Tej: The Ancient Honey Wine

Nobody can document for certain when Ethiopians, Aksumites or pre-Aksumites began to make t'ej. We know that gesho, the species of buckthorn that provokes the fermentation process, is native to Ethiopia, and that excavations at Aksum have found remnants of gesho and writing that mentions honey wine in the third millennium A.D. This confirms that t'ej is at least nearly 2,000 years old.

Accounts from as early as the 16th Century, when European exploration of Ethiopia began in earnest, copiously document the presence of this special honey wine. These historic chronicles offer many sweet tidbits about t'ej: its production and consumption, and its place in Ethiopian society. Once a drink of emperors and kings, it's now enjoyed by anyone who can afford the honey and gesho to make it. Some cultures in Ethiopia even use t'ej as a sort of sacramental wine in their religious practices, with the task of making it falling on a young man in the community.

Eva Crane, in her 1999 book The World History of Beekeeping and Honey Hunting, tells us that the Greek historian Strabo (63 B.C. . 24 A.D.) wrote about Troglodytes living in ancient Ethiopia. "Most of the people drink a brew of buckthorn," he reported, "but the tyrants drink a mixture of honey and water, the honey being pressed out of some kind of flower."

Strabo doesn't specifically say that these Ethiopians fermented this drink. But he mentions buckthorn, and that's gesho, so fermentation may have taken place. This appears to be the earliest reference to Ethiopians fermenting honey and water with gesho. To a Greek of Strabo's time, "Ethiopian" could have meant any of the black-skinned cultures of Africa. But remember: Only the real Ethiopians cultivated gesho.

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ęCopyright 2010 by Harry Kloman