The Coffee ceremony is a favorite feature of the day-to-day activities of Ethiopians in most parts of the country. People gather around the decorous ceremony, discuss social issues, make jokes, share gossip, share news, and solve problems.
Usually, coffee ceremonies are hosted, attended, and favored by women. If not in all of Ethiopia, in some parts, reading the marks of the leftover coffee ground at the bottom of the cup after drinking the liquid, is still practiced. It is done for fun most of the time, while some may take it as a serious indicator of what’s about to come upon someone.
Starting a day with coffee is a habit of most Ethiopians, especially in rural areas. And those who live in towns and cities, often have coffee with lunch. Many families still make coffee three times a day: in the morning, noon and evening. Ceremonies may take from several minutes up to more than an hour when it is done leisurely.
In old neighborhoods where residents know each other for long coffee is often drunk together. When a woman in one of the houses brews coffee with its entire ceremony, she sends a kid to her neighbors to call them to attend. Those who are at home usually come.
This ceremony is done leisurely with the cups (sini) evenly arranged on a board (rekebot), usually over a bed of grasses and flowers to add more glamour to the ritual. The coffee pot (jebena), incense burner, charcoal stove, and homemade snacks (usually roasted grains, popcorn, or pieces of flat bread) are among the common parts of the spread.
The host of the ceremony starts by washing the beans. It is then slowly roasted on a metal sheet until it gets dark brown. While the beans are pounded with a mortar and pestle until it becomes a fine powder, water boils in the pot over the charcoal stove. The ground coffee is then immersed in the pot and boiled together for a few minutes.
The brew is taken down from the clay oven and rests for a couple of minutes to settle. The cups are then filled with hot coffee and given out to the attendees. It may be drunk without any additives, with sugar, and in some parts of Ethiopia, even with salt.
The first round of freshly brewed coffee is called Abol. The second round, less concentrated as it’s brewed with more water poured into the pot, is called Tona. The third round, the least concentrated, is known as Bereka. The ceremony winds up with every attendee drinking up to three cups of coffee each.
There is an additional ritual during this ceremony in some places, which is the practice of reading the signs and terrains the coffee grounds left at the bottom of the cups.
Reading cups of coffee and tea leaves, known as tasseography, is “a divination practice dating back thousands of years. Over this time, many symbols and interpretations have been built up,” says Lindsey Goodwin, a food writer, and tea consultant.
These interpretations vary in line with their settings and readers. Originating from China, it later became a common practice in the Middle East. In Turkey, they call it fortune telling, making it one routine of their coffee drinking rituals. In Lebanon, some coffee readers attained popularity, some even charging money for a reading session, says a 2021 review on Lebanon Traveler. It’s also common in Russia, Armenia, and East Europe.
The elderly women who are usually tasked with reading coffee cups for the attendees of the ceremony in Ethiopia are not trained professionals. They do it traditionally, with experience accumulated over the years.
A resident of Gondar, Getahun Girma, relates his experience while gathering for coffee with friends in his neighborhood.
“I finished my coffee and gave the cup to my friend, Daniel. He focused on the image formed in the cup and told me a black chicken will cross my path when I go home. That day when we were walking back home, we saw a black chicken from distance and had a good laugh together. But, after that none of us brought a black chicken to slaughter at home,” says Getahun, laughing.
He and his friends took the reading as a joke but he didn’t hide that they felt like there was some truth to it and avoided black chickens afterward.
Yelfign Nigussie makes a living by making coffee in downtown Gondar. She spreads her coffee ceremony under one of the oaks found in the center of the city. Passerbys take a rest at the tree and sip her coffee.
Yelfign says she and her customers try to read their future in their cups. “We feel happy when we read good signs. Though we do it as a joke, we feel a bit down when unfavored patterns appear in our cups,” she admits.
When the coffee grounds create a kind of pattern that looks like a network of roads, with most of the cup being clean, Yelfign says, denotes that the one who has drunk with the cup might go to a big city. This is good news, making the cup owner happy. On the other hand, when the signs make up a mountain-like shape, it means there’s an obstacle in the drinker’s way. That, inevitably makes the person feel uneasy.
A pattern looking like a sheep indicates a coffee drinker is a nice person, while a shapeless sign means the person has an unpleasant behavior, according to Yelfign’s interpretations.
“If it looks like a dog, we take it as the person is loyal, if it is a chicken, we say the person who borrowed money from you will not pay you back. We do this as a pastime. But some take it seriously. And sometimes, when our naive prediction is realized true, we wonder if it actually works.”
There are variations of interpretations in different places. Linsay Goodwin outlines some of the most common readings known in the Middle East: Angels – good news; apples – a long life; arrows – bad messages; an axe – problems overcome; birds – good luck; boat – a visit from a friend.
Though most people may consider it fun, just a pastime during the ceremony, there may be some who might want to have a peek into their future with the reading’s predictions.
Just like Getahun, even those who take the readings as a joke, get startled when the predictions come true, by co-incidence or otherwise. Those who are told good foretells can’t help but feel happy.
Coffee drinking, getting more accustomed over time, brought along different etiquettes with it. The Ethiopian coffee ceremony and reading coffee cups are among them. Reading coffee ground signs at the bottom of cups is mostly done for fun, often in the Middle East, with readers ranging from those doing it traditionally to some of them getting a license for it from an online course provider: Center of Excellence.
Ethiopia has continued to hold the age-old ceremony in many areas. Many Ethiopians take pride in their country’s being the origin of the world-renowned beverage, even believing the name coffee derived from “Kaffa”, a place in Western Ethiopia where coffee was believed to be first discovered.
There is also a legend about a goatherd called Kaldi, who noticed his goats behaving differently when they consumed coffee beans at the place they grazed. That was how Kaldi was urged to take the coffee home to try it for himself. The fame of the stimulant beans gradually spread all over the world.
Coffee is now “among the three most popular beverages in the world”, according to Britannica, along with water and tea.