Artifact in Focus: Jebena Coffee Pot

The scent of roasting coffee beans wafts through the air, mingling with the fragrance of burning incense. The coffee ceremony in Ethiopia is certainly not for the impatient; preparation of the strong coffee can take several hours. An Ethiopian coffee pot, the jebena, is a critical part of the ceremony. CCMM’s jebena, as with all jebenas, is made from black clay with a rounded bottom and a very slender spout. The pot is held upright by a round wicker stand.

Typically, a woman of the house will roast beans on a heated pan over a tiny charcoal stove until they are black and shiny and have released their aromatic oil. The hostess passes the beans around for her guests to smell and then grinds the beans with a mortar and pestle. The grounds are placed in a jebena along with water. As the coffee boils the grounds sink to the bottom of the jebena. The hostess strains the coffee several times before pouring it into tiny cups. All the while, the frankincense and myrrh burn. Guests drink three rounds of coffee; each has a slightly different flavor and strength. And while drinking all these cups, and munching on roasted barley and corn, friends and neighbors discuss the community and events of the day. Perhaps an ancient proverb best describes the place of the coffee in Ethiopian life, “Buna dabo naw”, which when translated means “Coffee is our bread!” The Ethiopian family that donated the jebena to CCMM also donated a whicker tray to serve roasted barley and a clay cup to burn the incense.

The Ethiopians have had a lot of practice preparing coffee. Coffee plants, with their bright red berries containing the coffee bean, grew wild only in Ethiopia. According to Ethiopian folklore, coffee was discovered when a goat herder watched his goats became excited after they ate the berries from a particular plant. He tried the berries himself, and discovered the effects of caffeine. He took the berries to the local monks who tossed the berries into their fire, believing the effects of the berries to be sinful. But the aroma of roasting beans inside the berries proved irresistible and the monks ground the beans and poured water over them to create the first coffee drink.

Coffee beans were first exported from Ethiopia to Yemen in the middle 1500s, where coffee beans were first roasted and brewed as they are today. From Yemen, coffee spread to Egypt and North Africa, and by the 16th century, it had reached the rest of the Middle East, Persia, and Turkey. From the Muslim world, coffee drinking spread to Italy, then to the rest of Europe. Unfortunately for the Europeans, their climate does not support the growth of coffee plants. They had to rely on their colonies in tropical climes to grow the beans they had come to love; coffee plants were transported by the Portuguese to Brazil, by the Spanish to the Americas, and by the French to Vietnam. The rest is history!

Ethiopia is the fifth largest producer of coffee in the world, employing nearly 10% of the population. More than 95% is grown by small garden farmers. Ethiopia’s coffee ceremony is an integral part of their social and cultural life. Click here to read more about the Ethiopian coffee ceremony.

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