Seattle’s Ethiopian community savors its coffee culture

Etna, an Ethiopian incense, is burned throughout the entire coffee ceremony. The sweet scent saturated the air of Kaffa Coffee and Wine Bar, located in the Rainier Beach neighborhood of Seattle, WA. (Photo by Hannah Pickering.)

There is an Ethiopian saying that goes, “Don’t rush the ceremony.”

Forget about drive-through lines and rush hours — the Ethiopian coffee ceremony takes time. In the timespan of three rounds of drinking coffee, community is built and stories are shared.

The ceremony is the foundation of a coffee culture that creates community and strengthens identity for members of Seattle’s Ethiopian community, which has grown significantly in the last decade or so.

Seattle has a history rooted in immigration. The local Ethiopian community started growing the 1970s and 1980s, during a repressive regime in Ethiopia and a devastating drought, according to Horn of Africa Services, a Seattle group that provides education and advocacy for the East African community. According to HistoryLink, the Ethiopian community numbered around 25,000 people in 2010, making it the largest East African community in the area.

Seattle also has a long history with coffee, coffee roasting, brewing and coffee house culture, with a multitude of local cafes and roasters and home to national and international coffee roasters including Tully’s, Seattle’s Best Coffee and, most famously, Starbucks.

But Bisrat Tadesse, owner at Kaffa Coffee and Wine Bar, a local Ethiopian restaurant located in Rainier Beach, still treasures the tradition of Ethiopian coffee.

Bisrat Tadesse demonstrated how to pour Ethiopian coffee from high above a cup, while describing the coffee ceremony. The roast was from the Sidamo province of Ethiopia, and was served fresh at the Kaffa Coffee and Wine Bar in the Rainer Beach neighborhood of Seattle on May 7, 2017. (Photo by Hannah Pickering.)

Tadesse immigrated to the United States from Ethiopia in 1993, and attended the University of Washington. He majored in molecular biology, and currently works as a chemist for a Seattle company.

Tadesse recalled his first impression of American coffee when he arrived: “Very, very weak.”

“I remember, it was very hard to find a coffee drinker.” Tadesse said. “Coffee was more for the aroma.”

He found that in American coffee culture, there is less emphasis on the taste and the socializing that it generates.

In contrast, Ethiopian culture embraces the sense of connection that the occasion creates.

“As soon as you drink it, you say, ‘Very good coffee,’” Tadesse said. One drinks to taste, to talk and to create togetherness with one’s community.

The Ethiopian coffee ceremony is as much about experiencing a unique and deeply personal cultural connection as it is an occasion to enjoy a tasty beverage and snack. From the aroma to the flavor, each aspect of the coffee is savored.

In the meantime, the coffee is also brewed in a three-step process.

When neighbors Ethiopia smell someone roasting coffee, they make their way to the home of the coffee maker, Tadesse said. The invitation remains unspoken and mutually understood, as the aroma speaks for itself.

The coffee ceremony is a time to catch-up on the community’s social life, but it is also a time to reminisce on shared histories.

Caffeinated history

Kaffa Coffee was named after the Kaffa region in southwestern Ethiopia, which supplies a lot of the beans for the coffee industry. Kaffa is the birthplace of coffee, as the coffee – or kaffa — beans grow wild in the region.

Monks in Ethiopia originally discovered the effects of coffee, Tadesse explained. The coffee bean itself originates as a fruit, and monks saw a herd of goats eating this fruit and becoming energized immediately after.

Another popular variation of the story is that a goat herder made the initial discovery and reported it to a local abbot, who used the coffee beans to stay awake at night. Before long, the entire monastery was using the coffee beans as a stimulant. So, the story goes, began Ethiopia’s national obsession.

Kaffa Coffee stays true to the roots, but doesn’t ignore Seattle. The cafe’s beans are roasted by two local companies in Seattle’s Fremont neighborhood — Longshoreman’s Daughter Coffee Roaster and ETG Coffee and Bakery.

In a modern twist, Ethiopian coffee was served single-sized on a small platter, accompanied by the traditional addition of sugar. The coffee was served as part of the Ethiopian coffee ceremony on May 7, 2017, at the Kaffa Coffee and Wine Bar located in the Rainier Beach neighborhood of Seattle. (Photo by Hannah Pickering.)

Coffee in the community

Coffee is an important part of the Ethiopian culture and the Ethiopian Community in Seattle — along with providing language classes, legal aid and social services to Seattle’s Ethiopian community — also houses a café.

At the center, Ethiopian immigrants can learn English, get help with education, find and apply for jobs, adjust to a new culture and maintain the close-knit family nucleus that is traditional in the Ethiopian culture.

But also at the center, Membe, a staff member and an Ethiopian immigrant, is the resident coffee ceremony expert. The café at the community center serves as a location for members to connect and share in their cultural traditions.

The traditions celebrated in the coffee ceremony and coffee culture provides an affirmation of identity and belonging in the Ethiopian community in Seattle, strengthening connections organically.

As for Kaffa’s Tadesse, he still drinks his coffee daily at home, prepared it for him by his mother. And while she roasts the beans and grinds them herself, their family now serves coffee in a single-serving pitcher.

“This is a more hybrid of a tradition.” Tadesse said. It’s a way of keeping Ethiopian coffee culture a part of their lives while adapting to a new lifestyle.

“They want to keep the tradition,” Tadesse said.

The Kaffa Coffee and Wine Bar is an Ethiopian-owned restaurant located in the Rainier Beach neighborhood of Seattle, WA. Open windows let in the late-afternoon sunlight on an afternoon on May 7, 2017, and the clusters of tables invited community interaction. (Photo by Hannah Pickering.)
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