After wandering the hectic city streets for a few hours, one notices small unique shops scattered throughout Addis.

Whatever an individual's preferred way to consume coffee at their favorite shop, one tradition seemingly universal throughout Ethiopia was the coffee ceremony. Coffee ceremony is a ritualistic roasting and brewing of coffee that is a distinct part of Ethiopian culture. It can be taken in almost any setting, during special occasions, a gathering of friends, in daily life or even during a pit stop while traveling.

We had the chance to participate in many coffee ceremonies in our week visit to Ethiopia. Most of the coffee ceremonies took place in festive friendly gatherings, but we also took part in a ceremony while resting from our daily travels in Dilla. Time of day hardly affected our participation in coffee ceremonies and we took part in several ceremonies well after nine in the evening. Many times we would consume coffee while holding and drinking a beer in our other hand.

We took part in ceremonies in several regions Addis, Sidamo, Yirgacheffe and Dire Dawa, and the structure appeared to remain constant. In the next few paragraphs I will explain coffee ceremony as I witnessed it.

A singular individual performs the ceremony and it is considered an honor to perform it. It begins with a small open stove stoked with smoldering coals, a pan partially filled with green coffee, and incense.

The beans roast as the pan sits on the embers. Coals are added or removed from around the pan to control the speed of the roast. The beans are stirred as they roast removing the chaff and to facilitating an even roast—changing colors from green to white to yellow and then brown as they roast. In a few ceremonies, the beans were roasted to the point where they are black and oily. As the coffee roasts, the aromas from the beans combine with the aroma of the incense creating a fabulous smell. The beans are stirred as they roast to remove the chaff and to facilitate an even roast.  As the beans approach the end of the roast they are brought before the awaiting participants who are encouraged to draw in a breath or two of the roasting aromas.

After being roasted, the beans cool slightly before being ground in a mortar and pestle. Watching coffee crushed in this fashion only grows the mystique that already surrounded the ceremony. I’ve attempted to grind coffee this way before and I can say that it is very labor intensive and tedious. However, the ceremony performers we witnessed were much more skilled than I, and managed to grind the coffee quite efficiently.

Once the coffee is ground to the desired particle size the women slowly add the grounds to boiling water in a pot called a Jebena. The Jebena is a ceramic pot with a bowl like bottom, a long skinny neck and a spout. I’m sure that you have seen an image of a Jebena before and maybe were not aware of its symbolism or use in the Ethiopian coffee ritual. The women brew the coffee multiple times, straining it using a sieve and once the coffee is ready to be served it’s poured into little cups with saucers and finally distributed amongst the individuals.

Since the coffee is ground in a mortar and pestle the particle size can fluctuate greatly. Paired with coffee only minutes off roast and brewed multiple times, the final product can vary widely. We experienced cups that were reminiscent of coffees I have tasted from microlots brewed in specialty shops. However, we also experienced cups that were not so pleasant, full of roast and carbon flavors as well as soot and particles from the brewing process.

Sugar is often added before the cup is given to you, usually in large quantities, resulting in an immensely sweet cup. I have read that salt or butter are sometimes used as an alternative to sugar. Popcorn or other forms of finger snacks are typically served with the coffee and provide a pleasant crunch to go along with the beverage.

Outside of my own weekend morning coffee routine, which hardly compares, I’ve never participated in any coffee ritual so unique before. The ceremony provokes a feeling of peace and calm in any place or situation. It carves out time from everyday life where friends and family or even strangers can commune together around the process of making and drinking coffee.

With coffee consumption being a daily routine for a large portion of the world, the ceremony can change the context and habit around making and drinking coffee. Mostly, the Ethiopian coffee ceremony serves as a reminder of how genuinely special this beverage can be.