3. T’ej in History

By Harry Kloman, University of Pittsburgh

NOBODY KNOWS EXACTLY how or when Ethiopians first decided to mix honey with water and then flavor and ferment it with gesho (Rhamnus prinoides), a species of buckthorn that grows native only to Africa.

Excavations at Aksum, the first great civilization to emerge in what is now Ethiopia, have found accounts of the consumption of honey wine and its use in rituals. Aksum began to rise in the first few centuries A.D. and had collapsed by around the 900s A.D., reaching its zenith in the fourth century A.D. under King Ezana, whose writings mention honey wine.

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The Encyclopedia of World Environmental History says that t’ej is “thought to be one of the oldest alcoholic beverages ever produced,” and B.S. Platt, in a 1955 article in the Proceedings of the Nutrition Society, wrote that “fermented honey drinks may have been the earliest alcoholic beverages known to man, and the discovery of them has been attributed to the Hamites.”

The German researcher Carl Seyffert’s important 1930 study of honey and bees in Africa documents the affection of African cultures for honey wine. The website gotmead.com, “your mead resource,” tells the name for mead in numerous languages: After the Ethiopian entry “t’ej,” it notes that this has been its name “since about 400 B.C.,” a fact that linguists might dispute. No other country on the gotmead.com site bears a historical notation after its word for mead.

Eva Crane, in her 1999 book The World History of Beekeeping and Honey Hunting, tells us that the ancient Greek historian Strabo (63 B.C. – 24 A.D.) wrote about Troglodytes living in ancient Ethiopia. “Most of the people drink a brew of buckthorn,” he reported, “but the tyrants drink a mixture of honey and water, the honey being pressed out of some kind of flower.” According to Crane, Strabo doesn’t specifically say that the Ethiopians fermented this drink. But gesho, the fermenting agent of t’ej, is a species of buckthorn, so fermentation must have taken place. (See map just below.) This may be the earliest reference to Ethiopians fermenting honey water with gesho.

From Eva Crane's 1999 book, adapted from Carl Seyffert's 1930 book, a map showing where ancient Africans drank honey mixed with water. The key (red square) reveals that people in Ethiopia (blue square) added a fermenting agent to the beverage.
From Eva Crane’s 1999 book, adapted from Carl Seyffert’s 1930 book, has a map showing where ancient Africans drank honey mixed with water. The key (red square) reveals that people in Ethiopia (blue square) added a fermenting agent to the beverage.

“In many areas [of Africa], particularly in the east,” Crane writes, “honey was fermented in water for a longer period, with the root of some other part of a specific plant which had been found to increase fermentation and thus give a higher alcohol content. One of the most famous of these drinks was t’ej or t’edj in Ethiopia; Christianity had arrived there in the 300s, and alcohol was not prohibited.”

Crane notes that according to 16th Century European chronicles, Ethiopians added saddo wood (Rhamnus tsaddo) to cause fermentation. Gesho, of course, is Rhamnus prinoides, clearly kin to the fermenting plant observed by the Europeans.

In some Nilotic cultures, located largely in southwestern Ethiopia, people use sorghum beer and honey wine to anesthetize animals before a sacrifice. The Nyangatom, a Nilotic people of Ethiopia, once had a clan that did this. The Maasai, of Kenya and northern Tanzania, still employ the practice for their eunoto ceremony initiating senior warriors, during which they strangle the sacrificial animal with a leather waist cloth taken from a woman’s garment.

One of the earliest written records of t’ej comes from inscriptions on stones translated in 1962 by the Dutch scholar A.J. Drewes in his book Inscriptions de l’Ethiopie Antique, which is written in French. His revelatory work requires no reading between the lines: The ancient Ge’ez inscriptions that he deciphers tell us explicitly what some proto-Ethiopians drank.

Emperor Menelik always served t’ej to his guest

“Memorandum concerning the food of the royal court according to the law of the country,” begins one text, written during the height of Aksum’s power. The inscription goes on to describe the victuals: There’s virgin mutton, virgin beef, honey, wheat, beer, a bucket of butter and – best of all – honey wine. Drewes dates the inscription to the third century A.D.

In Ge’ez, honey wine is called mes, the word still used today in Tigrinya, a language of northern Ethiopia and Eritrea. But we know it as t’ej, and here we have proof that the Aksumites fermented it. The inscription says the mes came served in a gabata, which Drewes translates as sargato (a frying pan). Ethiopians today serve their wot-covered injera atop a large round plate called a gebeta (which is also a general word for table).

Accounts from as early as the 16th Century, when European exploration of Abyssinia began in earnest, document the presence of this special honey wine, usually consumed only by Ethiopia’s ruling elite. The production of t’ej surely predates those accounts by a millennium or more.

These historic chronicles, published in the 16th through early 20th centuries, offer many sweet tidbits about t’ej: its production and consumption, and its place in Ethiopian society. In the passages that follow, notice how the recipes differ in the proportions of honey to water, and how the authors describe slightly different fermentation processes: Some say, for example, to leave the mixture in the sun, while others say to keep it out of the sun.

Emperor Menelik throws a dinner party
Emperor Menelik throws a dinner party

Notice, too, that the name t’ej itself has numerous spellings in historic accounts, once again because there’s no standardized way to transliterate Amharic. Gesho, too, is spelled in a variety of ways in the historic literature.

The writers all agree that only the privileged classes drank t’ej before its democratization in the 20th Century, and the servant who got a taste was a lucky one indeed (although sometimes he would taste it to confirm that it hadn’t been poisoned). So important was t’ej to the highest of Ethiopian society that royal homes would have a t’ej azaj, or t’ej butler, in charge of the royal mead. Another recurring theme: the weakness of the warlike and capricious Emperor Theodorus (1855-1868) for t’ej. His affliction with drink helped to bring about his downfall and death.

Taken together, this body of writing by more than two dozen travelers creates a thorough portrait of t’ej in Ethiopian history. Most of the explorers even enjoyed the often potent potable, although some seemed almost embarrassed to admit it.

“The Ras [chief] insisted upon my dining with him every day,” wrote the Scottish explorer James Bruce in his groundbreaking account of his time spent in Ethiopia in the 1770s, “when he was sure to give me a headache with the quantity of mead, or hydromel, he forced me to swallow, a liquor that never agreed with me from the first day to the last.”

Theophilus Waldmeier, an English missionary, wrote in his 1866 memoir: “Raw beef is not always eaten, but it is liked by people; and honey wine (mead) is much appreciated, but all cannot afford to obtain it, which is no loss to them, as it is intoxicating.” Four years later, Henry St. Clair Wilkins stops for a meal with his party in Takoonda and writes: “Here we partook of our own fare in contentment, after an ineffectual attempt to swallow some t’ej, the home-brew of the village.” Charles Hindlip, another Englishman, writing in 1906, refers to “teg, the national drink made of honey, nasty and strong.”

An ancient Ethiopian feast
An ancient Ethiopian feast

Clearly, t’ej is not a potable for all tastes. But most of the visitors found t’ej more to their liking than did Bruce, especially when enjoyed with spicy Ethiopian food.

The first Western account of Ethiopian culture was written and published in the 1530s by Father Francisco Alvares, a Portuguese priest who spent six years in Ethiopia with a mission from his country. He seemed to enjoy t’ej more than his Scottish counterpart of two centuries later. “They make wine from many seeds,” Alvares wrote, “and the wine of honey is much the best of all.” He reported that this wine “walked about with great fury, the mistress of the house, concealed behind a curtain, taking her own share.”

Later, the cleric recalls a celebration and a most generous host:

The ceremonial, presentation and welcome all over-flowed with drink. He had near him four large jars of very good mead, and with each jar a goblet of crystalline glass. We began to drink, and his wife and two other women who were with her helped us well. They would not leave us until the jars were finished; each jar held six or seven canadas, and yet he ordered more be brought, saying that he would not let them go if we did not drink more. We left him for good reasons, saying we were going away to relieve ourselves.

That 16th Century Portuguese pastor apparently used a different translation of the Bible than Robert Moss Ormerod, the 19th Century Briton who, upon visiting Ethiopia, declared: “This honey-wine is the obstacle here to the progress of Christianity. Total abstinence on the part of missionary and people is indespensible.” He was, of course, quite wrong: Ethiopians today enjoy both Christianity and t’ej.

Jeronimo Lobo, another Portuguese explorer of the 16th Century, observed that “the common drink of the Abyssins is beer and mead, which they drink to excess when they visit one another; nor can there be a greater offence against good manners than to let the guests go away sober: their liquor is always presented by a servant, who drinks first himself, and then gives the cup to the company, in the order of their quality.” Of some time spent with an Ethiopian monk, he reported: “Having invited him to sup and pass the night with me, I set before him some excellent mead, which he liked so well as to drink somewhat beyond the bounds of exact temperance.”

In his seminal 1684 history of Ethiopia, the German scholar Job Ludolphus makes brief but appreciative mention of t’ej. After discussing the nation’s food and its preparation, he observes:

Their drink is somewhat more dainty, and is the glory and consummation of their feasts, for so far they still retain the custom of many of the ancients, that as soon as the table is clear’d, they fall to drinking, having always this proverb in their mouths, That it is the useful way to plant first, and then to water. They drink themselves up to a merry pitch, and till their tongues run before their wit, and never give off till the drink be all out. They make excellent hydromel by reason of their plenty of honey, which inebriates like wine. They call it tzed; they make it smaller for their families, mixing six parts of wine, with one of water.

Hormuzd Rassam, in his 1869 book, had two experiences with t’ej. Early in his journey, he writes that his host “brought me, as an introductory present, a horn of t’ej – mead, the common beverage of the upper classes in Abyssinia – which, by the way, was as sour as vinegar.” But later, before an early morning meeting with Emperor Theorodus, “his Majesty sent me a large glass bottle containing about three gallons of very old and clear t’ej, which he requested me to drink for his sake. He was aware, he said, that I was not partial to such beverages, nevertheless as the t’ej was coeval with his reign he wished me to try it, and to give my opinion of its quality. I drank a little to satisfy him, and found it much superior to any liquor I had hitherto tasted in the country.” This demonstrates the important of the t’ej-maker, and once again reaffirms Theordorus’ affection for his t’ej.

An 1872 issue of the National Sunday School Magazine offers a squib on the coronation of Yohannes, citing to a volume of t’ej that seems more like lore than fact: “Prince Kassa of Tigre, entitled ‘King of Kings of Ethiopia, by the will of the people of Abyssinia,’ has been crowned Youarnisse [Yohannes], otherwise John, Emperor of Ethiopia. There were upwards of 300,000 people present. The camp reached for about eight miles. The plain of Axum was covered, and the feast lasted for ten days. Sheds were built, reaching nearly a mile, where all the people feasted. About 20,000 cows were killed, and 40,000 gallons of honey-wine drank.”

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Edward Gleichen, a traveler from fin-de-siècle England, wrote in 1898 that during a meal with Emperor Menelik, a maid-servant “proceeded to hand them the t’ej in small flagons, over which a piece of rag was thrown to keep away the evil eye. At the conclusion of this repast, a species of native spirit distilled from honey and flavoured with aniseed was handed around. This is a most potent liquor.” He is probably referring to araki/areque, a sort of Ethiopian ouzo. “T’ej is extremely popular with all ranks,” he adds, “but it is only the middle and upper classes who can afford it. It is decidedly intoxicating, and the apostles of temperance, were they to visit the country, would find their work cut out for them.” Later, he says more about t’ej in this excellent account of its varieties:

For the benefit of those who do not know t’ej, I must explain that it is the drink of the upper classes of the country; it is made by fermenting honey and hops and water together, and this process produces a strange-tasting drink rather like a bitter cider, and intoxicating, distinctly. The brands of t’ej differ according to the locality: Ras Makunnen’s [father of Hayle Selasse] best tastes like sweet, strong old Madeira, and Menelik’s like still hock, whilst the inferior kinds vary between bad sherry and sourish water with dead bees and lumps of wax and bark and earth floating in it. The lower classes drink t’alla, a sort of weak beer, made out of barley, which tastes just like what it is – inferior barley-water with beery reminiscences.

T’ej also played a role in diplomacy. In his 1868 book that tells about a British mission to Abyssinia, Henry Blanc recounts this moment between the ambassadors and Emperor Theodorus:

A little later we were rather startled by a message from his Majesty informing us that he would come to see us. Though we did our best to dissuade him from such a step, he soon afterwards came, accompanied by some slaves carrying arrack [araki] and t’ej. He said, “Even my wife told me not to go out, but I could not leave you in grief, so I have come to drink with you.” On that he had the arrack and t’ej presented to all of us, himself setting the example.

Commenting on a mission to Abyssinia 20 years earlier by the Rev. Samuel Gobat, Blanc makes this secular observation: “He traveled over the country for three years, preaching, discussing with the debteras [literates] and priests, who, for a glass or two of t’ej (mead), made him every possible concession, and overwhelmed him with exaggerated eulogies, which he has jotted down in his journal with inconceivable naiveté.” Then, Blanc recounts this fascinating story about what the working class will risk for a taste of t’ej:

On one occasion a soldier who was on guard crept near the queen’s tent, and, taking advantage of the darkness of night, whispered to one the female attendants to pass him a glass of t’ej under the tent. She gave him one. Unfortunately, he was seen by a eunuch, who seized him, and at once brought him before his Majesty. After hearing the case, Theodore, who happened to be in good spirits that evening, asked the culprit if he was very fond of t’ej; the trembling wretch replied in the affirmative. “Well, give him two wanchas [a large horn cup] full to make him happy, and afterwards fifty hashes with the giraf [a long hippopotamus whip] to teach him another time not to go near the queen’s tent. Evidently, Theodore, with a large experience of the beau sexe of his country, was profoundly convinced that his precautions were necessary.

In the village of Beatmohar, in 1876, Robert Bourke visits a European friend, gets a taste of t’ej – and confirms once again the predilection of the emperor:

Kirkham at once produced some honey-wine, called t’ej in Abyssinia; it was excellent, and proved very refreshing after our ride.

T’ej” is made in the following way: to one part of honey are added seven parts of water, and well mixed; then some leaves of a plant called “geshoo” are put into the mixture, to make it ferment; it is put outside in the shade and left for a day or two. A piece of cotton cloth is strained over the mouth of the large earthenware jar, or gumbo, and through this the t’ej is poured; the servant tapping the cloth with his fingers to make the liquid run freely. It one wants to make it stronger, the first brew is used instead of the water; adding honey and geshoo leaves in the same way. In the time of King Theodore that monarch had t’ej five years old, which made any one drink in a very short time. But those were the “good old times” which we read of.

The German explorer Heinrich Thiersch, writing in 1885, didn’t quite consider t’ej to be wine and offered this brief observation: “Another snare for [King] Theodore was that referred to in the Proverbs of Solomon, xxxi, 4, 5: ‘It is not for kings to drink wine; nor for princes strong drink: lest they drink, and forget the law, and pervert the judgment of any of the afflicted.’ There is no wine in Abyssinia; for where the palm-tree begins to flourish, the grape-vine ceases to grow. But in its place is the fermented honey-wine (tetsch), and brandy is but too well known. Theodore became a slave to these pleasures, and thereby a slave to anger and a spirit of revenge.”

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But not only kings lost their heads from t’ej. In this 1885 anecdote about Ethiopian weddings, from The Illustrated English Magazine, we learn that “on the bridal night a most novel custom is observed by groomsmen – they occupy the bridal chamber with the married pair. This, no doubt, is in case the husband, taking too much tedge, begins to quarrel so early in the honeymoon, they are there to keep matters amicable.”

In an 1856 account, the legendary explorer Sir Richard Burton affords t’ej this lengthy footnote:

This is the Abyssinian “T’ej,” a word so strange to European organs, that some authors write it “Zatah.” At Harar it is made of honey dissolved in about fifteen parts of hot water, strained and fermented for seven days with the bark of a tree called Kudidah; when the operation is to be hurried, the vessel is placed near the fire. Ignorant African can ferment, not distil, yet it must be owned she is skilful in her rude art. Every traveller has praised the honey-wine of the Highlands, and some have not scrupled to prefer it to champagne. It exhilarates, excites and acts as an aphrodisiac; the consequence is that at Harar all men, pagans and sages, priests and rulers, drink it.

Henry Dufton’s 1867 account of his time in Emperor Theorodus’ Ethiopia again confirms the necessity of enjoying t’ej if you want to conduct diplomacy with the locals: “Before proceeding to business we were well supplied with tedge or honey-wine, which was followed by the strong arracky of the country, neat; so that before the interview was over we, who had not touched strong waters for a long period, were slightly affected by them. We should assuredly have refused to drink, especially the arracky, but were afraid of giving offence.” He later reports that the time of day made no difference to his hosts: “We were now well supplied with arracky and tedge (honey-wine) in the drinking line, as well as with a plain breakfast of teff bread and stewed meat to satisfy the more solid demands of hunger.” Finally, there’s this lengthier account:

The entrance of [the governor] was the signal for the circulation of hydromel or tedge. This was kept in large gumbos or stone jars with narrow necks, covered with a piece of cotton-cloth, through which to drain it, so that the leaves of the gesho, a plant used in the making of the wine, may not pass through. From these gumbos it is poured into narrow-necked Venetian flasks called barilly, these being preferred to glasses as the dust and flies are thus excluded in a great measure. Notwithstanding this advantage pertaining to the barilly, in a great man’s house it is not uncommon to see coloured glass tumblers, which, being scarce and expensive, are considered articles of luxury. The servant, after presenting the tedge, always holds out the hollow of his hand, which the receiver fills with wine, and sees the servant drink before he will taste himself – is it a provision against poison. The Abyssinians also present and receive everything with both hands, even if it be a pinch of snuff; they have a peculiar fondness for snuff, taking it into the mouth in preference to the nose.

Samuel White Baker offers an account of t’ej in his 1868 book about a visit to Abyssinia, although his transliteration of a key component in the wine is more than a bit off:

I paid all my Tokrooris their wages, and I gave them an entertainment after their own taste, by purchasing several enormous bowls of honey wine. The Abyssinians are celebrated for this drink, which is known as “tetch.” It is made of various strengths; that of good quality should contain, in ten parts, two of honey and eight of water; but, for a light wine, one of honey and nine of water is very agreeable. There is a plant of an intoxicating quality known by the Abyssinians as “jershooa” [gesho], the leaves of which are added to the tetch while in a state of fermentation; a strong infusion of these leaves will render the tetch exceedingly heady, but without this admixture the honey wine is by no means powerful. In our subsequent journey in Central Africa, I frequently made the tetch by a mixture of honey and water, flavoured with wild thyme and powdered ginger; fermentation was quickly produced by the addition of yeast from the native beer, and the wine, after six of eight days, became excellent, but never very strong, as we could not procure the leaves of the jershooa.

Martim de Albuquerque, a French writer, offered this tidbit in 1907:

The epithet of “dry” or “sec” is not only applied to European intoxicants. The favourite drink of the upper classes in Abyssinia is a kind of mead, called t’ej, which is composed of honey mixed with water, and allowed to ferment. For ordinary drinking t’ej, one part of honey to seven or eight of water is considered sufficient, and in this a slightly bitter herb, called geshu, which answers in some ways to hops, is infused. A stronger quality, from which araki, the spirit of the country, is distilled, is manufactured from one part of honey to three of water, with a stronger infusion of geshu. This mixture, in which the sugar is not apparent to the taste, is known as yedaraka [derek] t’ej, or literally dry t’ej.

Curiously, large portions of this passage appeared verbatim in a squib on t’ej in a 1908 issue of the magazine Notes and Queries. The magazine entry was signed by W.F. Prideaux. Unless that was a pseudonym for Martim de Albuquerque, the squib is clearly plagiarized.

Herbert Vivian, a Briton visiting Ethiopia in 1901, noted the enormous number of servants present in the homes of the wealthiest Ethiopians. He observed: “Every retainer has his own duties, and will under no circumstances consent to do any others at all. In a big household one man looks after the t’ej and nothing else, another concerns himself only with the guns, another is merely treasurer, another has charge of certain animals. In fact there is an infinite division of labour.”

Arthur J. Hayes, a doctor visiting Ethiopia in 1905, was once called upon to treat a t’ej-related ailment. After recounting the tale of a satisfied patient, he tells us:

Another Habash found me less satisfactory as a physician. He had come to ask what medicine he could take to cure the headache caused by tedj. Now, tedj is the beer, or mead, of the country; it is made from fermented barley, and flavoured with honey diluted in the proportion of one part to three parts of water. It is a very heady – and, to the Europeans, a most nasty – drink, and the Abyssinians consume enormous quantities of it. Parkyns was told of a man who swallowed twenty-six pints at a sitting, on the occasion of a wedding-feast at which the English traveler was present. But he regarded this statement as “a stretcher.” I told the inquirer that the one and only prescription was not to drink tedj, and thereupon the little audience of his fellow-countrymen enjoyed a laugh at his expense.

Then, in a footnote to this tale, Hayes says: “I do not know whether the women drink much tedj, but even the ladies of the land did so in Bruce’s time.” He goes on to describe a bacchanalian feast, taken from Bruce’s 18th Century writing, in which the women ate, smoked and drank on par with the men. He concludes: “And as there is a complete absence of gêne [embarrassment] in the conduct of modern Abyssinian women in other respects, I have little doubt that they still favour the tedj when the mood prompts them.”

In Montagu Wellby’s 1901 book on Ethiopia, the author learns about “the national drink” at a bakery/brewery in Harar (and note the proportions of water to honey in this recipe):

Adjoining the bakery were the “t’ej” brewers. To drink t’ej is the highest bliss of some Abyssinians; it is one of the main objects of their existence. Without t’ej and without women life would be a blank to them. The process of making it is simple enough. Water and honey, in proportions of 5 to 1, are mixed together, and to this is added an infusion of the leaves of the geichi bush, which gives the drink its intoxicating strength. The longer this mixture stands, the stronger it becomes, till finally the essence of t’ej – known as araki – is distilled from it. The women employed in its manufacturing were generous enough with their offerings, pouring first a little into their own hands to drink, and then handing me the glass.

In 1904, Philip Maud published a piece in National Geographic about his trip to Ethiopia and recalled a meal served to his party by a district governor. “Serving-men plied us with t’ej, the national drink of Abyssinia, which is made from honey,” he wrote. “Old t’ej is very heady, but not unpleasant in taste. Abyssinians of importance never travel without their t’ej women. These ladies make the t’ej in camp, and carry it on the march.”

A somewhat patronizing and slightly unappetizing account of t’ej comes from Edward Randolph Emerson’s 1908 guide Beverages Past and Present:

On state and formal occasions [in Ethiopia] it is the practice to serve tedj in brillas. A brilla is a round glass bottle with a long slim neck, and an absurdly small orifice; it holds about a pint and somewhat resembles a wine decanter. Owing to the small throat it takes considerable time to fill them but on the other hand it cannot be said that the expert – and every Abyssinian is an adept – is very long in emptying it; the novice, however, finds it no simple task, for when the brilla is elevated above a certain angle the liquor refuses to flow, and again if the lips are too tightly closed over the neck the progress of the fluid is materially hindered. When the tedj-bearer comes around, after pouring a little into his left hand and drinking, he passes the brilla to the guest, who immediately takes a sip and then, placing his thumb over his mouth, he retains it until he has finished its contents, and calls for another or as many as he desires. There is no limit placed upon the number a man may drink and if he is overcome nothing is thought of it, excepting, perhaps, by the individual the next day.

At first sight the use of the brilla seems rather strange, but when it is looked into more closely, it is seen these people have solved quite a difficult problem, and the practice shows a degree of niceness that one would hardly expect to find in a people of their character and environments. It there is any other country that has more flies in it than Abyssinia the traveler will do well to stay away from it. No matter in what part of the land you may visit there will be flies so thick it is almost impossible to eat without getting them in the food, and tedj, being made from honey, is sweet and of course more than usually attractive to these pests. If the liquor is poured into a glass it would necessitate the immediate drinking of the whole amount and, even if that was done, the chances would be that a fly had managed to gain access to it before it had all gone down the drinker’s throat. On the other hand with the use of the brilla all this annoyance and trouble is obviated. The brilla is held in the hand with the thumb over its mouth, and conversation proceeds with only a momentary interruption now and then, caused by raising the bottle to the lips.

This raises the subject of the t’ej drinking vessel the berele (or brilla as Emerson writes it). In ancient times through the 19th Century, t’ej would often be served in cups carved out of animal horns. Theodore J. Bent’s 1896 account is one of many: “We paid daily visits to Abyssinian houses during our stay in Asmara, and got to know some of the people quite well. They would give us tedge or hydromel out of great horn cups – horns which in the first instance must have been of enormous dimensions, and which, as we got into the interior, we found every chief had, out of which to regale his guests with mead. These horn cups on journeys they carry in stamped leather cases, and hang to the saddles of their mules.”

roundtej

But Robert Peet Skinner, writing a decade later, begins to document the emergence of more modern methods of enjoying t’ej. At a banquet, “serving men with large baskets kept the good things going, and others passed tall blue enameled drinking-cups filled with tedj. In the good old days the drinking-cups were of horn, but modernism ‘made in Germany’ has obliterated at last this vestige of the Biblical civilization of Ethiopia. So great was the demand for tedj that a pump forced it through a pipe, under the end of which one cup replaced another, as soon as the one preceding was full.”

In 1877, the Frenchman Emilius Cosson offers this delectable tale of an Abyssinian feast – an important rule of t’ej:

The old chief received us very courteously, and motioned us to sit down on the sofa at his side, the rest of the company arranging themselves on the ground at his feet, while the servants and soldiers stood in a row around the wall. A large earthen jar of tedge (mead) was now brought in, and several glass bottles in wicker cases. They were taken out, filled, and handed to the guests, who were not slow in emptying them in the primitive fashion, for there were no glasses. In Abyssinia it is considered polite to drink at least two bottles of tedge at a visit, but you are at liberty to pass the bottle when half empty to a favourite servant, for him to finish. A good tedge is rather heady, so we always took care, when out visiting, to keep a native servant, with a steady head, standing behind us, for the special purpose of emptying our bottles, a duty which it seemed to give the greatest satisfaction to perform.

The Abyssinians hold to the ancient rule which forbids the mixing of cups and council together, and it is not their custom to discuss any serious subject while drinking tedge; things which would give grave offence, if said before drinking, are accepted as merely banter under the genial influences of the mead; chaff and jest are therefore freely indulged in at these feasts. This custom, however, renders it a very difficult matter to induce an Abyssinian to talk seriously, as he is sure to try to put off the trouble of so doing by sending for the tedge horn, after the arrival of which, it is useless to try to make him talk sense.

On another leg of his visit, in the village of Guddofelassie, Cosson learned more about the customs that surround t’ej:

It was not long before the shoum, or chief of the village, came to offer us a present of tedge (mead), which he brought in glass bottles carefully encased in wicker-work, for bottles are precious things in Africa.

When an Abyssinian servant offers his master tedge, he makes a cup of his two hands, and expects to have some of it poured into them for him to drink; this is his perquisite, and it also serves as a guarantee that the liquor has not been poisoned. The same custom prevailed in Europe in the middle ages, when every nobleman had his “taster,” only the Abyssinian drinks out of his hand, as he does not know the art of poisoning the edge of a cup, and it would be considered highly disrespectful for a slave to touch his master’s drinking horn with his lips.

In his 1881 book about a visit to Abyssinia, William Winstanley writes at length about t’ej and its preparation:

I have not hitherto described how the honey wine in general use among the upper classes is made, and as I engaged a native servant, Baldo Mariam, who was specially skilled in its manufacture, I will now proceed to impart this information. The component proportions vary from one of honey to four or eight of water. I cannot recommend the latter strength myself, and never made it weaker than one to five. These are placed in a jar, and exposed to the rays of the sun for one or two days, herbs possessed of a bitter flavour (gesho) being previously added, and it is in the quality of these herbs used, and the time they are allowed to remain in the wine, that the great difference in flavour consists. I constantly fancied that the wine offered me was not sweet enough, whereas it would of course be ordinarily the impression that hydromel must be necessarily very sweet. The fluid, if made originally strong, is improved by keeping, and will remain good for months; it ought not in any case to be consumed in less than a week later its manufacture.

The quantities drunk by natives struck me as prodigious. It affects the head, and occasions stupefaction, but the exhilaration produced by lighter grape-wine is wanting, and quarrelsomeness and stupidity are the usual sequences of over-indulgence; that it can produce nausea and headache I am prepared to vouch. The Abyssinian is very convivial by disposition, and passionately attached to intoxicating beverages.

Charles Johnston published two volumes in 1844 of his extensive travel through Ethiopia, and he devoted two pages to his discussion of t’ej, beginning with its medicinal value. Notice that Johnston – perhaps because he didn’t understand Amharic well enough, or because his translator wasn’t clear – seems to mistake a “barilla” (berele) for a particular type of highly fermented t’ej.

After the reaction following the hot stage of the fever, I felt quite certain a horn or two of “tedge” honey wine would not do me any injury. My servant soon breasted the high hill, and fortunately just in time to find a person in authority, who, immediately he was shown my durgo order, procured a large bullock’s horn full of the sweet wine. The manufacture of tedge or honey wine is a royal monopoly, and is not publicly sold; of course there is a kind of conventional license, not exactly smuggling, by which, for double or treble its value, this beverage may be obtained. Even then the purchased article is probably the rations that have been preserved by some carefully disposed guest of the monarch, who, pouring his daily allowance of the bullock’s hornful into a large jar, collects a stock for a day of rejoicing or private process

The process of brewing tedge is simple enough; cold water being poured over a few small drinking horns full of honey placed in a jar, is well stirred up; to this is then added a handful of sprouted barley, “biccalo,” [bekela] scorched over the fire, and ground into a course meal, with the same quantity of the leaves of the “gaisho,” a species of Rhamnae, not unlike the common tea plant, and an intense but transient bitter like gentian or hops. The mixture being allowed to stand for three or four days, ferments, and is generally drunk in that state, but is then rather a queer kind of muddy beverage, full of little flocculent pieces of wax. It is more agreeable, but not unlike, in appearance or character, very strong sweet-wort. To a superior kind, made for the King’s own table, besides the “biccalo” and “gaisho,” is also added a kind of berry called “kuloh,” which grows not unlike the fruit of our elderberry, and may possible be the production of some tree belonging to that species.

The jars containing this are sealed with a large cake of clay mixed with the lees of the decanted liquor. This kind of tedge is allowed to stand for several months before it is used, and is called “barilla,” from always being handed to guests in small Venetian bottles of green glass, the fracture of one of which is a grievous offence with his Shoan Majesty, and he always makes the careless party pay for it.

In his 1892 book Drinks of the World, James Mew has an entry on t’ej, suspiciously taken from Johnston’s 1844 account because it mistakes a “barilla,” the drinking vessel, for a type of t’ej:

Taidge or Tedge or Tej is a kind of honey wine or hydromel, said by Father Poncet to be a delicious liquor, pure, clarified, and of the colour of Spanish white wine. The process of its manufacture is simple. Wild honey is mixed with water, and set in a jar, with a little sprouted barley, some biccalo or taddoo bark, and few geso or guecho leaves. A superior kind is made by adding kuloh berries. This is called barilla. The taste of tedge has been described as that of small beer or musty lemonade. The women commonly strain it through shifts.

Revelers enjoy some t'ej
Revelers enjoy some t’ej

Mansfield Parkyns, in his 1868 account, once calls the wine by its Tigrinya name. Speaking of how Ethiopians make the festive ambasha bread, he writes: “To make it a stiff dough, as in Europe, it is first generally leavened by the addition of a little mese (honey wine) or beer, for they understand little of the art of kneading.” Parkyns did spend time in the northern Tigrai region, where Tigrinya is spoken, so his reference to mes (as we now spell it) makes some sense.

Parkyns also shares an anecdote about a medicinal purpose for t’ej. He reports that tapeworms are a very common condition in Abyssinia, and after describing the bark (called koso) used as a partial remedy, he turns to part two of the treatment: “About noon, when it [the bark] has taken the required effect, a good quantity of beer or tedge is considered beneficial, on which account, if the sufferer be a servant, he begs for a supply from his master, or any friends who may be dining with him; coming round at meals, holding in his hand a small cross made of two bits of stick or straw, and exclaiming, ‘For the sake of Mary, for the sake of the Savior,’ &c., when a horn of liquor is usually given him.”

But Parkyns’ most detailed discussion of t’ej was so good that it bore repeating. William Dalton’s fanciful 1865 book The Tiger Prince reads like a novel, with dialogue between its characters and stories that feel as embellished as they do real. Dalton visited Ethiopia at the same time as Parkyns, and in The Tiger Prince, Parkyns appears as a character and narrates a two-page tale of t’ej taken word for word from his own book, although Dalton does use “quotation marks” in presenting the passage. It’s an extraordinary account of a feast, the most vivid documentation of the interplay between the Abyssinian gentry and their servants during a t’ej-drinking ceremony.

As told by Dalton, Parkyns’ story begins when a “great jar of mead” arrives in the banquet hall, a jar so large that

one man cannot possibly carry it. Its mouth is covered with a piece of rag, drawn tight over it as a strainer, to prevent bits of wax, bark, and other extraneous matters from falling into the drinking-vessels when the mead is poured out. These vessels are the wanchas, or horns, common tumblers, and a sort of bottle from Venice, called brille. The office of pouring out the mead devolved on one of the logonamy, who brings in the jar. He supports it under his arm, raising and lowering it to fill the wancha, which is held by another servant, called the fellaky, who keeps tapping or scratching the rag with his fingers, to facilitate a free flow of the liquor. Under the mouth of the jar is a bowl to catch the droppings. It is easy for this functionary to appropriate to himself one glass out of every five or six, if he knows how to arrange matters with the logonamy, who holds the jar, so that he may keep pouring on a little after each vessel is filled. Besides this, he has the right of emptying into his reservoir about one inch of the liquor from every wancha filled (which is a great deal, as they are very broad at the mouth, and narrow downwards), and from every brille, or bottle, two inches.

The first horn poured out is drunk by the logonamy, who holds the jar, and the second by the tedge melkernia, who has the superintendency of the brewery; the fellaky then arranges the horns on the ground near him as fast as they are filled, and the asalafy, or waiter, takes them up, drinks one himself, presents one to the master of the house, and afterward hands them round to the company. Before offering a glass to any one, the waiter pours a little of the contents into his left hand and drinks it off; this is to allow that the mead is not poisoned. Ordinary persons drink about two thirds, the remainder being the perquisite of the waiter, who, as soon as the glass is returned, drinks off the content. He would not, however, presume to put his master’s cup to his lips, but, raising it above his head, pours the contents into his mouth from a distance. This feat is rather difficult to perform; for if he has not the knack of letting the mead flow straight down his throat without attempting to swallow it, he must choke; and if he has not the dexterity to give a right direction to the stream, it will probably be spilt down his neck. If it be a wancha, it is still more difficult to manage, on account of the depth of its mouth.

It may be readily imagined that, at a large party, all these tops and bottoms of glasses would form together a considerable quantity, and that the servant would have as much as he could do to carry himself, to say nothing of the glasses, were he to drink all that falls to his share; so he either distributed it among his fellow-servants, or collects it in a bowl for a great tipple with his friends in the evening.

Finally, Parkyns’ narrative ends, and Dalton concludes the tale in his own voice: “Not a word was spoken during the eating. The copious draughts of mead, however, let loose the company’s tongues, and so far, and at such random did they now run, I may say that they had all run into one; producing a din that might have been heard a mile away, their voices being as loud as their appetites were strong. So copiously, however, did they drink, that, in a very short time, what with their feeding and libations, the great din must have subsided into a blended, and, certainly, not very harmonious snoring.”

Gerald Portal, writing in 1898, offers this long detailed account of t’ej, which he also refers to as “mese,” noting its regional connection. His tale is rife with the classism associated with t’ej and Ethiopian culture of the era:

A few minutes later presents arrived, consisting of two sheep, which I did not want, and a most welcome jar of tedge, a fermented drink greatly prized and drunk in large quantities by the Abyssinian aristocracy.

This tedge, or mese, as it is called in some parts of Tigre, when well made, is by no means disagreeable to the European palate, being not unlike new cider; but it varies greatly according to the taste of the chief for whom it is brewed. Its composition is as follows: one part of honey is mixed with about five or six parts of water, and well kneaded about with the hands, until the honey is thoroughly in solution. This mixture is poured into a large but narrow-mouthed earthen jar called a gumbo, into which are then put a quantity of the leaves of a bitter herb called gesho, in appearance not unlike tamarind leaves; sometimes instead of these leaves a smaller quantity of tsaddoo, or bitter bark, is used. The mouth of the jar is then covered with a cotton cloth, and the liquid is left to ferment for two or three days. The fermentation begins within a very short time, and is apparently very violent in its action.

At the end of three or four days, or even less if the weather is warm, the tedge is ready for drinking, and in a great man’s house is usually first poured through a cotton strainer into a large hollow cowhorn or buffalo-horn. This horn is then brought by slaves into the presence of the chief and his honored guests, and the tedge is again poured into narrow-necked glass flasks like small decanters, holding about a pint, from which it is not very easy to drink gracefully, but which have the advantage of excluding most of the dust and flies.

Tedge can, of course, be made sweet or bitter according to taste, by regulating the proportions of honey and of the bitter leaves, while its strength for intoxicating purposes increases in proportion to its bitterness. We noticed during our journey that the bitterness of the tedge varied, as a rule, according to the social standing of our host. Thus, Ras Alulu and the king himself liked their tedge very “dry” or even “brut” – too dry, in fact, for our foreign tastes; whereas most of the ordinary chiefs of districts and commanders of divisions gave us a sweeter and, to our taste, more welcome brew.

When, in any chief’s house or tent in Abyssinia, the slave brings in the jar or horn of tedge, he pours it at once into the narrow-necked flasks, the first of which he then takes to his master, to whom he presents it with both hands and with bowed head; the slave then makes a sort of cup of the palm of his hands, which is invaraibly filled from the flask by the master, who sees his servant drink these few mouthfuls before he will touch it himself or offer it to a guest. This is a safeguard against poison, but although in many cases it is quite unnecessary, it would be a grave breach of etiquette to omit any part of the ceremony; and to offer a cup of wine to a stranger without it being previously tasted in his presence would be a manque de tacte which might lead to serious complications.

The privilege of making tedge is restricted to persons of rank and position, and any common soldier or person of lower orders convicted of encroaching on the privileges of the aristocracy of Abyssinia would have to pass through some very unpleasent moments before being considered to have purged his offence. This excellent and sanitary law was made by the late King Theodore, who argued that the chiefs and upper classes could be expected to have self-control and be trusted not to drink too much of the intoxicating liquor, where the lower orders, if allowed to make or drink tedge, would not know when to stop, and would seize every opportunity of getting drunk and of reducing themselves to the level of the beasts whom in many characteristics they already so nearly resemble.

Frederic Villiers, a “war artist and correspondent” (according to his books), published an account of t’ej in 1921 with some phrases that sound suspiciously like Portal’s 1898 account. Decide for yourself:

Tedge, or mese, as it is sometimes called, is not unlike new cider. One part of honey is mixed with about six parts of water and stirred until completely dissolved. Then it is poured into a narrow-neck earthen jar and a bitter herb called sesho, the bark of the traddo tree, is added. The liquid is then left to ferment and at the end of four days it is ready for consumption. For a snappy drink I can highly recommend tedge. It is strained through cotton cloth, tied round the mouth of the earthen jar into cow horn, which are used as drinking utensils. The beverage can be made sweet or bitter according to taste, and is most refreshing and sometimes very potent – especially the bitter variety. I think this would satisfy some people in these prohibition days who like to have a “snap” in their drink, for with perseverance one could get quite forward on sufficient horns of tedge.

This so-called barbarous land had drastic liquor laws long before the most civilized countries of Europe and America ever thought of them. In Theodore’s reign in 1868 the common people were not allowed to make tedge because their Emperor came to the conclusion that they did not get drunk like gentlemen, but made beasts of themselves and quarreled in their cups. The drink which he permitted the lower classes to have is less harmful to the human stomach than near-beer. It is made from toasted bread soaked in water and sweetened with honey and, like tedge, strained into earthen jars. This drink, I am told, resembles an old fifteenth-century beverage in England called mead.

In his 1901 memoir, Augustus B. Wylde recounted a rare tale of an Ethiopian Moslem drinking t’ej. “The respectable and total abstainer Said got drunk, though not badly,” Wylde wrote. “He said it was the first and last time that he would ever drink tedj, and I believe him.” Later in his narrative, Wylde told the Western world about the pleasures and perils of t’ej, confirming much of what Winstanley wrote, and adding some new wrinkles:

We entered a big rectangular room in which the rasses [chiefs] and head man were waiting to receive us on a raised platform and we after shaking hands were given chairs in the post of honor next to Ras Mangesha. Music, singing and dancing of the usual Abyssinian description then commenced while the feast was being got ready, and hydromel in glass bottles was handed round, the tedj bearer always pouring out a little of the liquid onto the palm of his hand and drinking it to show it was not poisoned. These brillas are nearly all made in Austria of colored glass and are like a small wine decanter without a stopper and hold about a pint. Their necks are very small and they take a long time to fill. When once they are handed to the guest he takes a sip and then places the thumb over the neck of the bottle to keep out flies that are always very numerous on these occasions.

The beauty of drinking out of a brilla is that it need not be done in a hurry and one can be made to last a long time, and perhaps an Abyssinian will drink four or five full while a European is getting through one. The tedj has different effects on different natures. To one it may be an intoxicant, to another it has only a soporific effect, and it depends greatly on the quantity of geshu plant used to bring on fermentation. Geshu is, I think, of the laurel tribe, as it is an evergreen, never entirely losing its leaves. It has an insignificant little flower and the leaves have but little taste, until added to the honey and water, of which tedj is made.

Later in his journey, Wylde came upon a proto-intoxicating repository:

After following the Meli for about three miles, we went off the road to the village of Woha Eilou, a properly belonging to Queen Taitou, the wife of King Menelik. The man in charge was very civil, and gave us everything that he had of the best, besides a jar of very fine tedj. When we arrived it was raining hard, and he put Schimper and I up in his house, and the female proportion of the establishment crowded round us to have a long look at the Englishman. Next morning I was shown over the estate, which was very well cared for and produced a great quantity of corn, and a good deal of butter was made. Besides these two very necessary articles, three houses were full of bee hives, and the honey taken from the wanza flowers being greatly prized, as being of a white colour, makes a very clear tedj. The honey is sent to Adese-Ababa for the queen’s use.

Tej in a Restaurant 1 (drawing)

Although only the upper classes normally drank t’ej, apparently emperors would sometimes relax the rules. In a 1911 issue of Blackwood’s Magazine, under a chapter heading “Christmas at the Capital of Menelik,” writer Ian Hay reports that during a holiday celebration at the Ghibbe (imperial palace), “many of the crowd in the hall were soldiers, and their officers sat in three rows on the steps of the great dais, and instead of tel [t’alla] were given tedge ad lib., served to them in water carafes, from which they drank without troubling themselves about glasses, emptying a bottle at one draught. It was an extraordinary scene and very picturesque.”

A few pages later, the author tours a royal kitchen and sees

several large barns filled with great tubs of tedge (the native mead, made from fermented honey), all half sunk in the earthen floor, and covered with thin sheets of calico, as the tops were left open, to keep out the flies and dust. In one of the barns a carpet was spread, and a small table, with chairs beside it, was set. Some dim and dirty-looking glasses were on it, and we were invited to taste samples of the tedge and red wine. I drank a little tedge, which was really not at all unpalatable, but I thought very strong. It was of extra quality, being made for Royalty.

Then, the author describes a process rarely seen in the literature – the extraction of honey from the comb for making the t’ej: “This was managed by putting a great quantity of it into a cloth suspended over a large wooden tub. Leather thongs were then passed double over it in two places, and four slaves pulled them tight as they jerked the cloth backwards and forwards from side to side: this squeezed the honey out into the tub underneath. The refuse wax was then made into squares like bricks, and piled all around the sides of the barn.”

In his 1995 book The Making of Modern Ethiopia: 1896-1974, historian Teshale Tibebu describes the 19th Century geber (taxation) system of the late 19th and early 20th Century, “wherein people thought they were getting free food and drinks from the generous teleq saw (big man).” In fact, this system

was a mechanism of creating hegemony across the various ranks of the ruling class, and also over the producing class, although the latter were hardly represented in the redistributive-banquet culture. Banquet was a means of elaborating hegemony throughout the polity. Raw meat and t’ej of different qualities were served at the banquets. The best food and drink was offered to the notables. The clergy belonged to his group. Then came the intermediate level food and drink. Last were the non-producing poor. They received t’alla (local beer), instead of t’ej and the leftover food. If t’alla was the only drink served at the banquet, a distinction was made in the quality of the t’alla – the best for the notables, the next best for the commoners, and the leftovers for the non-producing poor. The non-producing poor were not bound by the etiquette of eating moderately, which they shared with the clergy. In some case, raw meet and t’ej of the same quality were served for the entire audience in the banquet hall, and the leftover was given to the non-producing poor.

Depending upon the region and local variations, tax paid in honey was quite widespread. The annual tax in honey was about four pounds. The honey collected thus was used for making t’ej (mead). If the people of the region did not produce honey, they had to pay its equivalent in kind or cash.

In the t’ej bet, about 30 women worked, producing two kinds of t’ej: one for the commoners, and one fit for the emperor, who never drank it. The mekwannint [nobility] ate quietly and unusually remained sober, as on these occasions they were on public display. Champagne and cognac were provided first, followed by t’ej, which few ever finished since they preferred champagne and cognac. The nobility’s preference for champagne and cognac to t’ej shows that they had begun to develop Western consumption tastes. The gabbar [commoner] who sat in the banquet hall and was offered t’ej hardly thought that the t’ej was the very honey he had offered as tribute, mixed with water.

Finally, there’s this mention of t’ej from a book whose title is almost as dizzing as the beverage itself. Written in 1838 by Samuel Morewood, A Philosophical and Statistical History of the Inventions and Customs of Ancient and Modern Nations in the Manufacture and Use of Inebriating Liquors observes:

[The Abyssinians] have a good agreeable liquor made from honey, which is very intoxicating. The honey of Abyssinia is very plentiful, and is white, hard and well flavoured. The use of this material in making intoxicating beverage, is not not only extensive in this country, but also in the adjoining states, and it seems to be a staple commodity. When Alphonsus Mendez passed through Dancali, near the coast of Babel-Mandel, it was with this liquor he was entertained by the monarch, who, on entering the hall of audience, was preceded by a domestic with an earthen pitcher full of hyrdomel, while another attendant carried a porcelain cup, out of which, with ceremony, his Majesty pledged his guest in a flowing bumper.

So goes the history of t’ej, which apparently didn’t escape the attention of anyone who explored Ethiopia.

Harry Kloman
University of Pittsburgh

 

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