IF THERE’S AN AMHARIC WORD FOR “COCKTAIL,” then nobody seems to know what it is. At least, nobody I know: I’ve asked some Ethiopian friends, and they tell me there’s no such word. That’s probably because Ethiopians in Africa take their alcohol straight up.
In fact, my friend Menkir Tamrat tells me that mixed drinks are rare in Ethiopia.
“Some folks drink tonic water and just ask for vodka tonic,” he says. “When I was a teenager – no drinking age limit there, just an honor system – there was a mixed drink in Addis known by the name of green fire. I was too ignorant to ask or know what it was made from, but the color was green, as the name suggests. Must have been some crème de menthe in there, but it was cheap and got you drunk quickly.”
Menkir makes Yamatt Tej, which he sells in the bay area of northern California where he lives, and he’s created a cocktail that you can prepare with his t’ej (or any t’ej, I suppose). He calls it the Yamattini, and you make it with three ounces of gin, one ounce of vodka, and a half ounce (or more, to taste) of t’ej. “Throw in a twist of your favorite citrus peel and give it a whirl,” Menkir says. “Shaken or stirred.”
There may not be cocktails in Ethiopian culture, but Ethiopians of the diaspora own businesses that sell food and alcohol, and some of them have improvised, creating Ethiopian-themed cocktails as an additional revenue stream.
For your convenience – and, I hope, your drinking pleasure – here’s a roundup of what I’ve found.
♦ Begena Tedj, which is made in Frankfurt, Germany, has a page of a dozen recipes for cocktails that Wilma Stordiau, the company’s owner, has created and that you can make with her t’ej and katikala, a hard liquor that you could call the Ethiopian vodka.
The Arenguada (Amharic for “green”) blends t’ej, katikala and a sweet green pepper as “an extravagant decoration that keeps flies away.” A Bitcha (“yellow”) substitutes a yellow pepper for a green one and adds a few strawberries. The Neb (“bee”) blends the potables with grapefruit and orange juices. To make an Ethio Jam, mix katikala, t’ej and cane sugar.
♦ Lost Tribes Brew launched a sparkling t’ej in 2014, and along with it, the company created nearly a dozen cocktails made with t’ej. On the company’s t’ej cocktail page, click each image to see the ingredients and a how-to video for each one.
To make a Wildflower Spritz, blend 1.5 ounces of aperol, one ounce of lemon juice and three ounces of t’ej. Mix them all up and serve in a chilled glass. The Marigold Margarita blends 1.5 ounces of tequila, half an ounce each of lime and lemon juice, and an ounce of orange juice, all tossed around in a cocktail shaker. Then, pour it over crushed ice, and top it with five ounces of t’ej. A drink called Something Sweet is more of an alcoholic dessert: pour some t’ej, to taste, over some ice cream, swirl it around, then top it with chocolate.
♦ You’ll find lots of Ethiopian-inspired cocktails at Sheba Piano Lounge in San Francisco. They go by names like Red Sea, Sheba Combo, Selassie, Abyssinia Storm, Harrar Cooler, Makeda Martini and Addis Champagne Cocktail. But only one involves t’ej: The Atse Tewodros, served hot, combines bourbon, t’ej, ginger, citrus, spices and dehydrated lemon. Actually, the menu lists the drink as “Aste” Tewodros, but that’s a misspelling: The word they want is atse, which means emperor. Tewodros was a 19th Century Ethiopian emperor whose challenge to Queen Victoria ended with his suicide after the British army invaded Ethiopia to free some hostages that Tewodros had taken.
♦ Oliver Winery and Vinyards of Bloomington, Ind., makes a mead, not a t’ej. But its website has a full page of mead cocktails, so why not substitute t’ej for Oliver’s mead? At the site, click each image for the full recipe. You’ll find such delights as a meadmosa (t’ej, orange juice, sparking water), a St. Patrick’s meadtini (t’ej, lemon juice, ginger syrup) and for December, a mulled mead (t’ej, orange juice, apple juice, mulling spice).
♦ Nunu’s, an Ethiopian fusion restaurant in Toronto, serves a t’ej cocktail, the owner’s “ode to Ethiopian honey wine,” the menu says. It’s caramelized honey and pear purée, cinnamon, nutmeg, gesho, lime and rum.
But wait: Where’s the t’ej? Winery t’ej is difficult to get in Canada, and the restaurant can’t use homemade t’ej because selling it is illegal. That’s why there’s honey in the drink. So if you make this at home, just substitute t’ej for the rum. Nunu does make her own t’ej and sometimes shares it for free with customers just to give them a taste. The restaurant also sells Ketsela Giorgis, a craft beer on tap made by Amsterdam Brewery in Toronto. It’s a stout made from the recipe that Nunu Ketsela’s mother used when she ran a big establishment in Nazareth, Ethiopia, that made t’ej and t’alla.
♦ There’s nothing worse than a Sour Queen – unless it’s the name of a cocktail made with t’ej. To make it, mix the following: three ounces of t’ej, one and a half ounces of gin, three-quarters of an ounce each of honey syrup and limoncello, one ounce of lemon juice, one tablespoon lemon zest, a few dashes of lavender bitters, and two ounces of water. And you can even watch a video of it being made.
♦ In 2011, at the Change Maker’s Ball in New York City – an event to raise money for the group Self Help Africa – they served a cocktail that consisted of three ounces of rum, a half ounce of t’ej, two ounces of African red tea, a half ounce of orange juice, a few dashes of bitters, and garnishes of sweet plantain chips and fresh mint. That’s not a lot of t’ej, so you may want to alter the recipe to taste.
♦ Hugh Schick, a “tone scientist/inventor” (says his website), makes Zula Tej and has a cocktail recipe: one part orange juice, one part brandy, three parts t’ej, a sorrel leaf, some orange zest and a gesho twig (optional, he says, but of course, the t’ej will have been made with gesho). You begin with the orange juice and sorrel in the glass, then add the t’ej and brandy, garnish it with orange zest and gesho – and do not stir. James Bond would approve.
♦ From a website by Greg Seider, you could try a Grassland Vesper, “a delicate balance of gin, vodka, orange bitters and spiced Ethiopian honey wine syrup that evokes an age of African grandeur.” This drink is “inspired by Ethiopia,” and I’ve never seen “Ethiopian honey wine syrup,” so maybe you can just substitute a few shots of t’ej.
♦ Feeling innovative? Check out this recipe for a bowl of Ethiopian punch: 7 Up, grape juice, pineapple juice, lemon juice, orange juice, maraschino cherry juice and raspberry syrup. That’s pretty sweet already, but if you want to make it alcoholic, just add t’ej, to taste.
♦ The website Cocktails & Shots has published a recipe for a t’ej cocktail that combines two ounces of t’ej, two ounces of rum, an ounce of lemon juice a “a little club soda.” You can top it with an orange slice or a maraschino cherry. And if you don’t have t’ej, the recipe says, you can improvise a substitute: Boil a cup of honey until it’s lightly caramelized (10 to 15 minutes), add three finely ground cinnamon sticks (though I suppose some powdered cinnamon will do), three finely grated nutmegs (or, again, some powdered nutmeg), and a cup of pear puree. Boil it all for another 10 to 15 minutes, stirring often, then cool before use. Or just find some t’ej.
♦ Finally, although there are no t’ej cocktails at Demera, a popular Ethiopian restaurant in Chicago, the menu lists five house cocktails with Ethiopian themes. An Addis Ababa is a margarita that adds touches of cardamom and ginger, two common spices in Ethiopian cuisine. The Koshasha (“filthy”) is Demera’s take on the dirty martini, a blend of vodka, olive juice and “a fiery kiss of awazi sauce” – that is, a spicy red pepper sauce, more properly spelled awaze, made with berbere. It’s “hot to trott,” the orthographically challenged menu promises.
And you don’t want to miss out on the Kaffe, made with coffee liqueur, Bailey’s Irish Cream “and our own brewed coffee.” It’s “dessert in a glass” from “the birthplace of the coffee bean.”
Of course, there’s no reason why you couldn’t substitute t’ej for any of the alcohol in these neo-Ethiopian cocktails.
IF YOU DON’T HAVE THE DESIRE, patience or will to make your own homebrew t’ej, you may be able to buy it from numerous wineries across the United States that make it.
Then again, you may not.
The internet has made it easy to buy almost anything, but alcohol is one exception: Each state regulates the sale of alcohol, and that includes alcohol that enters a state through the mail. So if you can’t find t’ej at a store in your town, you’ll first need to find some online – and then, you’ll have to hope that your state permits you to buy it and that the business selling it, whether an alcohol retailer or the winery, has purchased the required license to ship it to your state.
I live in Pennsylvania, a state with some of the nation’s most restrictive alcohol laws. I can buy t’ej from out of state, but the business selling it must buy a state license to sell it to me. I’ve had wineries decline to sell me t’ej because they didn’t have the license. One very kind winemaker from another state once sent me a bottle for free, thus breaking no law, asking me only to reimburse him for postage. If an Ethiopian restaurant in Pennsylvania wants to sell t’ej – which our state-owned liquor stores don’t carry – it must ask the state to make a special purchase. The t’ej then arrives at a local liquor store, where the restaurateur has to pick it up. And of course, making your own t’ej and selling it is forbidden.
Your best bet, then, is to find a shop in your town or state that sells a brand of commercial t’ej – and good luck with that. I know from talking to t’ej-makers that it’s hard to get it into shops in cities that have no large Ethiopian community, and even into cities that do. Most Ethiopians eschew winery t’ej and simply make their own.
T’ej made by a winery will look and taste quite different than homebrew: Wineries refine and filter their product thoroughly, so it will be much clearer than homemade t’ej – sometimes almost the color of a white wine, or possibly a light golden yellow. The level of sweetness will vary, too, and unless a winery promotes its product as being “dry,” count on tasting the sweetness, like you might in a dessert wine. Very rarely will you taste the effect of the gesho like you do with homebrew.
And some Ethiopian markets in cities big enough to have them sell nicely labeled bottles of t’ej that come from the basement “wineries” of Ethiopians in their communities. These are a slightly higher class of homebrew, and if you’re lucky enough to find one, grab it while you can. Ethiopians call t’ej of this sort defres (“muddy”) or lega (“young”) – that is, unfiltered, and probably not transparent, because home brewers don’t have the equipment that a winery uses to make its t’ej sparkling clear. But don’t worry about the sediment in the bottle, and be forewarned that it’ll probably hiss at you when you pop the cork or screw off the bottle cap.
So here are some of the commercial brands of t’ej that I’ve found in the United States, as well as a few in Europe. In several cases, I know (or know of) the winemaker, and I’ve tasted most of the ones I cite below. My list is by no means every brand of t’ej made in the states, just the brands that have been around for a while and that produce t’ej regularly. A few wineries have made small batches of t’ej and sold out, never to make it again.
♦ Axum Tej, Heritage Wines, Rutherford, NJ. Araya Yibrehu, the company’s owner and winemaker, is probably the dean of t’ej in the United States. In 1979, he opened and co-owned Sheba, New York City’s first Ethiopian restaurant, and he began making t’ej for commercial sale in the 1990s. His current company makes several varieties and brands – for example, his Saba Tej is looks and tastes more like an unfiltered variety – but Axum Tej is his mainstay and the one you’re most likely to find.
♦ Seifu’s Tej, Lakewood Vineyards, Watkins Glen, NY. Lakewood created this t’ej for Seifu Lessanework, the owner of Blue Nile Ethiopian restaurant in Detroit, which is now the oldest Ethiopian restaurant in the country. Seifu commissioned his eponymous t’ej for his restaurants in Detroit and Ann Arbor, and now the winery sells it to other Ethiopian restaurants around the country.
♦ Bee d’Vine, San Francisco, CA. Ayele Solomon’s honey wine doesn’t call itself t’ej, but it’s still very Ethiopian. The wine’s label subtly incorporates elements of ancient Ethiopian culture as a nod to t’ej, and Ayele himself was born in Ethiopia. His family moved to the U.S. when he was a child, and he now divides his professional time between his two homelands.
The company has also created a charity to help Ethiopian beekeepers convert from inefficient old-style hives – which hang precariously from trees – to modern hives that produce seven to 10 times more honey. For every case of wine sold, Bee d’Vine contributes to the charity. Bee d’Vine sells its wine nationwide through its website. The wine comes in two varieties: brut (dry) and demi-sec (semi-sweet).
To teach people about honey wine, Ayele has written an illustrated book, The Celebrated Story of Honey Wine, that’s available for download at the company’s website as a PDF and audiobook. You can also order a printed copy of the book, which pays homage to t’ej, as well as honey wine in general, tracing its history back for thousands of years.
♦ Enat Tej, Enat Winery, Oakland, CA. Enat is the Ethiopian word for mother, and company owner Herb Houston based his t’ej on a recipe provided by his Ethiopian mother-in-law. The winery makes two varieties: traditional and orange.
♦ Regal Tej, Easley Winery, Indianapolis, IN. This t’ej came about when the winemaker created it for Meskerem Ethiopian Restaurant, which once had three locations in New York City and a spinoff in Charlotte, N.C. You’ll now find it in a number of Ethiopian restaurants around the country, and the winery’s owner, Mark Easley, even exports some of his t’ej to Canada.
♦ Sheba Tej, Brotherhood Winery, Washingtonville, NY. Brotherhood is considered to be the oldest operating winery in the U.S., founded in 1839. It has made Sheba Tej for several decades.
♦ Time Traveler Tej, Robertson and Associates Winery, Parker, CO. Cris Robertson is a beekeeper turned mead-maker turned t’ej-maker, and he uses gesho to flavor his two varieties of t’ej, which he makes from orange blossom and wildflower honey. The company ships to numerous states, and just a few months after its launch, Time Traveler Tej won a gold medal at the Los Angeles International Wine Competition.
♦ Big Tree, Queen Sheba Winery, Woodland, CA. A group of doctoral graduates from the University of California at Davis came together in 2011 to create Queen Sheba Winery, and they now sell t’ej on their website in two varieties: one made from orange blossom honey, one made from clover honey. The company is a “zero waste facility,” and all of its suppliers, including its honey, are found within a 100-mile radius of the winery.
♦ Lost Tribes Tej, Lost Tribes Brew, New York, NY. This company worked with an Ethiopian Jew living in Israel to create its recipe, and a portion of the sales of the t’ej goes to help the Beta Israel (“House of Israel”), which is what Ethiopian Jews call themselves. In the 1980s and 1990s, Israel conducted airlifts that got most of them out of Ethiopia and resettled them in Israel. The company’s website includes recipes for making t’ej cocktails.
♦ Yamatt Tej, Rabbit’s Foot Meadery, Sunnyvale, CA. The creation of Menkir Tamrat, the name means “mother-in-law’s t’ej,” but it’s also a portmanteau of the names of Menkir’s sons, Yared and Matias. “I would say this is a win-win,” Menkir wryly explains. “The kids are happy, and the wife’s side of the family is happy, too.” After many years working in technology, Menkir retired to begin producing Ethiopian foods: He grows peppers to make spices like berbere and mitmita, teff to make injera, and he sells his t’ej in the California bay area.
♦ Nigest Honey Wine, Awash Winery, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. This one is hard to find: It’s the sole t’ej made in Ethiopia and imported to the U.S. of which I’m aware. You’ll find it from time to time in Ethiopian restaurants and markets, imported here and distributed by Kebede “Teddy” Tadesse and his Baltimore-based company, Global Shipping Services. If you find it in a market – most likely in the D.C. area – snatch it up.
♦ Makeda Tej, Mountlake Terrace, WA. This t’ej, made my Ethiopians in a suburb of Seattle (which has a large Ethiopian population), is a deep rich yellow, much like you find in Ethiopia, and soon, the company will begin online sales.
♦ Begena Tedj, Frankfurt, Germany. Wilhelmine Stordiau was born and raised in Ethiopia, the great-granddaughter of an Ethiopian woman, and her family returned to Europe when she was 18 after a Communist dictatorship deposed the Ethiopian emperor. Many years later, she decided to make this t’ej (German spelling: tedj) as a return “home” for her. A begena is an Ethiopian stringed instrument similar to a lyre. Frankfurt has nearly a score of Ethiopian restaurants, more than any other German city, and Stordiau markets her t’ej to Ethiopian restaurants all around Europe.
Begena Tedj comes in two varieties, premium and dry, and the company also make Gojo Tej, a foggier-looking unfiltered variety that tastes more like homebrew. Her website offers recipes for numerous cocktails using t’ej.
♦ Tej, Örebro, Sweden. A company called Honeycomb Sweden brought this t’ej to market for sale in Europe, and you can now find it at more than half a dozen restaurants around Sweden (including Gojo, an Ethiopian restaurant in Stockholm, according to the winery’s website). I’ve never tasted it because they don’t ship to the U.S., and even Stordiau has had no luck in getting them to send her some. But the bottle looks elegant, so if you’re ever lucky enough to try some, let me know how it tastes.
THE HISTORY AND ORIGIN of the word “t’ej” – as with so many words in so many languages – is probably as clear as it will ever get.
It’s the word, in Amharic, that Ethiopians have long called wine made from honey. Amharic, a Semitic language, has been the state language of Ethiopia for centuries, although it’s not the country’s most widely spoken first language. That honor goes to Afaan Oromo, a Cushitic language. The Amhara culture dominated the country long ago and imposed its language as official.
In fact, the word t’ej is essentially the Amharic word for wine. If you want grape wine in Ethiopia, you ask for wayn t’ej, where wayn is the word for grape. But if you just want a glass of “wine,” you ask for t’ej.
As this comprehensive chart shows, several other Ethiopian languages – some Semitic, some not – use the word t’ej or something like it to mean honey wine, and Amharic itself seems to have borrowed the word from a root word in an Ethiopian Semitic mother tongue.
Wolf Leslau’s three-volume Etymological Dictionary of Gurage, a southern Semitic language related to Amharic, has an entry for t’egay, t’ege, t’äge, däg’ä, which are variations of Semitic-language words for honey, honey water or honey wine. Leslau’s Harari dictionary also has an entry that shows the word for mead in Harari (another Semitic language) along with related words in other languages, including the Cushitic Sidama and Qabena.
In the notation of linguistics, these words for honey wine – which clearly have a kinship to t’ej – can best be represented as *d’agay, a theoretical root word, where the asterisk indicates that a root word has been reconstructed by scholars from the best available evidence. The word *d’agay probably goes back a few thousand years, before the time when a single ancient South Ethiopian Semitic language split off into Amharic, Tigrinya, Tigré, Harari, Gurage (with its numerous dialects) and several others.
Complicating the picture slightly: Whereas ancient South Ethiopian Semitic languages used *d’agay to mean honey and its derivatives, ancient North Ethiopian Semitic languages called honey mar, which is the modern Amharic word for honey. But in South Ethiopian Semitic, mar tended to mean beeswax. Linguists hypothesize that the northern branch adopted mar, the southern word for beeswax, to mean honey, just as the northern branch morphed the word *d’agay into t’ej and took it as the word for honey wine.
About two millennia ago, then, when Northeast Africa may well have been more culturally advanced than much of Europe, the South Ethiopian Semitic mother tongue used *d’agay and its evolutionary forms to mean honey, honey water or honey wine. In Amharic, the “d” sound has since evolved into a “t,” and “gay” has evolved into “ge” and then into “j.” So this is how linguists theorize that *d’agay became t’ej:
The variant spellings of the final form represent two things: the difficulty of transliterating Amharic into English; and the pronunciation differences, noted in the chart with the words for honey wine, between Ethiopian cultures with related languages, as well as non-related languages that have borrowed the word.
Note, too, the apostrophes in some of the names. Together with consonants called plosives (p, t, k), the apostrophe represents an ejective, a distinct sound in Ethiopian language that’s transcribed in this way in linguistics. Listen closely to an Ethiopian saying “t’ej” and you’ll hear the consonant with the apostrophe spit or snap just a bit inside the mouth.
Because most people won’t know this sound, the spelling of “t’ej” is commonly simplified to “tej” when transliterating from Amharic to English, eliminating the apostrophe, which means nothing to everyday readers. Some linguists prefer that it be written t’ejj, with a double “j” used to represent the hard “g” sound of the Amharic letter that ends the word. Still others will transliterate it as t’äjj, with a diacritic, in an attempt to better represent the vowel, which probably sounds more like the “u” in “but” than the “e” in “edge.”
Although the Amharic t’ej almost certainly came from *d’agay, how this particular root word came to represent honey or honey wine – or how any word in any language comes to represent anything – is anyone’s guess. The late Professor Leslau, a groundbreaking authority on Ethiopian Semitic languages, doesn’t cite any extra-Ethiopian roots in his writings on these words, although some of his work has now been surpassed by more recent studies and groupings of Ethiopian languages.
Among the world’s myriad languages, wine made from honey goes by many names. But two of them, with variations that adapt them to the features of each language, tend to dominate. (Here’s a chart of the words for honey wine in other African and non-African languages.)
One common name is mead or its linguistic kin. The etymology of this word – through Greek, Latin and other ancient avenues – does nothing to suggest extra-Ethiopian influences on the word t’ej. The second common name, somewhat more generic, is hydromel, which comes from two Greek words: u’dro, meaning water, and méli, meaning honey. Simple enough. In fact, the modern French word for honey is miel, and the modern Italian word is miele. And then there’s metheglin, a spiced mead. The word comes from Welsh and means medicinal liquor. Not surprisingly, Ethiopians (and other cultures) have often used mead to soothes what ails them.
Variations of “mead” and “hydromel” are common among Indo-European languages (see the chart with African and non-African languages). In the west, the Spanish call it aguamiel (agua is the Spanish “hydro”). In the east, the Russians call it medovukha (clearly a variation of mead), and even the Indian language Sanskrit calls it medhu. In between, there’s the Italian idromele, the Greek ydromeli, the Lithuanian and Latvian medus, the Danish and Norwegian mjød. The similarities to either mead or hydromel are apparent.
None of this helps to explain the origins of the Ethiopian word t’ej, nor of the other Ethiopian or African words for honey wine. This is certainly no surprise. It also reaffirms the theory that Africans began to cultivate honey and ferment it into wine without European influences.
Just as interesting is mes, the most widely known alternative name for t’ej because it’s used in Tigrinya, spoken in northern Ethiopia, and also the dominant language of Eritrea, which was once part of Ethiopia. The two countries share a lot of history, including the evolution of their Semitic languages, and both Amharic and Tigrinya are written with the same unique Ethiopian alphabet developed to write Ge’ez millennia ago.
The ancient language Ge’ez – the “Latin of Ethiopia,” now extinct, except as the liturgical language of the Ethiopian Christian church – also called the beverage mes, and both modern Tigrinya and modern Tigré retain the word, derived from the Ge’ez root word *mys. This is no surprise, especially in Tigré, the extant language closest to Ge’ez. Leslau, in his Comparative Dictionary of Ge’ez, relates mes to the Arabic mata, which means “mix well,” and with the Old South Arabian myt, which means “wine.” It seems quite likely that Ge’ez borrowed myt and transformed it into mes, thus making the history of mes easier to trace than the history of t’ej.
And notice the crossover of this Semitic word: Bilin, a Cushitic language of Eritrea, has borrowed mes, but older people also call it mid; and both Xamtanga (miz) and Awngi (mishi), Cushitic languages of Ethiopia, use forms of it as well. Notice, too, that these words are not so far from the English mead – perhaps a linguistic coincidence, as sometimes happens. Or perhaps not.
Most of Ethiopia’s languages are classified in one of four language families: Semitic, Cushitic, Omotic and Nilo-Saharan (especially its Nilotic and Surmic sub-groups). Although Amharic is the official and most widely spoken language, it’s the second language (by necessity) for many Ethiopians.
But there’s another twist. In Afaan Oromo, the most widely spoken first language in the country, honey wine is called daad’ii, which isn’t as divergent from t’ej as it may seem. In fact, the kinship between the two words may reflect a strain of Ethiopian history.
Some Cushitic linguists suggest that Amharic – the Semitic language that dominates the country, even though the Cushitic Oromo people and their language are more numerous – may have borrowed t’ej as an altered form of daad’ii. As noted earlier with the root word *d’agay, the “d” has changed into a “t” and the “g” into a “j” in modern Semitic languages. But the Amharic “j” or “jj” (a long sound) can reflect, in some borrowed words, the evolution of a former Cushitic “dy” or “di” sound.
More evidence for this hypothesis: Why do the other major Semitic languages – Tigrinya and Tigré – retain the old Ethiosemitic mes for honey wine, but Amharic uses t’ej? Tigrinya and Tigré are spoken in northern Ethiopia and Eritrea, farther away from the central part of the country, where the Amharas and the Oromo met, mixed and, long ago, fought to control the country’s cultural and linguistic destiny. Using the Cushitic daad’ii as the root word for t’ej, this could be another possible evolutionary path:
Of course, this begs the question: Where did daad’ii come from? Could it, too, have come from the Semitic root word *d’agay? In what direction did the borrowing go? We’ll certainly never know. Still, if t’ej is an evolved form of daad’ii, or even if daad’ii was an intermediate form, it could further show how the Amhara people have dominated the majority Oromo people in Ethiopian history, taking their name for honey wine and transforming it into the word known ’round the world. And if, as the linguist Max Weinreich wrote (quoting others), “a language is a dialect with an army and a navy,” then the Amhara may have used language as another weapon to conquer their more numerous rivals.
Incidentally, the Oromo use the word booka for the yeast used to ferment their honey wine, and their best-quality daad’ii is daad’ii booka, with the yeast still in it. This is the type of daad’ii used at ceremonies. A few other Ethiopian Cushitic languages have borrowed booka or something similar for honey wine.
Daad’ii is so revered in Oromo culture that the Macca Oromo of Wallagga, Ethiopia, have even written a song that sings its praises and alerts people to its dangers. In their 1996 essay “On Some Masqala and Daboo Songs of the Macca Oromo,” Alessandro Triulzi and Tamene Bitima translate this paean to honey wine.
In the 1930s, the German researcher Carl Seyffert published a book on honey in Africa in which he identifies three qualities of Oromo honey wine: hamtuu, the weakest (literally “bad, feminine”); boru, medium strength (literally “hard, heavy, thick”); and bekumu, the strongest (possibly from beekuma, meaning “intelligence, ingenuity,” or possibly a root word for booka, badly transliterated by a non-linguist). In Amharic, beteha refers to a mild t’ej that’s not fully fermented or that might not have used enough gesho, the woody species of buckthorn used to flavor the wine and provoke fermentation (more on that later).
Other cultures have found other fermenting agents. The Majang people of Ethiopia use the bark of the mange tree to make ogool. The Anuak, a Nilotic people of Ethiopia, pound and dry the bark of three trees – the aromo, the buodho and the jaa – to make their strong ogool. The jaa, Kigelia aethiopica, is colloquially called the sausage tree because of the shape of its seed pods. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Nandi people make a honey wine called kipketinik, a mixture of fermented honey and water flavored with the flower of the sausage tree.
To ferment their honey wine, called d’aadi, the Arbore people of Ethiopia use aar, which is made of sorghum sprouts. The word means “bull,” a testament to its fortitude. When a household has d’aadi fermenting, the residents may not shout or fight in the house, and when the wine is ready to drink, the first taste always goes to the spirits of the family’s ancestors.
Note, in the chart, how numerous Ethiopian languages have shared and borrowed their various words for honey wine. The Amharic t’ej becomes tajji in Silt’e, another Semitic language, and c’ajj in the Omotic language Zargulla. The Semitic language Inor retains the older dag’a, where the “d” sound doesn’t morph into a “t.” Sidama, Afar and Somali – Cushitic languages of Ethiopia’s Moslem cultures – use forms of malb, their word for honey, to mean honey wine. This and other alcoholic beverages are rare in Moslem communities. And whereas it’s impossible to say how far a borrowed word can travel, the Chadian Nilo-Saharan language Kenga calls honey tèèjè.
No doubt t’ej goes by numerous other names in small communities whose languages have yet to be fully documented, although many Ethiopian languages – Chaha, a dialect of the Semitic Gurage language, as well as about 15 other Gurage dialects, and even Cushitic and Omotic languages – borrow the Amharic word t’ej. In fact, the word t’ej has taken additional forms in Amharic: In Addis Ababa, tejjam and tejjo refer to a drunkard, and tejete means to brew t’ej.
The information for the chart was gleaned from scholars of Ethiopian and African languages from around the world. Because Ethiopia wasn’t the only culture to ferment honey, a fuller version of the chart includes the words for honey wine in many more non-Ethiopian languages, just to show how widespread the tradition of fermenting honey is. Those pan-African honey wines aren’t always exactly like t’ej, but they’re certainly fermented in the same spirit.
Finally, a word about spelling. The orthography of transliteration is always a challenge with Ethiopian languages: Unique among millennia-old African tongues, Amharic has its own alphabet. But there’s no standardized way to convert Amharic fidels (letters) into English (or any language), and many of the less widely spoken languages of the country only developed a written tradition, if they have one at all, when they came in contact with outside cultures. The Latin alphabet tends to dominate, although some African languages use Arabic script.
The orthography of the language chart is based upon the advice of linguists and their etymological dictionaries, and these many names for honey wine represent the best possible scholarly attempts to recreate their pronunciations in English. Sometimes the orthographic variations – especially in the word t’ej itself – seem insignificant, and linguists do disagree on some of them. But most of these words are so difficult to represent in our alphabet that only native speakers can truly hear – and correctly pronounce – the differences.
THE ANCIENT CULTURES of the Middle East may have made contact with the civilizations of what we now call Ethiopia as early as 1,000 years B.C.
Legend tells us that Makeda, the queen of the land of Saba (or, as we know it today, Sheba), visited the revered King Solomon on a diplomatic mission, during which, the legend says, they toasted each other with Makeda’s t’ej. She lavished him with gifts, the greatest one eventually being a son, named Menelik, whom she raised in Saba and sent home to meet his father when he reached manhood.
Then, in 1270 A.D., Yekuno Amlak, a wily monarch of Ethiopia, drew upon the legend of Solomon and Makeda to declare himself to be the direct descendant of Menelik. This established the Solomonic Dynasty of Ethiopian emperors that ruled for 700 years and ended in 1974, with the fall of Emperor Haile Selassie to Communist revolutionaries. The brutal Derg (“Committee”) ruled until 1991, when a long-time rebellion finally succeeded, thus creating a nascent democracy (albeit not much of one) in Ethiopia.
We must now take the ancient story of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba – devised in the time of Yekuno Amlak (who did exist) – with a block of salt (which, incidentally, were called amole in Ethiopia and were used as currency well into the 19th Century).
Despite Ethiopian lore disguised as history, there’s no proof that the land of Saba was located in the portion of eastern Africa that’s now Ethiopia. It may have been in Yemen, across the Red Sea, and the monarch whom the Ethiopians call Makeda was called Bilqis on the Arabian peninsula. There may even have been two Sabas, one on each side of the Red Sea, with neither one dominating the other. Scholars disagree, and the hard archaeological evidence is spotty at best.
The Bible has very little to say about Ethiopia that offers much help in clarifying its relationship with the ancient world. Two passages in the Old Testament – 1 Kings 10: 1-13, and 2 Chronicles 9:1-12 – tell a story of a Queen of Sheba who visited King Solomon on a diplomatic mission after hearing tales of his greatness. It doesn’t say she was from Ethiopia, nor do she and Solomon consummate their summit.
In fact, the country we now know as Ethiopia began with the ancient kingdom of Aksum, which occupied what is now the northern region of Ethiopia and the southern region of Eritrea. Aksum emerged in the second or third century A.D. and began to rise in the early fourth century under the great King Ezana (c. 320-360), who converted the nation to Christianity. By about 900 A.D., Aksum was gone, perhaps because it depleted its natural resources. Nobody knows for sure why it declined and vanished. But we do know that Aksumites drank t’ej.
For a few hundred years, beginning at the end of the first millennium A.D., the land once known as Aksum was ruled by a series of kings who couldn’t hold onto power. In the early 12th Century, King Lalibela and his Zagwe Dynasty of heirs did better than their predecessors, ruling for almost a century. Finally, in 1270, Yekuno Amlak emerged, overthrowing the last Zagwe emperor and descendant of Lalibela, thus forging the way to the Solomonic Dynasty and, centuries later, modern Ethiopia.
Somewhere between 1314 and 1322 A.D. (scholars believe), an anonymous author composed the Kebra Negast (“Glory of Kings”), a book that became the Ethiopian national story. This lengthy saga clearly intended to turn Yekuno Amlak’s newly declared Solomonic Dynasty into historical fact: It embellishes the brief biblical story of Solomon and Makeda and creates the child Menelik.
Yet this story remains the central mythology of the nation and is now recognized as the legend that helped to found and foster a culture and a civilization that remained the only African nation never to be colonized. It’s also the nation that gave us t’ej.
T’EJ RECIPES AND PREPARATIONS differ from one Ethiopian cookbook to another, and for the first-timer, it can seem a little daunting. But it’s really very easy, and cookbooks tend to complicate it.
My step-by-step instructions here come from nearly a decade of my own home t’ej-making, and I’ll include numerous tips and things to watch for during the process. If you want to see how it’s done, then you can watch my video, which is also embedded below. I’ve also posted a piece on my Ethiopian food site about making t’ej with raw honey – which ends up being pretty much the same as making it with filtered or pasteurized (i.e., store-bought) honey.
T’ej is best served chilled, and its sweet rich flavor nicely complements any spicy food (try it with Thai or Indian if you can’t find Ethiopian food in your community).
Before we get to my preparation, let’s look at one set of instructions that made it as simple as possible. In 1924, Major J.I. Eadie, D.S.O. – that is, Distinguished Service Order, a British military designation – published An Amharic Reader, a book filled with essays, poems and documents that explored the life and culture of Ethiopia. His book is considered to be the first chrestomathy of the Amharic language and of Ethiopian culture, and he collected the material in 1913, when he was stationed in Ethiopia.
Everything in the book appears in both Amharic and English – it was translated in India, and has a preface written by the Ministry of Defence in Baghdad – and on pages 88 and 89, Eadie presents a preparation for t’ej – or as he writes it, Taj. Here is the English version:
When Taj is made, a horn or cup of honey is put in a large jar with 6 or 7 cups of water (that is to say the proportion is 1 to 6 or 7), and stirred. The next day all the impurities and wax float on the top. (The maker) having taken out the impurities and having slightly heated some Gesho, it goes into the birz whilst hot, and ferments all night. If it be in the highlands it is ready in 8 or 9 days, and if in the plains in 4 or 5 days. Taj, which is filtered and which has been mixed again with honey, will remain good for 20 years. This mixing again with honey is not just only once. It must be done when needed, when the Taj is becoming sour.
Taj for Araqi (spirits) is one part of honey to 5 parts of water so that the Taj may be thick.
The impurities being purified they give wax; what is left over from the wax also is called “Fagulo” and is used for rubbing on mitads. [See the original pages from Eadie’s book.]
Making t’ej doesn’t get much easier than that, although I doubt Eadie’s short description offers modern readers enough to do it at home.
I call my own brand Ferenj Tej, which is a bit of an inside joke. Ferenj is the Amharic word for “foreigner,” so the name seemed appropriate. This word is also (with a slightly different spelling) the name of a race of aliens on Star Trek: The Next Generation, and the leader of that alien race is called the grand negus, which is the Amharic word for “king.” I’ve created a front and back label for my t’ej. Each is pictured in this section, and on the back label, you can read “The Ferenj Tej Story” (written, I assure you, with tongue in cheek). The Ferenj Tej motto, written in Amharic at the top of the front label, is “betam teru moq’ta,” which means – well, keep reading.
Making t’ej requires four ingredients: honey, water, yeast and gesho. That last item is hard to find, but later on, I’ll tell you where to find it. You must mix the liquid ingredients with three parts of water to every one part of honey. You can make as large a batch as you like with this proportion. I’d recommend mixing it in a wide-mouth jar that can hold at least one gallon of liquid. A wide mouth on the jar is imperative: You need to be able to get the gesho out of the container easily during the fermentation process, which takes a minimum of 21 to 28 days, or possibly even as long as a week or two more, depending upon which of the following methods you use.
Here’s a list of the ingredients and utensils that you need to make t’ej, all of them easy to find, except of course for the gesho:
♦ Honey, water, yeast and gesho. Any kind of store-bought honey will do. The yeast may or may not be optional, depending on which preparation you decide to try. I’ll get to the details of that a little further on.
♦ A glass jar with a wide mouth and a lid. I recommend nothing smaller than a one-gallon jar.
♦ A measuring cup (16 ounces), a pair of tongs (for removing the gesho), a large pitcher, and a small funnel.
♦ Cheesecloth and a fine mesh strainer with a handle.
♦ Empty wine or liquor bottles. You’ll need a wine re-corker if you choose to use most empty wine bottles, so I recommend empty liquor bottles, which have screw-on caps that make things much easier. You might also use a larger bottle or wine jug with a screw-on cap. You’ll need to soak the empty bottle in hot water for 10 minutes or so to remove the labels. Or you can buy new bottles, but I think recycled bottles add to the homebrew nature of the enterprise. In a 1999 article in the Addis Tribune, writer Indrias Getachew reported: “In Tchid Terra, bottles are cleaned and sold to buyers who will use them to store home-brewed t’ej and t’alla or arake; indeed, bottles are very valuable products, an important input for the informal alcohol industry in Ethiopia.”
OK, now you’re almost ready to make t’ej. But first, a few words about yeast.
In Ethiopia, home t’ej-makers mix the honey, water and gesho and let it all ferment naturally. Yeast – a fungus that comes in many species – is already there on the gesho, and if nothing interferes, it will begin to feed on the sugar in the honey and grow (that is, reproduce) on its own. You can make t’ej at home this way as well, and my first set of instructions below will walk you through the natural process – “natural” meaning that you don’t help it along by adding a little extra yeast.
But I’ve found that here in America, a batch of t’ej can go bad if foreign microbes enter the process. These microbes might be bacteria, or they might be unwanted types of yeast.
To prevent that, you can use some pure, strong brewer’s yeast of the species Saccharomyces cerevisiae, which scientists have found to be the dominant yeast (among many) that occurs naturally in Ethiopian t’ej. You can buy this at any brew shop or online. The common and widely sold brand Lalvin D-47 works fine, and you can buy it at any brew shop or online, even at Amazon.com.
More and more, I’ve been getting reports from people who tell me that their t’ej does become contaminated. So I’d recommend you use my yeast method that follows rather than the method without yeast. It’s up to you.
First, I’ll give you the step-by-step process for making natural t’ej, without yeast. Plan on letting it ferment for at least five or six weeks, or possibly longer if you want it stronger – that is, with a higher alcohol content.
After that, I’ll tell you how to modify the process using yeast. This method takes four or five weeks to ferment to an enjoyable level of alcohol.
And just how strong will your t’ej be? If you mix it with three parts water to one part honey, and if you let it ferment fully – that is, until the yeast has no more sugar to turn into alcohol – you’ll have a maximum strength of about 12% alcohol, give or take. Using more honey will get you more alcohol at the end.
Making T’ej Without Yeast
As I describe making t’ej without commercial yeast, I’ll annotate the process. But don’t be overwhelmed! Once you separate my copious tips from the basic recipe, you’ll see that it’s really very easy.
The basic instructions here are the same for making t’ej with yeast: the proportions of water to honey, the amount of gesho you need, the straining and bottling. So don’t skip ahead – you’ll need to know these basics regardless of the method you choose.
At this point, let me emphasize one thing: I strongly recommend that you make your t’ej with woody gesho inchet and not the crumbly leafy gesho kitel. The latter produces a more pungent t’ej, and it’s much messier to work with. I’ll offer guidance below for both, but trust me when I tell you that inchet is it.
♦ Into a wide-mouth glass jar, mix one part honey to three parts water. You’ll buy the honey by weight, but you’ll mix it by volume. So for a one-gallon jar, get three pounds of honey, pour it into the jar, and then fill the empty honey container three times with water. This will end up producing about three liters of t’ej, which is four regular wine bottles. About 12 ounces of honey by weight equals eight ounces of liquid honey. But that’s approximate, so just use the empty-and-fill method I describe here. A one-gallon jar is just large enough to hold three pounds of honey and the appropriate amount of water.
♦ Blend the mixture very well with a spoon, but don’t shake the jar to mix it. That will only make it unnecessarily foamy. Keep stirring and stirring until the honey dissolves thoroughly in the water and the mixture takes on a unified amber color.
♦ Add the gesho inchet, about a fifth of a pound if you have a one-gallon container filled with your mixture. Less is OK, and whereas more won’t hurt, it could make your t’ej very pungent. Experience will ultimately tell you how much to use, but it’s okay to be a little conservative on your first batch.
If you use gesho kitel, measure about three level tablespoons of the dried flaky leaf into one gallon of liquid and stir it a few times until the leaf begins to get soaking wet in the liquid. Using kitel will later require some extra steps during the straining process, and once again, I strongly advise that you use gesho inchet.
♦ Now, put the lid on the jar and forget about it for one week. You don’t want to seal the lid tightly. If it screws on, just give it one turn, or better yet, place it gently on top. If it’s not a screw-top lid, then put a piece of waxed paper over the top of the jar and place the lid on top of it. This keeps sweet-seeking insects from getting into the mix.
After two or three days, you’ll begin to see fuzz and mold forming on the gesho. That’s nothing to worry about – unless, as I say earlier, it is. You’ll have to learn by experience, just as Ethiopians did thousands of years ago. The fuzz and mold will only appear in a natural batch. Using commercial yeast eliminates this possibility.
A few days after that, you’ll see tiny bubbles rising up from the bottom of the jar, and eventually, it’ll get very foamy on top. The bubbles are fermentation provoked by the natural yeasts on the gesho, and the pungent flavor of the gesho also soaks into the liquid. You can smell the gesho before you use it to get a sense of its flavor.
♦ After one week, open the jar and stir the mixture. Then, put the lid back on and leave it be for another week.
♦ At the end of the second week – it should be pretty foamy and bubbly by now – it’s time to remove the gesho. Using tongs, remove all of the gesho inchet, then stir the liquid a little bit and cover it again. You don’t need to strain the liquid here if you use gesho inchet.
If you use gesho kitel, then you need to strain the liquid at this point in the process, or use a strainer to scoop out the gesho. The former is messy, the latter unreliable – which is why you should avoid using gesho kitel to make t’ej. To strain the mixture, place several pieces of cheesecloth in a tight wire mesh strainer, and put the strainer on top of a pitcher large enough to hold all of the liquid. Then, pour the t’ej through the cheesecloth in the strainer. After straining the gesho from the liquid, return the liquid to the wide-mouth jar and replace the lid. During the straining process, to make sure you’ve strained it well, remember this Ethiopian proverb: “T’ej has no spots and a poor man has no friends.” Yeah, I know: not too helpful. What proverb is?
For three or four more weeks now, the t’ej will continue to ferment. After one week, you can open the lid, stir it just a bit, and then cover it again, allowing it to ferment for yet another week, then stirring it again. (“It likes to be stirred,” an Ethiopian friend once told me, although frankly, I don’t think it makes any difference.) Be sure to taste a spoonful at this point so you can compare the still rather sweet mixture to the finished product. During this part of the process, you’ll see tiny bubbles rising from the bottom of the liquid to the top, and some of them will form foam or pools of bubbles on the surface.
One thing to note: Sometimes t’ej made with kitel gets very foamy and active during the last three weeks of fermentation. This is why you use much less kitel than inchet when you begin the three-week process. If your t’ej made with kitel bubbles and foams a lot, you can stir it every two or three days during the last three or four weeks of the process.
♦ After 21 to 28 days of fermentation without the gesho, your t’ej is ready to strain, chill and drink. Taste is after five weeks to see how strongly alcoholic it is, and if it’s not strong enough for you, just let it go another week or even two.
For the final strain, once again, put a piece of cheesecloth in a wire mesh strainer, and put the strainer over a large pitcher. Pour the liquid through the cheesecloth in the strainer. This filters out the remaining particles of gesho. If you use gesho kitel, you may want to filter it a second time. There will be no need to filter it twice if you use gesho inchet. You must then put the pitcher into the refrigerator for a few days before bottling it – we’ll get to that just below.
You really can’t ferment t’ej for too long, and the longer it ferments, the stronger it gets. A three-month batch will get lighter and lighter in color as more of the sugary honey turns to alcohol. Eventually, though, the yeast will consume all of the sugar, and the fermentation will stop. When you see no more tiny bubbles rising from the bottom of the jar, you know it’s as done as done can be.
By the way, t’ej needs to be kept as warm as possible while it’s fermenting: at least 70 degrees if you want good steady fermentation. If you live in a warm climate, then you’ll have no problem during the summer, unless you keep your home cold with air conditioning. But during the winter, if you don’t keep your home sufficiently warm, you may find that you need to let the t’ej ferment for an extra week or so. An Ethiopian friend tells me that when the temperature in Ethiopia drops – to, say, 50 or 60 degrees – people making t’ej will wrap the jar with the fermenting liquid in as many blankets as they can find.
♦ When you decide to stop the fermentation and strain it, you next need to rack it. That’s a winemaking term that means letting the yeast in the liquid settle to the bottom of a container so you can strain it out. To rack your t’ej, put the pitcher of stained liquid into the refrigerator for two days. You’ll see silt forming in the bottom: That’s the lees – the yeast coming out of solution.
♦ Now, bottle your thoroughly strained and racked t’ej. Pour the liquid from the pitcher through a small funnel into the bottles you’ve chosen to use. Do this very, very slowly, trying hard not to stir up the lees that have settled to the bottom of the pitcher. It does no harm to get some lees into your bottle. It’s simply that your bottled t’ej will look better and clearer without it. Seal it up, put it in the refrigerator to chill, and enjoy it with Ethiopian food.
The t’ej will continue to ferment in the bottle, and every time you open it, you may hear the hiss of pressure being released. It’s highly unlikely that it will pop, but if you’re worried, just don’t seal the lid on the wine bottle tightly. Time makes the flavor grow stronger, although racking it takes a lot of the residual yeast out of the liquid. If you don’t get some of that yeast out, the cap on the bottle might explode from the pressure of continued fermentation.
You won’t see quite as much sediment (i.e., lees) in the bottom of the pitcher if you make your t’ej with inchet. You’ll see a lot more sediment – some of it lees, some of it dissolved gesho leaf – if you use kitel, and sometimes that sediment will distribute itself throughout the liquid when you pour a glass. That’s okay and perfectly harmless. It just doesn’t look too appetizing. That’s why I prefer inchet, which makes a clearer t’ej. It’s also why you want to rack your t’ej rather than pouring it directly into a bottle.
The racking process shows you how much yeast remains “invisible” in your finished t’ej unless you put it in the refrigerator, which causes that yeast to settle to the bottom and go dormant. But chilling yeast isn’t killing yeast, so before you strain your t’ej, you should save a seven or eight ounces as a starter for your next batch.
This starter is finished t’ej with rich active yeast still in it. Put some in a small bottle, and put the bottle in your refrigerator, which is also where you should keep your packets of yeast. Then, when you begin your next batch of t’ej, use the starter to get the fermentation going more quickly: Simply shake the little bottle of starter to get the settled yeast back into solution and pour it into your honey/water mixture before adding the gesho.
The result: Your t’ej will begin fermenting in days, just as if you had added some commercial yeast. This will allow you to have consistency of flavor from batch to batch. Every time you prepare to bottle a new batch, save some starter for the next one. You’ll never have to use any of your commercial yeast again if you have starter, and you’ll never have to worry about outside microbes infecting your t’ej.
So that’s it for “raw” t’ej, without yeast. For a more sure result, keep reading.
Making T’ej With Yeast
When natural t’ej succeeds, it’s very easy to make, and all of the work comes at the beginning of the process and at the end when you strain and bottle it.
But as I said earlier, I’ve seen American batches go bad because of microbes that enter the liquid and kill off the natural yeast. So if you want to avoid the risk of losing a batch, then make it with a touch of added yeast.
Here’s what to do:
♦ Start exactly as I describe above: Mix the proper proportions of water and honey, stirring it all thoroughly. Then, add a little yeast – and I do mean a little: about as much as the size of the nail on your thumbnail, but certainly no more than half a teaspoon. D-47 and the likes are strong and pure, although adding more or “too much” won’t really hurt: Once the yeast converts all of the sugar to alcohol, it will simply die, and the process is over. Just sprinkle and stir a little yeast into the sugar-rich environment and it hungrily begins to feast on its abundant new food supply. After you add the yeast, add the gesho and stir again.
♦ Within 36 to 48 hours, you’ll begin to see fermentation in the form of a layer of white bubbles gathering on top of the liquid. Within another day or two, those little bubbles will turn into a thick white foam. After one week, stir the gesho into the liquid. You can stir every few days if you like. It won’t hurt, but I don’t know if it helps.
♦ After 10 days, remove the gesho with the tongs, just as you would for a natural batch. Put the lid back on and let it continue to ferment.
♦ After three weeks, taste the t’ej. If it’s too sweet, let it go another week, or even two more weeks, depending upon how strong you want it. As long as you can see tiny bubbles rising from the bottom to the top, it’s still fermenting. When it’s strong enough, you can begin the process of straining, racking and bottling – same as above.
♦ Finally, as I describe above, save seven or eight ounces of your finished t’ej as starter for your next batch, and you’ll never need to use yeast again. Do this before you strain and rack it, while there’s still rich active yeast in the warm liquid.
GESHO IS NOT AN ITEM that you can pick up at your local Piggly Wiggly on the way home from work. You’ll only find it in major urban areas that have an Ethiopian population large enough to support an Ethiopian grocery store, and even then, not all stores will carry it (Ethiopians tend to bring gesho from back home when they visit family). The gesho plant is more or less a staple in Ethiopia, where t’ej is beloved by all and gesho is essential to its creation. In the 1991 book Plant Genetic Resources of Ethiopia, author Jan Engels has a short entry on gesho:
Rhamnus prinoides. Buckthorn or gesho is found growing in the wild all over Ethiopia between 1500 and 2000 m, but it is cultivated well, sometimes even on a larger scale as a field crop. Rhamnus covers about 5000 ha of the land under permanent production (Jansen, 1981). It is a woody bush, whose leaves are used like hops for the preparation of alcoholic beverages such as t’alla and t’ej, which are common household drinks in the country. Gesho is widespread all over the country. It serves the needs of the people so well that at least at the moment no improvement is needed.
Right now, I know of only one online U.S. company that sells gesho, both through its own website and at Amazon.com. Brundo Market of Oakland, Calif., is a homey little grocery store and butcher shop on Telegraph Avenue, and part of a large community of Ethiopian businesses in Oakland. The shop sells both gesho inchet and gesho kitel through its website. It costs around $14 a pound for inchet, sold in eight-ounce bag, and more for kitel, but then you need to pay shipping, and that almost doubles the cost. Enter “gesho” into the site’s search engine to find both products. You can write to the shop at email@example.com, or you can just buy directly from the website.
The Washington, D.C., area hosts the largest population of Ethiopians outside of Ethiopia, and the tri-state area (D.C., Maryland, Virginia) abounds with places to buy gesho over the counter. Sometimes, though, I have a hard time finding gesho at grocery stores within the district.
Here are some places that I can recommend if you’re on the market for gesho inchet, the variety you want to use to make t’ej. I’ve visited all of these grocery stories and chatted with the owners, who are always very helpful and friendly. At a market, you can usually buy gesho for $10 a pound or less.
♦ Nile Market, 7815 Georgia Ave. NW, Washington, D.C. (202.882.1130). This place always seems to have gesho in stock at a good price. And while you’re at it, have a meal at the adjoining restaurant. The veggie combo platter is delicious and generous.
♦ Lena Market, 1206 Underwood St. NW, Washington, D.C. (202.291.0082). This small market also has nicely priced gesho, along with lots of other Ethiopian supplies if you want to buy spices and cook. It even sells wine and beer made in Ethiopia, along with tangy pure teff injera imported several times a week from back home.
♦ Nazret Cultural Foods, 3821 S. George Mason Drive, Falls Church, VA (703.635.7843), 656 S. Picket St., Alexandria, VA (703.212.8907, 888.910.7778), and 8120 Georgia Ave., Silver Spring, MD (215.500.9813). These three excellent markets always seem to have the best price in the greater D.C. area. The folks at the Alexandria shop tell me that they do mail order, but if you call, be patient. The phone numbers I list here are from their business cards. They also go by the name Nazret Baltena, an Amharic word that refers to kitchen and homemaking skills. The Silver Spring store is set to open in June 2016.
♦ In Chicago, you can find gesho at Kukulu Market, 6135 North Broadway (773.818.4685). It’s usually – but not always – in stock, so stock up if you find it.
♦ The Los Angeles Ethiopian community has a cluster of shops and restaurants along a few blocks on South Fairfax Avenue that they call Little Ethiopia, and Merkato Market (323.935.1775), in the heart of Little Ethiopia, is rich with Ethiopian products. Other markets along the stretch are likely to have it, too.
♦ Toronto has a well-developed Ethiopian community. You can find gesho there at Ethiopian Spices (416.598.3014), a grocery story on Kensington Avenue. The company doesn’t have a web site. Other markets have gesho, but always call to make sure, and once again, stock up when you find it.
♦ Finally, in cities with significant Ethiopian populations – Seattle, Portland, Minneapolis, Dallas, Nashville, Atlanta – you shouldn’t have a problem finding gesho at a market. Always call ahead, though, and ask if they have “gesho inchet” or “gesho stick” for making t’ej.
And while you’re shopping for gesho, you might look around for a berele, the wide-bottomed, narrow-mouthed vessel used in Ethiopia for drinking t’ej. Dating back a few hundred years, Ethiopians used it to keep insects out of their sweet wine: You can put your thumb over the mouth of the berele when you’re not drinking to protect from invaders. The pair of Nazret markets in Virginia have lots of them for sale.
Relax, You’re Making T’ej
Whether you make your t’ej naturally, without yeast, or choose to yeast and then a starter, don’t sweat it: You’re still making t’ej. I’ve made it both ways and can’t taste a difference. And while I don’t mean to brag, I’ve will note that I’ve sampled t’ej made in Ethiopia at a t’ej bet, and it tasted very much like my Ferenj Tej made with D-47 yeast.
So is t’ej made with starter a “natural” batch? Strictly speaking, no, it isn’t: You’re using a helper with rich active yeast that’s already growing and multiplying. But if your starter is from a natural batch, then you’re just one step removed. And in any case, your helper is t’ej, and that’s natural enough.
In a natural batch of t’ej – but not in a batch that uses commercial yeast or a starter – there is one more thing that can go wrong, and it’s called Brettanomyces bruxellensis. It’s a naturally occurring yeast that threatens to give any wine a taste best described as resembling kerosene or lighter fluid. Some winemakers believe that a slight “Bretty” taste adds character to a wine. Others say it ruins the wine no matter how faint the effect. In t’ej, Brettanomyces can grow if your vessel isn’t cleaned well from a previous batch, or if the yeast happens to be on your gesho.
You’ll know your t’ej has gone Bretty if it smells like kerosene or lighter fluid after the first or second week. Drinking Bretty t’ej won’t harm you, but the flavor (if you can call it that) added by the Brettanomyces will overpower the sweetness of the honey and the pungency of the gesho. Your taste buds will have to decide how much you can handle. You can overcome Brett in a natural batch by adding some commercial yeast the moment you detect it. This yeast should overpower the Brett if you catch it early enough. Or it may not, and you may have to start over – yet another reason to consider using commercial yeast in your first batch and then using starter for the rest of your t’ej-making.
All in all, it’s best not to worry about your natural batch of t’ej turning Bretty because there’s nothing much you can do to stop it. Remember that this is science at its most ancient and raw.
And if you like your t’ej specially flavored by your own hand, you can add a small quantity of any one of these ingredients for the last two or three days before bottling it: banana, coffee, ginger, orange peel, lemon peel, jalapeno peppers. Yes, that’s right: jalapeno peppers. A server at Queen of Sheba restaurant in Washington, D.C., told me that jalapeno is her favorite add-in. I’ve tried it, and it’s quite spicy.
So begin your home t’ej-making with a plain batch, perfect your recipe, and move on to some flavored varieties. You can then serve it with your homemade Ethiopian food, which you can learn to prepare at my other website: Ethiopian Food – Mesob Across America.
SCIENTISTS, ECONOMISTS AND SOCIOLOGISTS – in Ethiopia and from around the world – have recently come to recognize the importance of honey, bees and homebrew t’ej to the Ethiopian culture and economy. Here’s a roundup of the reports and studies they’ve published, along with links to some of the articles.
♦ A study conducted in 2001, and published in The Journal of Food Technology in Africa, examined the chemical and nutritional properties of t’ej.
In this study, Bekele Bahiru, a professor on the faculty of science at Addis Ababa University, analyzed 200 samples of t’ej made at different times and in different places. “As t’ej fermentation is a spontaneous process that depends on microflora naturally present on the substrates and equipment,” he writes, “the different metabolic products of the randomized microflora at different stages, the physical and chemical environment, duration of fermentation and concoction practices would result in physico-chemical variations in the final product.” In short: No two glasses of t’ej are exactly alike.
Bekele notes in his introduction that virtually every culture in the world has an indigenous fermented beverage, and in Africa, such beverages are often used at important occasions like “marriage, naming and rain making ceremonies, at burial ceremonies and settling disputes.” He then says that “good-quality t’ej is yellow, sweet, effervescent and cloudy due to the content of yeasts. The flavor of t’ej depends upon the part of the country where the bees have collected the nectar and the climate.” His study goes on to find that the pH of t’ej ranges from 3.02 to 4.90, making it decidedly acidic. The alcohol content of his samples ranged from a mere 2.7% to a hearty (for wine) 21.7%. T’ej has fewer carbohydrates than European honey wine and more proteins than grape wine. Read the report.
♦ Bekele’s 2005 study in the journal Food Microbiology again looked at t’ej for its yeast and lactic acid content. The research concludes that yeasts of the species Saccharomyces cerevisiae make up 25% of the yeast that ferments t’ej, while three other yeasts do 40% of the work between them.
And Bekele reveals one of the secrets of t’ej. “Some t’ej makers also add different concoctions such as barks or roots of some plants or herbal ingredients to improve flavor or potency,” he writes. “Due to concoction, adulteration practices and possibly some other reasons, producers usually are not willing to tell about additives used and their compositions.” Read the report.
♦ In 2000, the Chemical Society of Ethiopia sponsored a conference on Ethiopian alcoholic beverages and published a 160-page book, “The Proceedings of the Workshop on Modern and Traditional Brewing in Ethiopia.” The nine essays in the book, all based on papers delivered at the conference, include many references to and facts about t’ej, including this flow chart for the making of t’ej. The chart appears in the article by Ayele Nigatu and Kelbessa Urga of the Ethiopian Health and Nutrition Research Institute.
♦ In 1977, Sally Vogel and Abeba Gobezie presented their research on Ethiopian t’ej at an international symposium on fermented foods held in Bangkok. I can find no independent publication of their findings. But Keith Steinkraus’ Handbook of Indigenous Fermented Foods (see just below) has a summary of their work and reprints their t’ej recipe in the form of a flow chart. Google Books also offers a preview of Steinkraus’ book that includes the Vogel and Gobezie research and the the flow chart in the context of the book.
♦ Keith H. Steinkraus’ Handbook of Indigenous Fermented Foods devotes two pages to t’ej, including Vogel and Gobezie’s 1977 flow chart recipe of how it’s made (see just above). Steinkraus writes that “honey wine has been an indigenous fermented beverage for thousands of years” and that “honey was the only concentrated sugar widely available in prehistoric times.” His book describes t’ej as “yellow, sweet, effervescent, and cloudy, due to the content of yeasts.”
Although he notes that Ethiopians use hops and spices to ferment and flavor their “home-processed honey wine,” he doesn’t specifically mention gesho as the fermenting agent. “Yeasts of the genus Saccharomyces,” he says, “are responsible generally for conversion of sugars to ethanol: no inoculum is used. Thus, the fermentation depends upon yeast present in the environment. The fermentation would very likely be improved if desirable strains of fermentative yeast belonging to the genus Saccharomyces were isolated and used for inoculum.” No doubt it would. But then, would it be true homebrew t’ej?
♦ This 2005 study, published in the African Journal of Biotechnology, looked specifically at the fermentation yeast in ogool, the honey wine of the Majang people. The study notes that ogool is fermented with the bark of a tree called the mange (Blighia unijungata) rather than the stems and leaves of the gesho plant used for t’ej. Having documented the yeasts active in ogool, the authors conclude: “Efforts are currently underway to research indigenous alcoholic beverages brewed in tropical and subtropical areas and to isolate useful microbial resources so that the methods and microorganisms used in their production can be studied and possibly applied to modern brewing.” In other words: Everything old is new again. Read the report (PDF format).
♦ One of the earliest studies to discuss t’ej at length is Carl Seyffert’s Biene und Honig in Volksleben der Afrikaner, published in Germany in 1930. Seyffert’s book, which has not been translated into English, provides a comprehensive look at pan-African honey wine, drawing its information from many earlier published books and articles about numerous African cultures. His research is exhaustive – he consulted more than 600 other works for his research – and, in its time, was definitive. The title means “bee and honey in the lives of Africans.”
One controversial assertion in his book is that bee culture came to Africa through the Hamites from Indo-Germanic pastoral culture. Later studies dispute this, saying that Africans learned to cultivate bees and honey on their own.
The passage on “hydromel,” the generic name he introduces and uses most often (interspersing his text with “mead” now and then), appears on pages 88-102, followed by two pages of writing about African honey beers. He names dozens and dozens of cultures and countries, recounting quick anecdotes about their predilection for hydromel, and often sharing their special names for the beverage.
Mead, he writes, is “the favorite drink of the Bambarra of Mali,” and the Moslem Hausa people of Nigeria, though forbidden by their faith to consume alcohol, drink mead anyway. The book includes a concise and informative map with a key that shows the three uses Africans make of potable honey and where they do it: some cultures drink pure honey water, some add honey to alcoholic beverages, and some add a fermenting agent to honey water to create honey wine. The largest cluster of cultures that do the latter is in Ethiopia.
Seyffert calls Ethiopian honey wine tetsch, a common German spelling. The ruling Amhara “can’t live without it,” he writes, and it’s “a vice of the Galla” (the European name for the majority Oromo culture). As the national drink, he notes, t’ej is abundant and inexpensive. He gives recipes for making t’ej, talks about berele and other vessels for drinking it, and also about gesho for flavoring and fermenting it – all in all, a breezy and informative account of African honey wines, with Ethiopia and t’ej at its epicenter.
♦ Another early study of t’ej appeared in a 1959 issue of Annals of Microbiology, a journal published in Milan. The article – in Italian, and not available online – looks at the microbial makeup of t’ej and analyzes it for its various yeasts (which are a fungus). At the end of the piece, there’s a concise English summary of the findings. The spelling of t’ej in the English summary is identical to how it’s spelled in the Italian text:
Microbiological analysis have been made on two samples of honey (white and red) and on two samples of tecc, all coming from Ethiopia, with the purpose to isolate the yeasts responsible for the natural fermentation.
The study of the 84 isolated cultures showed an absolute prevalence of Saccharomycesellipsoideus while Sacch. mangini were found with lower frequency. Hansenula anomala was found with particular abundance on the honey.
We have also obtained some asporogenous yeasts belonging to the species Candida krusei and Brettanomyces bruxellensis var. non membranaefaciens. All the isolated cultures were capable of growing on substrata with high concentrations of glucose and, among them, Hansenula anomala showed the highest resistance.
Many of the obtained cultures can be advantageously used for the rational preparation of tecc.
So t’ej is a playground of microbial activity, and all of those microbes give t’ej its flavor and its kick. [See a closeup of Saccharomyces cerevisiae, the most abundant yeast that ferments t’ej.]
♦ Jon Abbink studies alcohol and culture in Maji, Southern Ethiopia, in his essay Drinking, Prestige, and Power Alcohol and Cultural Hegemony, which appears in the 1997 book Alcohol in Africa. He looks at three cultures – the Me’en, the Suri and the Dizi – discussing various local alcoholic drinks and how they define and influence power relationships within and between villages.
“There are reports,” he writes, “that the Me’en and Suri people have their own honey wine, called boké, somewhat similar to the highlander drink t’adj, but it is difficult to say whether it was made independently or derived from the example of t’adj.” His essay goes on to discuss numerous brews of the Maji region and how they can bring prestige or derision to the people who drink them. Read the essay (PDF format).
♦ The Encyclopaedia Aethiopica, a four-volume tome on every imaginable aspect of Ethiopian culture and history, has entries on “Drinks,” “Honey” and – in volume four, “T’ej.”
In the entry on “Drinks,” Abbink writes that “T’alla [homebrew beer] and Tägg are known under various names, differing according to language or ethno-region. . . Tägg is the typical Ethiopian honey-wine or mead, made of water, honey (and occasionally sugar in cruder blends) and a fermenting leaf (geso). In popular bars it was, and often still is, served in long-neck berelle, old perfume bottles, a custom dating from the late 19th cent. The best tägg is considered to be the filtered kind. Tägg or daadhii (in Oromo) has become the most popular drink of many Ethiopians, not only in towns but also in countryside bars. In parts of southern Ethiopia there are similar indigenous types of fermented honey-wine, e.g. boké.” The book’s chosen spellings differ from conventional ones.
The book’s “Honey” entry also discusses t’ej. “Honey is used in both food and drink,” writes Gianni Dore. “After pressing it is used for the preparation of mead and, in its regional varieties, Tgn. mes, Orom. daadhii, Amh. tägg, is undertaken by men or women according to social context, area and time. The regulation of the proportion of honey to water, the dosage of aromatic herbs (geso, lat. Rhamnus prinoides; taddwo, lat. Rhamnus staddo) and the preparation and fermentation time define its alcoholic, gustative and social values, differentiating between good and domestic mes and commercial mes, from white to red to black to a bitter one, din, the cheapest and most unpleasant. A typical tägg can have around 14% alcohol.”
Another section of the “Honey” entry discusses the role of honey wine in the social structure of Ethiopia: “Mead, often reserved for the chiefs, as sumptuary consumption, has symbolized a line of social demarcation: its presence in the retinues of the chiefs in war and in the shared feasting at the banquets of the élite symbolized the rank of the host and his table-companions, giving rise also to specialized roles,” such as the asallafi, or servant who serves t’ej, and the mälkäñña, the “official charged with brewing, storing and serving” the t’ej. Dore concludes: “Nevertheless, tägg has lost some of its status due to its association with tägg bets, mead houses frequented by the poor.”
♦ The downside of t’ej, and other alcohol, is the risk of dependency. One report on this subject mentions t’ej but attributes alcoholism in Ethiopia to other locally made liquors with a higher alcohol content. Read the report (PDF format).
♦ Honey, the key ingredient in t’ej and an important export product, has also been studied, often at length. A 2007 report, by Bayene Tadesse and David Phillips, mentions t’ej often and estimates that 70% of honey produced in Ethiopia goes to the making of t’ej.
The “honey channel” is somewhat simple and goes like this:
Presently, most of the honey harvested goes through a t’ej brewery channel. In this channel, many actors are involved at different levels. Yellow honey is usually preferred for t’ej and birz. Beekeepers directly sell their honey to local honey collectors (dealer or cooperatives) at district or zonal levels. Then, the collectors sell the honey to t’ej houses in their localities and/or transport it to the big honey dealers at Addis Ababa. The big honey dealers supply the honey to t’ej houses. Some collectors (e.g. cooperatives) also sell crude honey wax to t’ej processors from which they can make birz or use for coloring. Some beekeepers who are also producing large quantities of honey also directly supply to t’ej houses in their areas. Although economically not so significant, t’ej is informally exported through country visitors and transitory.
As this passage notes, yellow honey is the best for making t’ej. “Yellow honey usually originates from pulse and oil crops like niger seed, weeds like mech, and other annual crops called meskel flowers,” says the report. “It is usually harvested during November to December. This honey has a strong flavor and bitter taste and is most preferred for t’ej production and coloring.”
Another related product, beeswax, owes its economic good health to t’ej as well. “The beeswax channel starts mainly from t’ej brewery,” the report says, “which collects the wax as a by-product of t’ej or birz. The t’ej brewers either sell the crude beeswax or semi-processed to the local beeswax collector who supply to beeswax refineries in Addis Ababa. T’ej producers remove the crude beeswax (called sefef) from the t’ej and allow drying. T’ej brewers produce partially refined beeswax (call keskis) by melting the crude beeswax with sufficient water and then straining using sisal sacks.”
All of this is part of the “honey sub-sector” of the Ethiopian economy, and the authors assert that “thousands of households are engaged in t’ej-making in almost all urban areas.” No doubt in many rural ones, too.
♦ In another study, researchers found that a lack of bee food during the dry season hindered production, although disease was not a problem.
♦ A 2009 dissertation from Ethiopia’s Bahir Dar University examined honey production in the Amhara region. Read the dissertation (PDF format).
♦ A study conducted in 2009 determined that “developing appropriate policy and beekeeping development strategy that would be applicable to the different production systems will ensure the sustainable development of apiculture sub sector.” Read the study.
♦ One scholar has studied resource management among beekeeping societies of South West Ethiopia. Read the report (PDF format).
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.
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.
“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.
“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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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 tedgead 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.