Bing to Buzz: Drinking Coffee to Slow Down

By Justin Fox Burks / Photography By Justin Fox Burks | October 05, 2015
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Traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony setup

On this particular Sunday, I had two photo shoots, lunch with the family, and the usual Sunday stuff the wife and I do around the house. I also told my Nannie I’d come see her in her new place and didn’t want to disappoint.

After my first shoot, I picked up my keys, and my wife and I flew out the door. Text messages scrolled across my phone, one after another.

BING — “What’s your ETA?” my younger brother asks.

BING — “We are running late. Save us a seat!” my older brother requests.

Finally we are seated at a table for 14 with our families and friends for a quick lunch at Huey’s.

My timing was off, and I only got to breeze in to say “hi” to Nannie as she played bingo. I was due at Blue Nile Ethiopian Kitchen to learn all about coffee from my buddy Ermyias Shiberou, owner of the restaurant.

It was a good thing. I was exhausted and I sure could use a cup of coffee.

BING — “Running a few minutes behind. I’m right around the corner,” I reassured Ermyias, fudging my location just a little.

He was unbothered by my lateness, as he was fully engaged in a staring contest with his son, Sam, as they sat at the head of the 15-foot-long family table that included his three sons, his wife Jennifer, his sister and her girls, and his mom and dad. They’ve finished lunch, and it’s coffee time.

“The coffee ceremony came about in different stages,” Shiberou Gelate, the patriarch of the family, says. “It evolved from the first time a tired traveler tasted the coffee berry and liked the result.” Legend has it that coffee is named for the Ethiopian region of Kefa, where Ermyias and his family are from.

BING — I turn my phone to silent.

The traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony is set up before I arrive. There is a small, ornately carved table with dried beans and corn inset under a glass top, and a beautiful, handmade coffee brewer — jebena — resting in a braided ring. Grass is spread on the floor as a sign of fertility, and a steady plume of smoke rises from the incense burning in a small stone bowl.

“It’s tradition to make three rounds of coffee to make the time together long enough,” says Yemiserach Sahela, Ermyias’s mother. She is beautifully dressed in traditional African clothing and is the one doing most of the roasting, serving, and pouring today.

Green beans for roasting
Roasting the coffee beans
Smelling the roasted coffee
Cooling the roasted beans
Yemiserach Sahela pours coffee for ceremony
Ethiopian coffee ceremony table and cups
Pouring sugar into the coffee cups

A handful of green coffee beans are roasted in a small pot, “long enough to gossip and to tell what’s going on about town,” says Ermyias. The smell is intoxicating. “Some things always take you back to your childhood memories. When I smell the beans roasting and the incense burning, I feel very relaxed.”

Once the beans are fully roasted, they are poured onto a plate and passed around the room by Malni Shiberou, Ermyias’s sister. Everyone smells the beans that will soon become the coffee. The kids gather around the plate and fan the aroma toward their nostrils. Jennifer, who is from Memphis, keeps a sharp eye out to observe what to do and take cues as they come. “Because it’s a new culture to me, I try to watch what everyone else is doing,” she says.

The beans are traditionally ground by hand, and spices like cinnamon or clove may be added at that time. In the modern kitchen at Blue Nile, Malni uses an electric burr grinder to produce the perfect coffee grounds. The grounds are placed into the jebena with hot water and left to steep for ten minutes, then to rest five more minutes to allow the grounds to settle before pouring.

BUZZ — My phone vibrates in my back pocket and I ignore it.

Forty-five minutes in, and I’m hoping to get in the groove. No one here is in a rush. Everyone seems to be pretty chill except for me. It’s coffee time. I couldn’t be more excited to try this cup that is made with so much care. Yemiserach pours a little sugar into each tiny cup and tops it with about three ounces of rich, dark coffee. “It’s perfect!” I say to my hosts as I drain the last drop from the cup. “Let’s knock out a quick family portrait, and I’ll get out of your hair.”

“Let’s wait until at least after the second cup, and it’d be best to wait until after the third,” Ermyias says. I remember what Yemiserach told me about three rounds of coffee and Jennifer’s advice about following what the others do. I’m not getting the point. I need to watch my manners a little more closely.

Ermyias Shiberou and family sit for portrait
Father and son have a staring contest
Ermyias Shiberou, owner of Blue Nile Ethiopian Kitchen
Chasing popcorn

It starts to dawn on me that all of this isn’t really only about the coffee. It’s about slowing down and taking time to spend with your family and loved ones. I’m a little red faced and hope I haven’t offended my hosts. I feel honored to even have been invited.

I settle in and turn my phone off.

That first cup is called abol and it’s the darkest brew. The second cup, made from the same coffee grounds, is called tona and is medium in body. The third cup, also made from the same grounds, is called bereka and is often served with a splash of milk.

Twenty minutes in and the tona is served. I’m getting the hang of this. Snacks like dried injera, popcorn, and kolo bread made from toasted barley accompany this coffee course. “Ethiopian coffee is very strong,” Ermyias says. “So you never have it without something to eat.”

The kids try their hand at catching popcorn in their mouths. We all have advice for them; none of which they take. Each kernel they successfully catch is cause for a victory dance.

The bereka, a very light brew, is served (to the kids as well) along with Blue Nile’s fantastic tiramisu. At this point, I don’t want the visit or the coffee to end. I’m relaxed and a little wired from the three cups of coffee.

“It’s a time for us to get together,” Ermyias says. The Ethiopian coffee ceremony offers something that no drive-through caffeine buzz or instant coffee can: time spent with loved ones.

It dawns on me that we may be doing it wrong, and I have plenty to learn from this ancient ceremony. I feel changed. It was a lesson I needed on this particular Sunday.

I turn my phone back on.

BUZZ — I text my wife, “OTW.”

Blue Nile Ethiopian Kitchen
1788 Madison Avenue • 901-474-7214

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