Ethiopian Excursion: Bean There, Done That -- The Ethiopian Coffee Ceremony

Travel Weekly editor-at-large Arnie Weissmann continues his journeys through Ethiopia. Following is the fourth in an eight-part series telling the tales of his travels and travails:

he market in the town of Bahar Dar was fairly tame by African standards -- there were some beautiful textiles, but little else unusual.

I didn't see anything I wanted to buy, but as we headed to the car my guide, Mr. Kindu, stopped to purchase some pale green beans.

"They're for my mother," he explained. "Coffee."

We found our driver and headed to the outskirts of town, to Mr. Kindu's house. My guide had invited me over for a "coffee ceremony," a ritual of hospitality. I was pleased to be able to participate in the ceremony in a private home -- as with luaus in Hawaii or flamenco in Spain, you can readily see it in a hotel version, but it's never quite the same as experiencing it with residents in a home.

When we arrived at his house, I was introduced to Mr. Kindu's mother, Mrs. Solomon, as well as his sisters, a nephew and a brother. Their living room was empty except for a low table along one wall. A built-in bench, covered in goatskins, ran along two of the walls. Hay and grass were strewn on the floor.

Mrs. Solomon, who Mr. Kindu said was 52-years-old, was a striking woman -- her hair was pulled tightly along her scalp, then cascaded in dreadlocks over her shoulder. She had put on the national costume, a white cotton gown with embroidery down the front. Tattoos covered her neck.

The Ethiopian coffee ceremony is not a formal ritual like the Japanese tea ceremony. Rather, it is a relaxed celebration of the remarkable alchemy that transforms raw, green beans into a cup of rich, black liquid.

Mrs. Solomon roasts coffee beans over a small coal stove, unleashing a heavenly scent.When Mr. Kindu's mother was ready to begin, she first poured a little oil onto a slightly concave plate, then added some beans to the oil. The plate was placed over a small coal stove, and one of the sisters fanned the coals to flame. The room was filled with a glorious smell as the beans roasted and turned dark brown.

Mrs. Solomon then put the beans in a long, thin mortar and crushed them rhythmically with a wooden pestle. She poured the beans -- transformed to a fine powder -- into a black ceramic pot. She added water, heated it, then added water several more times over the next 10 minutes or so.

As this was going on, Mr. Kindu's family inquired about mine, and I about theirs. I showed them pictures. I asked what each of them did. I found out that Mr. Kindu's brother's name translated as "Revolution." ("I was born during the Communist time," he explained.)

As her youngest daughter watches, Mrs. Solomon pours steaming coffee into small, ceremonial cups.When the coffee was finally ready, I was offered the first cup, which was poured with a great flourish.

The conversation stayed lively as we all sipped and complimented Mrs. Solomon. I stayed for a second cup, then a third. I finally rose to say goodbye.

I stepped out of the windowless room into a dazzling sunlight, and Mr. Kindu pointed me in the direction of my hotel. Walking back, I felt a bit jittery -- I had a strong buzz going.

And the buzz lasted -- the caffeine and my latent jet lag kept me awake until 3 a.m.

My inability to sleep didn't bother me, but what I did find troubling was that from the first sip of Mrs. Solomon's coffee, I knew I would never truly enjoy a cup from Starbucks again. I really had thought I knew what fresh-roasted coffee tasted like. In fact, I hadn't a clue.

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The Bead Collection.Arnie did the traveling, but you can win the souvenirs.

This week's prize, pictured here, is the Bead Collection, and includes three necklaces, a bracelet and a rosary.

Just send an e-mail to Arnie at [email protected] for your chance to win this second of four prize groups. (Editors' note: This contest is closed.) 

Be sure to check back Monday, July 23, where in his next installment, Arnie will seek out the Felashas and find something else.

For the complete archive of Arnie's Adventures in Ethiopia, click here.

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