Before I started traveling in East Africa, I made sure to dig up some information on the traditional drinks of Ethiopia. There were plenty of mentions of the Ethiopian honey wine tej, the Abyssinian version of mead. I was excited to try tej once I arrived, but was repeatedly told at hotels and bars that it was not in stock. Why couldn’t I get a taste of this seemingly quintessential local wine?
Apparently, ordering tej from these places was the equivalent of walking into a diner in June and asking for an egg nog. Wrong place, wrong time. Tej is typically consumed on special occasions. This makes sense, as it was formerly the prized drink of the rulers of Ethiopia. Tej is most likely to be poured at weddings, birthday parties and Orthodox religious holidays at which a period of fasting culminates, such as Easter. Tej is also served at the various cultural restaurants around Addis and tej bets, which are specifically dedicated to the beverage.
Tej is made from a fermenting combination of honey, water and the leaves of the gesho plant, which also factors in the brewing process of tella. After a couple of weeks, the mix yields a moderately sweet and slightly spicy golden-hued beverage. Bitter undertones soften the initial sweetness of the tej and make for a nice session drink. The strength of tej varies by batch and can end up anywhere from 6-11%. The color of the liquid varies from bright yellow to a deeper gold reminiscent of a lion’s mane.
The vessel for drinking tej is a berele. This glass is nearly spherical at the bottom, with a thin neck leading to the opening. The berele is the modern way of consuming tej – it was originally served in animals’ horns, a much cheaper and plentiful option than glass a few centuries ago.
With many months in Ethiopia, I’ve had the chance to try several varieties of tej: commercially produced; low-octane for easy drinking; and some kicking, homemade tej left over from a wedding. Of these, my favorite has been the wedding tej, which was given to us in a soft drink bottle. The fact that a family member or close friend made it for such a celebration surely added to the taste and smoothness. The finish is slightly sweet and surprisingly refreshing. I’m keeping that bottle far back in a cabinet for my own special events, though. By now I’ve learned that the carefully crafted wine of Ethiopian kings is properly served as an accompaniment to life’s milestones.
Have you ever tried homemade wine or honey wine on your travels?