How the Ethiopian Coffee Ceremony Works

Ethiopian Coffee Ceremony Rituals

A coffee ceremony hostess in Axum, Ethiopia pours a round of coffee.
A coffee ceremony hostess in Axum, Ethiopia pours a round of coffee.

Every guest invited to a coffee ceremony has been extended the hand of friendship and welcomed into a circle that takes on familial overtones. As a sign of appreciation, it's customary to present the hostess with a simple gift, such as sugar or incense.

Although everyone attends, the honor of conducting an Ethiopian coffee ceremony always falls to a young woman. This adept hostess wears a traditional, ankle-length white cotton dress embroidered at its borders with colorful thread [source: Machacek]. Her practiced movements elevate the relatively simple act of roasting, grinding, brewing and pouring coffee to an art form. Don't be fooled into thinking it's anything like the coffee breaks you orchestrate at home: Many Ethiopian children witness a coffee ceremony nearly every day -- up to three times a day in traditional households -- and girls are encouraged to learn the requisite skills over time.

Often, a child's initial hands-on assignment will be to carefully carry a cup of coffee to each guest. Sometimes, the child will offer the first cup to the guest of honor. Traditionally, however, the first cup will go to the oldest guest; it's one of the many ways that Ethiopian culture connects and respects the generations. The coffee ceremony also provides a vehicle to share news, exchange gossip and debate local politics -- each ceremony can take anywhere from half an hour to a few hours to complete [source:].

Although the strong coffee is served black, guests usually sweeten each cupful with several teaspoons of sugar before drinking. If the coffee ceremony takes place in a country home, the coffee may be served with salt instead of sugar. Either way, guests lavish praise on the preparer as they drink each cup.

There is one thing, however, that guests must not do: refuse to drink the coffee. This sounds simple enough, right? The coffee service, like the preparation, is rife with symbolism and ceremony. Three rounds of coffee are served, known successively as abol, tona and baraka -- which some tales say were the names of the three goats that got the original caffeine buzz thousands of years ago. The three cups symbolize an elevation that is supposed to bring the drinker increasingly closer to transformation. Literally, baraka means "to be blessed." On the next page, learn about the steps that preclude that blessing.