An Everyman’s Drink Descended From Ancient Royal Libations
Tej in Addis Ababa
To the outside world, Ethiopia’s national drink is coffee, but, as my taxi driver tells me on my first day in Addis Ababa, the most popular local drink is tej.
In traditional lore, honey wine was the drink of Ethiopian nobility; legend has it that the Queen of Sheba presented it as a gift to King Solomon. But despite these noble beginnings, today tej is the drink of the everyman, and is particularly popular during festivals and celebrations.
Everyone has their own take on tej, which differs around the country, but a tour guide tells me that the best place to sample the drink is a tejbet, a small bar specializing in tej. At the tejbet, you’ll find the honey wine in mild, medium, and strong. Buyer beware: the stronger the tej, the more you’ll be left wondering if your head is swimming due to the altitude or the alcohol (which can reach up to 16 percent by volume).
Unlike beer or wine, which are becoming more popular due to the range of breweries that have set up shop in Ethiopia over the last decade, tej doesn’t require much equipment. Gesho, a local herb often called “Ethiopian hops,” water, and honey, one of Ethiopia’s largest exports, will do the trick.
If you’re really old-school, you’ll consume tej in an animal horn, in the way of the ancestors. But nowadays, you’ll most commonly find it served in a spherical glass beaker called a berele.
I sample the sweet honey wine for the first time at the tourist-friendly Yod Abysinnia Cultural Center, an Addis restaurant that locals recommend as one of the best places to sample injera and indulge in shiro, a delicious chickpea-and-white bean dish that makes my mouth water.
The Abyssinian mead, which dates back to the 4th century, has the texture of dessert wine, but a hint of spice. With its yellow-orange hue, it could easily be mistaken for mango juice.
Though Yod Abysinnia’s vibrant dancers and excellent food will draw me back in the future, its tej’s musky undertones will not. I resolve to keep and open mind about the varieties of tej, so I table my opinion as I go off in search of a local tejbet.