Deemed as the most important social connection, the coffee ceremony lasts for about 2 to 3 hours. It’s common for families, especially those in traditional homes, to enjoy 2-3 of these ceremonies per day. Children participate in serving the coffee to the elders and most of the time, guests are invited. Conversation topics typically range from politics to community matters and many more.
Considered an honor, an Ethiopian coffee ceremony is always conducted by a young woman or sometimes, the matriarch of the house. Since as children, they are regularly exposed to this ceremony and girls are always encouraged to learn the requisite skills, it can be expected that the hostess is very adept. During the ceremony, she wears a traditional, ankle-length white cotton dress embroidered at its borders with colorful thread. Her movements is an art form.
The three phases involved during the coffee ceremony are roasting, brewing and cupping. During the entire process, the host performs all three phases in front of all the attendees while simultaneously entertaining them.
After roasting, the hostess soaks each guest in the aroma created by the coffee’s smoke. She will come to each guest and at the same time, incense is burned to compliment the rich coffee fragrance. This part of the ceremony is considered iconic and very significant. If the aroma is found unwelcoming or unpleasant to guests, the host will have to start the entire process again.
With coffee being a sign of respect and friendship to Ethiopians, it is not customary to decline drinking the coffee during the ceremony and it is expected that at least 3 cups will be consumed. However, if coffee is politely declined for medical or religious reasons, for example, tea or Chai will most likely be served.
During the ceremony, three rounds of coffee will be served. The first one is black and naturally the strongest among the three. It is called abol or awel. The second one is tona, and the third one, which is the weakest and sometimes referred to as “one for the road”, is called bereka. According to folklore, these were the names of the three goats that led to the discovery of coffee (more about this later). Each cup symbolizes a progressive spiritual transformation. Literally, bereka means “to be blessed.”
Serving the coffee is considered an art because the hostess masterfully and artfully pours the coffee in a single stream from about a foot above the cups. This is done slowly to avoid pouring grounds along with the coffee. The one who’s served first is always the eldest person or the guest of honor.
Ethiopian coffee is also typically served with tena adam leaves and a spoonful of sugar — or loads of it. In the countryside, it may be served with salt instead of sugar, while in other regions, butter or honey may be added to the brew. However, coffee is never served with milk. Common coffee pairings include peanuts, ihmbaba (popcorn) and kolo (roasted barley).
It all starts with the unpicked, virgin coffee cherries. In Lalibela, they grow in abundance in almost every local’s backyard. The cherries, when red and ripe, are picked and peeled to expose the raw bean. The husks and debris are then shaken out of the beans until they are pure.
Legend has it that the birth of Ethiopia started with a goat herder from Kaffa named Kaldi. Kaffa was a place in Ethiopia known for its plants that still grow wild in the forest hills. One day, Kaldi found three of his goats buzzed and very excited, almost dancing on their hind legs. He noticed some mangled branches of a plant which bears red berries, and he knew his goats took them. So, he tried the berries himself and found that the result was incredible. He took the berries home and told his wife they need to tell the monks about it. The monks found the berries to be sinful drugs and so they tossed them in the fire, causing an aroma to fill the air. Some also say the monks crushed the beans and distilled the stimulating substance in boiling water. With the strong aroma filling the air, the monks in the monastery gathered around to investigate the substance. After hours, they discovered a renewed energy to their holy devotions where they stayed alert for many hours of prayer. The rest, they say, is history.