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Ethiopian Coffee Culture: Social Ritual in a Cup

When it comes to the second most consumed beverage in the world, we have Ethiopia to thank for its existence. The plant coffea arabica originates from this small African nation, and quite possibly the drink itself. 

Origin Story

A popular legend credits the discovery of coffee to a goat herder from Kaffe around 800 A.D. One day he noticed his goats behaving in a very strange manner, jumping and frolicking about after eating red berries from a small shrub. He took some of the energizing berries to the local monastery, where one of the monks called them “devil’s work” and promptly threw them in the fire. 

The heat of the fire quickly revealed an appetizing aroma from the roasting beans, which prompted the monks to give them a second chance. By crushing and steeping the fragrant beans in hot water, a new drink was discovered with a distinctive taste and a powerful boost of energy. 

Today, coffee (buna) is an important part of the Ethiopian culture and economy. 

Economically, Ethiopia is the fifth largest producer of coffee beans. Even after keeping about 50% of the coffee crop for domestic consumption, they still export 4.3% of the world total. Ethiopian arabica beans are generally full-bodied and full of flavor, producing some of the best coffees in the world (like our Ethiopian Honey). 

The Ethiopian Coffee Ceremony

To Ethiopians, a cup of coffee is not just something hot to drink, and it is not a solo activity. In many communities, coffee is the foundation of social life and a cause for daily celebration. This celebration takes place through the coffee ceremony; a ritualized process of brewing and drinking coffee while gathering with family, neighbors, or other visitors. 

The coffee ceremony is practiced several times a day and may last two to three hours! It is a sign of friendship or respect to be invited to a coffee ceremony and performing this ritual for guests is considered an honor. 

Before the ceremony, loose grasses and small yellow flowers are spread on the floor, and guests are seated on pillows. To begin, incense such as frankincense or myrrh are burned to banish evil spirits.

Next, the green coffee beans are washed and roasted in a pan over an open flame. Once roasted, the beans are ground with a mortar and pestle. Then the grounds are added to a boiling pot (jabena) to brew. Once ready, the coffee is poured into handleless cups without stopping, until all cups are full and ready to be served. 

Depending on the region, some people add sugar, honey, salt, or butter to their cup. The coffee is often served with peanuts, popcorn, coffee cherries, or other small snacks. 

The brewing process is repeated with the same coffee grounds at least three times, and the grounds become weaker with each serving. The first serving of coffee is called abol, the second is tonna and the third is baraka which means ‘to be blessed.’ 

A Cup of Transformation

The coffee ceremony is more than just a cup of coffee. It serves as an invitation to slow down and savor the time spent with others. In fact, it is impolite to leave before drinking at least three cups. 

Communal bonding is an important part of Ethiopian society—one that takes place largely within the repeated rituals and small cups of the coffee ceremony. There is almost a spiritual aspect to drinking coffee in a ceremonial way. Ethiopians believe that after three rounds of buna, your spirit transforms.
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