How the Ethiopian Coffee Ceremony Works

The hostess of an Ethiopian coffee ceremony roasts the coffee beans, creating aromatic smoke.
The hostess of an Ethiopian coffee ceremony roasts the coffee beans, creating aromatic smoke.

The Ethiopian coffee ceremony is much more than sipping a good cup of joe. It's an important cultural ritual that's been passed from generation to generation in the country believed to be the birthplace of coffee. And we can thank a few lucky goats for the discovery.

Ethiopian folklore contends that coffee beans (which are actually the seeds of cherrylike fruits) were discovered around 800 A.D. by a goatherder's charges as they grazed on the red fruit of a coffee plant. When the goats began frolicking, the herder rushed a handful of the mysterious fruit to nearby monks, who promptly destroyed the seeds by tossing them into a fire -- something they were wont to do with potentially sinful items.

However, the roasted seeds exhibited two miraculously redeeming qualities: a delectable aroma and, when crushed and steeped in hot water, a distinctive drink with an invigorating kick. The brew buzzed the monks' daily devotions, allowing them to continue their prayer long into the night [source: National Coffee Association]. And as coffee's popularity spread throughout Ethiopia and eventually the world, it inspired a devotion all its own.

Today, an estimated 12 million Ethiopians grow and harvest coffee beans in what has become the nation's major cash crop [source: Doyle]. During the 2010/2011 fiscal year, coffee accounted for the lion's share of the country's exports, earning a record $841.6 million [source: Masho]. Ethiopia's varying terrain fosters different types of coffee plants, each producing seeds with a distinctively different flavor. For example, the coffee beans the monks used were most likely a robust Arabica strain that grew wild in the forest underbrush.

Just as they did over a thousand of years ago, Ethiopians still consider the coffee ceremony a crucial tenet of friendship and respect -- so important, in fact, that they'll perform the hours-long ceremony for any visitor, no matter the time of day. It all starts with an elaborate ritual to prepare the coffee seeds.