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.