Axum Tej: Ethiopian honey wine comes to the U.S.

tej, Ethiopia, Axum, Ethiopian, TejEthiopian food is getting better known in the West. With its interesting blend of spices and unique ingredients such as teff, a nutritious grain, there’s a lot going for it. What isn’t so well known, however, is tej, the Ethiopian honey wine.

While tej is available by special request at some Ethiopian restaurants in Europe and North America, it’s rarely on the menu. I was lucky enough to try a variety of tej while traveling in Ethiopia, but I resigned myself to not getting much of it outside the country.

Now tej is being produced commercially in the United States and hopefully this unique drink will reach a wider audience. Axum Tej is produced by Araya S. Yibrehu, who was kind enough to send me two free bottles to sample. I know a lot of mead makers and decided to share it with them to see what producers of European-style honey wine had to say.

But first, my own impressions. I’m hardly a tej expert, but Axum Tej is remarkably different than any other tej I’ve tried in Ethiopia or Europe. While the tej I’m accustomed to has a bright yellow, opaque color, with a heavy, sweet flavor, Axum Tej has the appearance of a white wine. It has a crisp, sweet taste with a clean finish unlike any other tej I’ve drunk.

My mead maker friends agreed. They said that it was much lighter than any other mead they’d made or sampled. One commented, “It’s halfway between a mead and a dessert wine.” They did comment favorably on the well-balanced flavor and the high quality of production. We all liked it.

I think perhaps Axum Tej has been lightened up for Western palates, much like the Indian food you get in London or LA is different than the Indian food you get in New Delhi or Calcutta. Mead is not a widely popular drink principally because it’s so rich and heavy, and perhaps the folks at Axum Tej worried that a more traditional recipe would turn consumers off. Or perhaps I didn’t try enough tej while in Ethiopia. This lighter variety may be popular in some regions or venues I didn’t get to visit. I’ll have to hunt around some more when I go back next month! If anyone out there can recommend a good tejbet in Addis Ababa, the Rift Valley Lake region, or Harar, I’m all ears.

If you’re looking for something different in a sweet wine, give Axum Tej a try. It may not be what I was expecting, but it’s certainly a quality, sulfite-free drink that would go well with fish or dessert, or simply by itself.

Axum Tej does not currently have a webpage. You can order by emailing them at info@theheritagewines.com or calling 1-888 TEJ-AXUM (1-888 835-2986).

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Boozing it up in Ethiopia

My first impression of Ethiopia was that the Ethiopians are a lot like us, and by us I mean Mediterranean Europeans. One of the ways they’re similar to us is they like to have a drink every now and then, but don’t make a habit of drinking to excess.

For the cross-cultural drinker, Ethiopia has a lot to offer.

The best and most unique drink is tej, a honey wine like European mead. As any mead drinker knows, the taste can be very different depending on the region, because bees collect pollen from very different flowers. Mead made in Germany tastes different than that made in England. Since the plants in Ethiopia are so unlike those in Europe or North America, even experienced mead drinkers trying tej for the first time will be tasting something quite new to them.

And it tastes wonderful–sweet, but not overly so, and wonderfully smooth. The best place to sample tej is at a tejbet, a bar that specializes in the drink. It generally comes in strengths of mild, medium, and strong. Mild has very little alcohol and is essentially honey water. Strong is very strong, and while it does the job I found the taste of the alcohol interfered with the pleasant taste of the honey. Medium is the way to go for a good balance between flavor and effect.

Tej is usually served in bottles like the one pictured here and should be held the way our excellent driver/translator/fixer, Sntayehu Mekonen, is demonstrating. For the record he drank very little, because he was driving! It’s best to flick a bit out on the floor to get rid of the congealed honey on top. Then pour into a glass and enjoy.

Another unusual Ethiopian drink is tella, a beer made from various cereal grains. If you want to visit a tellabet and sample some, you won’t have far to look. Every village has at least one, and the highways are lined with them. They are almost always in regular homes and the only sign that it isn’t just another house is a plastic bag or cup put upside down on a stick out front. Guests sit in the living room, gossip about local events, and watch the family television. The tella I tried was made from barley and was fairly weak. Imagine Scottish barley water and you have a fair approximation. While I was not impressed by the drink, I did get to watch Sntayehu try to placate the local crazy man, who insisted he knew Sntayehu’s father in between ordering drinks and pouring them on the floor! Sntayehu was as polite as ever, but for some reason didn’t want to stay for another round.

%Gallery-90852%Ethiopia also makes arak, a local brand of fire water I didn’t try. Every country has its variation–ouzo, raki, orujo, etc.–and I can’t stand any of them. They’re good for cleaning the teeth, but bad for the internal organs. You’ll just have to try Ethiopian arak for yourself and report back to me.

Beer and wine drinkers aren’t left out either. Ethiopian beer is mostly lager and there are many regional brands. St. George is the oldest and one of the best, but strangely it is now owned by a French firm. Why one country not known for beer owns a brewery in another country not known for beer is a bit of a mystery, but there it is. There’s also a brand of stout made in a brewery in Harar. The wine comes in both red and white and tends to be very young and sweet. I suspect the large Armenian community that has lived in Ethiopia for many generations has something to do with this. The only other non-dessert wine I’ve tried that comes close to the sweetness of Ethiopian wine is from Armenia.

So if you like to drink, you can have some interesting times in Ethiopia. The tejbet often feature live traditional music, and going to a tellabet is a good way to see the inside of a village home. You’ll get a friendly reception. When we left the tellabet, the whole family came out onto the street to wave goodbye!

Next time: Lalibela: Ethiopia’s ancient jewel. (Yes, I know I said in my article on observations about Ethiopia that I’d write up Lalibela next, but it’s such a stunning, otherworldly place I’m having trouble finding the words)

Click here to read the rest of my articles on Ethiopia.

Death of a dive bar: Mike’s Place in Tucson, Arizona

Your first dive bar is like your first love; you never forget it.

When I started college at the University of Arizona in Tucson back in 1989 I discovered Mike’s Place near the corner of Park and University next to campus. It didn’t look like much with its grotty interior, the smell of hot grease wafting from the kitchen, and mix of locals and students. But it did have two things going for it–the bartenders didn’t card much and there was a spacious patio where you could watch the sunset over the Tucson Mountains.

I spent a lot of time on that patio. The Cliffhangers, the U of A rock climbing club of which I was a member, gathered there at least once a week. We’d drink pitchers of Pabst Blue Ribbon or, if we were feeling flush, Sam Adams, and plan our next expedition.

The food wasn’t too bad if you were an undiscerning 19 year-old with no ability to cook for yourself. I usually ordered the hot wings. The owners claimed they made the hottest in town and while that’s debatable they certainly had some fire in them. My friend Chainsaw worked there and I once challenged him to cook me up a dozen wings I couldn’t eat. To this day I don’t know what the hell he put in them. He hurt me, but I won.

Then there were the nickel beers with Sunday breakfast, the slop bucket of extra PBR that turned Chainsaw off of drinking forever, and the guy who threatened to kill me with a nonexistent gun. Good times! Good times!It’s the patio and people I remember most. Fresh-faced college kids who couldn’t handle their beer got leered at by middle-aged drunks, while bikers guzzled gallons and kept to themselves. And in the midst of it all sat the Cliffhangers, partying late into the warm desert night but always getting up at dawn on Saturday to go climbing on Mt. Lemmon.

Mike’s Place has been gone for years. In the name of “development” the university built a parking garage next to it and a Marriott soon opened up. These blocked the view of the sunset and killed the main reason people gathered there. The bar shut its doors shortly after that.

The corner of Park and University looks different now. All the old places are gone and the buildings have been torn down and replaced with modern, clean, strip-mall suburbia. What used to be a tattered but living neighborhood now looks like just about everywhere else.

Mike’s Place lives on, though. It gave me an appreciation for a great human institution. I’ve been to many dive bars since, and have found that every culture has its equivalent. The chicharias of Peru, the backroom bars of Syria, the men-only drinking dens of India, all have something in common. They’re rough and poorly kept, places that look like nobody gives a damn about them but are truly loved by the regulars. Learning to appreciate dive bars gives you an unexpected passport to the world. Most tourists won’t go drinking in some dirty boozer where nobody speaks English but if you walk inside, grab a beer, and don’t look too closely at the food, people will recognize you for someone who enjoys the good things in life.

So thanks, Mike’s Place. All those sunsets and hot wings and drunken conversations actually helped me become a world traveler. Strange how things work out. Next month I’m off to Addis Ababa and I’ll be trying some of the local tej bet, the Ethiopian equivalent of Mike’s Place. No doubt I’ll get that old feeling of familiarity I’ve experienced in so many other dives. I wonder if I’ll find Chainsaw behind the counter cooking me up some hot wings?