THE CULTURE OF COFFEE
Ethiopia has been a coffee nation for centuries, in fact the whole adventure and history of coffee started in Ethiopia as early as in the 13th century. According to the myth a sheep-herder, Kaldi was looking for his herd one day, when he discovered the red cherries on the coffee tree, and later invented the drink, coffee. (The reader familiar with Ethiopia will notice that the country’s biggest coffee chain is named after him: KALDI’S). The short story is that coffee spread from Ethiopia to Egypt and Yemen in the 15th century, and the rest of the Middle East, Persia, and Turkey in the 16th century, moving steadily on to the Balkans, Italy, and to the rest of Europe, Indonesia and finally to America. The rest is history.
Coffee still plays an important role in Ethiopian tradition and culture. Visitors to Ethiopia cannot but notice the coffee-ceremony-ladies sitting everywhere from shopping malls and airports to restaurants and hotels in their traditional garments, roasting beans, spreading a sweet coffee aroma and selling you a cup of fresh bunna (coffee in local Amharic language). It’s pretty safe to say that an average Ethiopian enjoys several cups of bunna every single day, and that every house is equipped with a coffee ceremony kit.
A transmedia project on coffee
Despite being the homeland of coffee, the tradition and culture of coffee in Ethiopia remain largely unknown for most non-Ethiopians. This information or knowledge gap did not go by unnoticed by young Ethiopian-American creative entrepreneur, Metasebia Yoseph who has dedicated her career to Ethiopian art and cultural studies. For one and a half year she has been working on a transmedia project, A CULTURE OF COFFEE, that focuses on the development of the Ethiopian coffee ceremony and it’s significance within Ethiopian culture. The project extends to various platforms such as a website, a blog, events and in the end an artful coffee table book on the subject will be produced. Metasebia hopes to use A Culture of Coffee as a springboard for ECDCorp, a cultural development corporation that she co-founded to preserve, conserve, and further Ethiopian cultural heritage.
We asked Metasebia a few questions on the Culture of Coffee; the book, the background, and what the Ethiopian coffee ceremony is really about – in Ethiopia and for the diaspora.
How did the idea for ‘A Culture of Coffee’ come about?
I’ve always known I wanted to focus my career on Ethiopian art and cultural studies. While conducting research in libraries during my studies, I rarely found books on Ethiopian culture and even fewer written from an Ethiopian perspective, so I knew I would have to contribute in some way. It wasn’t until I spent a year in Addis Ababa doing heritage preservation work, that I realized how much of a disconnect there was between the richness that the country had to offer and what was appropriately being shared with the world. As a first generation Ethiopian-American, I’m hoping to lend a cross-cultural approach to the discourse.
My research topics tend to focus on aspects that are distinctively Ethiopian, but resonate with larger audiences. Although my goal is to impact the country’s traditional and creative arts scene more with my cultural development organization ECDcorp, I’m certain producing a series of related books will foster greater awareness. For my first book, coffee seemed like the obvious choice, but I wanted to address its significance to Ethiopia from a different angle than what has already been done.
What is your goal with the book?
My goal is to highlight and celebrate the ceremony much in the same way the Japanese tea ceremony has been. I believe Ethiopia’s slow-coffee ceremony to be a unique offering. The coffee-table book will allow me to present this in very accessible format, while the blog is more interactive encouraging the audience to share their own personal coffee experiences; the entire project is very media rich.
What is the historical significance of coffee and the coffee ceremony in Ethiopian culture?
Historically, coffee has been a significant agricultural commodity for Ethiopia. The ceremony’s significance culturally has evolved over time, however, at its core it remains a community building tool, a time to connect with friends and family and to catch up on news and happenings.
How has the tradition of coffee in Ethiopia changed with modernization, economic growth and urbanization?
Like most cultural practices what begin, as a ritual steeped in mysticism becomes a general tradition, and with this development come adaptations. Traditional sini cups are replaced by imported Chinese teacups, fresh grass reeds are replaced by synthetic green matts. But despite these aesthetic delineations, the essence of the practice is still there.
Can you shortly walk us through the steps of an Ethiopian coffee ceremony?
- Guests are invited to the home.
- The ceremony master (often a women) consecrates a space where the ceremony will take place, usually marked with long reeds of grass or foliage.
- A small stool and relatively sized table set with 6 small bowl-like cups (sinis) are assembled in the demarcated area. Coals are heated in a small stove. One is removed and placed in an incense holder, then, Frankincense is added.
- The ceremonial artist washes the beans and then roasts them over the now hot coals using a small pan. As the beans begin to crackle, the smell of fresh roasted coffee permeates the air. The artist then circles the room, fanning the scented wafts of smoke from the beans as an offering to each guest, starting with the eldest.
- The roasted beans are then ground in a larger wooden mortar and then poured into a traditional Ethiopian coffee pot (Jebenna), water is added and the pot is placed on the coals.
- The libation is poured into the bowls and served to the eldest first, in procession. The guests are served no less than three rounds.
Of course the ceremony varies regionally and during holidays which would impact presentation, utensils and other nuanced aspects which will be explored in the book, but in its most simplified state.
How is the coffee ceremony and tradition conceived in Ethiopian diaspora communities, such as in DC where you live?
Oftentimes when people are far from their native homes they are forced to make do with whatever materials are available, so those adaptations I mentioned before are more prevalent. Still, it’s the sensory experience that the ceremony offers that has the ability to transport us all back to a familiar place.
Finally, what does coffee and the traditions of coffee in Ethiopia mean to you?
For me the coffee ceremony is a time for meditation and quiet reflection. It is when I am able to commune with family and friends through soft conversations, while at once connecting with an ancient tradition from the comfort of my home.
Photos from A Culture of Coffee
And please consider contributing to the online fundraiser that will help Metasebia realize the Coffee Table Book.
Check the Indigogo site here.