Coffee in Ethiopia

For all intents and purposes, Ethiopia is the birthplace of coffee; the “magical fruit” was first cultivated sometime around the 11th century.  It was believed to have medicinal properties and quickly spread across the Arabian Peninsula. Europeans got their first taste of coffee in 1615 when Venetian merchants, who had become acquainted with the drink in Istanbul, carried it back with them to Venice. Coffee was introduced to North America  in 1668; the first coffeehouse in New York, “The King’s Arms”, opened its doors to caffeine lovers in 1696. The rest is history.

The Arabica tree originated in western Ethiopia and its beans are still considered some of the world’s best. Coffee beans are processed via either a wet or dry method.  Ethiopians are unique in that they utilize both methods when processing their beans; larger coffee farms tend to use wet-processing while dry-processing is usually reserved for small batches that are consumed on a local level.

All science aside, Ethiopian coffee is just plain good!  If you prefer a weak, pale cup of Joe, this is not the place for you. Ethiopian coffee is strong and dark; strong, dark and amazingly smooth.  No bitterness. No acidic aftertaste. Heaven in a cup. Our guide in Lalibela told us that drinking fewer than 9 cups per day was bad luck… Three words: Not. A. Problem.

The Hotel Maribela (where we stayed while in Lalibela) had an area set aside for the sole purpose of demonstrating a traditional coffee ceremony.  Whenever you felt the urge, you could ask someone to come over and make you a traditional cup of Ethiopian coffee.  During the ceremony you were shown the complete process by which Ethiopians have been brewing coffee for hundreds of years.  First, the green coffee beans are roasted in a pan over an open flame and then ground using a traditional wooden mortar and pestle. The coffee grounds are then put into a special vessel and boiled.  After grinding/boiling, the coffee is put through a sieve several times. The host pours the coffee for all participants by moving the boiling pot (called a jebena) over a tray lined with small, handleless cups.  The coffee is poured from a height of one foot, without stop, until each cup is full. The grounds are brewed three times: the first round of coffee is called awel, the second kale’i and the third baraka (‘to be blessed’). Our ceremony also included the burning of traditional incense (which gave the whole experience a wonderfully otherworldly feel).

Fun fact: Ethiopia is the only country in the world that consumes half the coffee it produces with traditional households consuming it at least three times a day.

Tomoca, is a family owned coffee roasting company that opened in Addis Ababa (the capital of Ethiopia) in 1953 and is known for its Italian-style coffee, made with Ethiopian arabica beans. The company’s name is an abbreviated version of the Italian phrase, “Torrefazione Moderna Caffé” (TO.MO.CA.), which translates to, “modern coffee roasting”.  If you’re talking about coffee in Ethiopia, Tomoca is sure come up.  The original location, on Wawel St., will take you back in time and is a “must see” for anyone with a coffee addiction.  They roast the beans on-site and you can smell them long before you see the modest sign that hangs above the front door.  Tomoca is written about in every guide-book on Addis and has become quite the tourist destination.  It’s also still very popular with the locals (all men the day we were there); it was obvious that they weren’t too thrilled with all the “outsiders” who came in to simple snap a photo and loiter for a few minutes.  There are no chairs so if you want to hang out and enjoy your coffee you have to either find a place at the “bar” or stand at one of the 3 tall tables.  If you’re looking to bring some home with you, Tomoca also sells beans (both ground and whole) by the 1/2 kilo.

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