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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Hotels, restaurants and consumers: what to look for on review websites

Have you ever gotten mad after a hotel stay and, in the heat of the moment, dashed off a nasty review on TripAdvisor or Yelp? I was talking to some friends about this recently, and it seems the natural human reaction is to give feedback after a negative experience and to stay relatively silent when all has gone well.

Almost all of us have been there.

After all, there’s nothing quite like the feeling that your hard-earned cash has been sunk into an unsatisfying experience to get the blood boiling. When you get bad service or have a room that just doesn’t measure up – especially if you’ve spent hundreds (or even thousands) of bucks on your hotel stay, meal or flight – you need an outlet for your disappointment or anger. You may feel like you’re doing a service to the next traveler who’s thinking about following in your footsteps.
Well, it’s this situation that’s hit the news recently, with hotels and restaurants planning to sue TripAdvisor over the reviews left by its users. In Detroit, according to Slate, 24grille, a Detroit restaurant, tried to go after TripAdvisor over one anonymous comment, before giving up:

The suit went nowhere, as 24grille’s lawyers realized that the Communications Decency Act of 1996 gives sites like TripAdvisor immunity from being held liable for user comments, and they dropped the claim. (TripAdvisor, which screens reviews and reserves the right to remove any it deems dubious, did eventually delete the comment in question.)

At stake for all sectors of the hospitality industry is reputation, which comprises a large part of their brands. And, let’s be realistic: brand is what makes the sale in this industry. So, it pays to protect it at all costs … but in the right way.

The Slate article ponders the effectiveness of litigation, with the author “convinced these lawsuits are a terrible idea,” because it won’t provide sufficient brand or financial performance protection. Rather, the smarter move is to look for patterns to see if there are any ongoing or systemic problems that need to be addressed.

This makes perfect sense.

When I read a review – on Yelp, TripAdvisor or even from a professional critic – I take the extremes with a grain of salt. Further, I take the time to look at all the available feedback. One bad experience can be caused by anything from a bad day for the service provider (yes, entire companies can have bad days) to unrealistic expectations on the part of the reviewer. I’ve talked to a number of hospitality consumers who approach reviews with the same care and skepticism.

This thinking would work for hotels and restaurants, as well. Slate continues:

When we scan reviews online, we aren’t looking for gothchas-outlandish, one-off tales of awful experiences. Instead, we look for patterns. We make judgments based on the themes that emerge from many reviews, not from the crazy charges that appear in one or two. As such, there’s an obvious way for businesses to improve their online standings. Rather than trying to suppress a few negative reviews, they ought to work like mad to offer the kind of service that inspires a whole bunch of positive reviews.

When there is something worth noting, hotels and restaurants would be wise to pay attention. TripAdvisor, Yelp and other user-contributed review sites represent another channel by which guests can provide feedback, and ignoring them is tantamount to turning your back while a customer – disgruntled or not – is speaking.

The goal, therefore, is to sift through the anger and find the information that really matters – for management and guests. Look for trends, and use that to make a decision.

[photo by espensorvik via Flickr]

New TripAdvisor iPhone app makes finding reviews on the go a lot easier

There is no denying that TripAdvisor has become one of the go-to sources of hotel, restaurant and attraction reviews. So, if you have an iPhone (or iPod), check out the newest TripAdvisor app and get your reviews on the go.

The app is very easy to use, and makes finding reviews a beeze – based upon your location, or a manually entered location.

Best of all – you can write your own reviews right on your device, which means you no longer have to wait till you get home so post some praise (or a complaint).

Another handy feature inside the new app is a flight finder – obviously not the first on the iPhone, but I am always happy to see an app go beyond its main purpose. Flight information comes from a variety of sources – including Travelocity, Expedia and Vayama, best of all, the booking process stays right inside the TripAdvisor app.

You’ll find the new (free) app in the App store. A similar version is also available for the Palm Pre, and an Android version is “coming soon”.

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Love the past? There’s a new website for you

Hotels have review sites, restaurants have review sites, heck even strip clubs have review sites, so why not ancient monuments?

The folks at Current Publishing, who publish two of the UK’s most popular archaeology magazines, Current Archaeology and World Archaeology, have started a website so people can review archaeological attractions in England, Scotland, Ireland (North and Republic), Wales, and the Isle of Man. Reviews cover everything from museums to stone circles and there are interactive maps based on subject, region, or managing organization. There’s a special section for Stonehenge and its surrounding area, as well as Hadrian’s Wall.

There’s also a section reviewing archaeological digs that accept volunteers. Volunteering on an excavation is a different and rewarding way to spend a vacation.

Called I Love The Past.com, this site has a nice, clean layout without a lot of the flashy features that distract the reader and clog up bandwidth. It’s simple to navigate and the maps make it easy to discover places near where you’re traveling. The downside is that as a new project, most sites only have one review, and some important sites are not yet covered. There’s nothing on the archaeologically rich Orkney Isles, for example. A forum would be a nice addition too, as it would encourage discussion and probably lead to more reviews being posted. Still, it’s an interesting concept and different than the flashier and bigger Heritage Key, which focuses on articles and well worth a look if you have a fast connection. If you’re a museum or ruins junkie, I Love the Past has some potential.

Are hotel star ratings getting out of hand?

At one time, staying in a “four-star hotel” meant you were experiencing the peak of luxury. Luxurious rooms, top-notch accommodations and plenty of amenities. But increasingly a four-star hotel is no longer enough, with uber-high-end properties in Europe racing to claim six or, in the case of the Burj-al-Arab in Dubai, even seven-star ratings. At what point do the hotel stars become meaningless? The BBC took a look at the hotel-star “ratings game” in a recent article, noting the jumble of competing systems and confusion it causes for consumers.

According to the BBC, the ratings have become a subjective measure of amenities depending on the place. In much of Europe for instance, stars are assigned based on random factors such as whether the property has an elevator or includes breakfast, not by factors like building age or cleanliness. There’s similar confusion in the United States, where competing organizations like AAA and Forbes Travel offer customers conflicting systems. Those in the hotel ratings business acknowledge the confusion, though minimal steps have been taken to change the process.

The next time you check into that “Five-Star Hotel,” make sure you know what you’re paying for. In a world of increasing hotel rating inflation, there’s still plenty of room for debate.