The Ethiopian Coffee Ceremony Is About More Than Just Drinking Coffee

Legend has it that a flock of hungry goats were high on energy after grazing on an unusual red berry in the 9th century. Noticing their excitable behaviour, their herder Kaldi took the unidentified berries to a local monastery, where the monks burnt them out of fear that they were the devil incarnate. The aroma of the burnt beans changed their minds, and they began concocting a brew with the strange fruit and water.

Coffee plays the role of an important cultural marker in Ethiopia, going beyond its usual job of providing a daily caffeine rush. While tea is more popularly associated with lingering, the elegant Ethiopian coffee ceremony, called jebena buna in the local Amharic language, provides an opportunity to slow down, savour the moment and indulge in a local staple. It is conducted by a woman who is always dressed for the occasion.

Before the start of the ceremony, the room in which it is held is prepared with appropriate rituals. Fresh flowers and grass are spread on the floor, and coffee cups are arranged on a table along with snacks. Sweet incense is burnt to clear the energy of the space. The raw beans are washed and roasted on an iron pan called mitad to begin with. Once the coffee beans are roasted, the mitad is taken around the room so guests can smell the beans. This is an important part of the ceremony, which makes Ethiopian coffee a sensory experience overall.

Then, the coffee beans are ground with a mortar and pestle, after which the earthen vessel or clay pot jebena is used to mix the coffee and simmering water together. The jebena is placed directly on hot coal until steam begins to emerge from its spout. 

All the coffee cups are gathered together on the rekebot (or coffee platter) and the bitter, dark coffee is poured into the first cup, called ‘arbol’, with poise. The first cup is usually not meant to be drunk but rather to confirm that the resulting liquid doesn’t contain any coffee grind. The ceremony then officially begins and the coffee is served with a generous amount of sugar. ‘Tona’ is the second cup, which is weaker since the same coffee grains are reused, and ‘bereka’, the third, is meant to represent a blessing and considered ‘one for the road’.

Ethiopian coffee is often accompanied by snacks like popcorn. It is traditionally served with fragrant incense wafting in the background, mostly myrrh, frankincense or sandalwood. The incense is ignited with a piece of hot coal and produces smoke that takes bad spirits with it as it fades away. Conversation flows as aroma spreads across the room. 

The person conducting the ceremony refills the jebena until the very last taste is squeezed out of all the coffee. It’s usually customary to drink three cups and anything less is considered impolite.

Western-style coffee shops are an interesting addition to Ethiopia’s coffee culture, but the traditional coffee ceremony has been irreplaceable. It is an expression of hospitality and a way of familiarising outsiders with the nation’s heritage.