Legend has it that 3,000 years ago, in the mountains of Ethiopia, a peasant first noticed the hyper-activeness of his goats after they nibbled on certain red berries. He plucked a handful for the monks in his village, who dismissed the berries as sinful and cast them into the fire. Later, the sizzling scent of roasting beans proved too great a temptation, and the monks rescinded their earlier declaration. Voila—the birth of coffee.
Many generations later, coffee has grown into Ethiopia’s greatest export. Coffee comprises 60% of the countries total earnings. Its preparation has evolved, too, from those humble beginnings in the pit of the monks’ fire. Today, a traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony is a lengthy and sacred ritual.
I was lucky enough to be invited to one such ritual by an Ethiopian boy, Mekonen. We met while I backpacked through Lalibela, one of Ethiopia’s most sacred cities. Mekonen didn’t speak much English, and my Amharic was limited to “hello” and “thank you.” But coffee, we decided, needed no other language than its own.
It was late afternoon when he brought me to his home, where his mother, a wiry woman with frizzy hair and an enormous smile, sat me down on straw-covered benches built into the walls while she went about her work. She began by roasting the coffee beans, undoubtedly brought from a local plot, over a small charcoal-burning stove making the room crackle with the sound of the fire-licked skillet.
Next she poured the blackened beans into a bowl and started crushing them with a heavy wooden pestle. Each blow released another waft of rich scent into the air. Traditional ceremonies often involve burning incense as well—but I was glad to be able to focus on the smell of the coffee alone. When the beans had been ground to a fine powder, our hostess mixed them with water and put the pot over the flame.
If the ritual wasn’t fascinating enough, a constant stream of babies and chickens walking through the dim room provided a rolling backdrop. Some of the children belonged to Mekonen’s family, though it was never quite clear which ones.
After ten minutes or so, the coffee was ready. We hushed into our seats and watched the final act. With a grace usually reserved for sommeliers at five star restaurants, Mekonen’s mother tipped the pot from a full foot above the floor and let the deep liquid spill into four espresso-sized mugs with chipped edges (tradition dictates that an extra is always poured). These were placed on a tray and presented to us where we sat.
The first sip bestowed a delicious surprise: she’d added sugar, lots of it. The liquid was syrupy and black, and danced the perfect balance between bitter and sweet. I closed my eyes to drown out all senses other than taste. Fine grounds lolled against my inner cheek; the warm liquid seeped from my mouth to the back of my throat, coating the passage down to my happily gurgling stomach.
While I relished, my hostess boiled the grinds in the pot and let them settle. This became the second cup. Then the remaining mixture was boiled yet again for drinking in the third and final round. With each cup, the coffee became more complex and delicious. Subtle new flavors surfaced and went under: the smoke of charcoal, the tang of sugar cane, a touch of earth all thrilling my tongue and infusing my body with a sense of richness.
I glanced at Mekonen and noticed that his features, too, had relaxed in the face of our delectable treat. We needed no words to communicate the simple pleasure we shared. I felt more connected to him and his family in that instant than in all the time we spent before.
Written and photography by Jenny Williams