All About Tej

The honey wine that Ethiopians have made for centuries

By Harry Kloman, University of Pittsburgh

2. Etymology 3. Tej in History 4. Tej Today 5. Making Tej 6. Finding Gesho 7. Winery Tej 8. Science of Tej

9. The words for honey wine and honey in Ethiopia's many languages         10. Watch Making Tej, a step-by-step video

11. Visit my Ethiopian food website and read about my book, Mesob Across America: Ethiopian Food in the U.S.A.


1. A Very Brief History of Ethiopia, the Land of Tej

THE ANCIENT CULTURES of the Middle East may have made contact with the civilizations of what we now call Ethiopia as early as 1,000 years B.C. Legend tells us that Makeda, the queen of the land of Saba (or, as we know it today, Sheba), visited the revered King Solomon on a diplomatic mission, during which, the legend says, they toasted each other with Makeda's tej. She lavished him with gifts, the greatest one eventually being a son, named Menelik, whom she raised in Saba and sent home to meet his father when he reached manhood.

Then, in 1270 A.D., Yekuno Amlak, a wily monarch of Abyssinia - as the land was alternatively called in earlier times - drew upon the legend of Solomon and Makeda to declare

An Ethiopian meal
served in a mesob

(Click to enlarge)
himself to be the direct descendant of Menelik. This established the Solomonic Dynasty of Ethiopian emperors that ruled for 700 years and ended in 1974, with the fall of Emperor Hayle Selasse to Communist revolutionaries. The brutal Derg ("Committee") ruled until 1991, when a long-time rebellion finally succeeded, thus creating a nascent democracy in Ethiopia.

We must now take the ancient story of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, devised in the time of Yekuno Amlak (who did exist), with a block of salt (which, incidentally, were called amole in Ethiopia and were used as currency well into the 19th Century). Despite Ethiopian lore disguised as history, there's no proof that the land of Saba was located in the portion of eastern Africa that's now Ethiopia. It may have been in Yemen, across the Red Sea, and the monarch whom the Ethiopians call Makeda was called Bilqis on the Arabian peninsula. There may even have been two Sabas, one on each side of the Red Sea, with neither one dominating the other. Scholars disagree, and the hard archaeological evidence is spotty at best.

The Bible has very little to say about Ethiopia that offers much help in clarifying its relationship with the ancient world. Two passages in the Old Testament - 1 Kings 10: 1-13, and 2 Chronicles 9:1-12 - tell a story of a Queen of Sheba who visited King Solomon on a diplomatic mission after hearing tales of his greatness. It doesn't say she was from Ethiopia, nor do she and Solomon consummate their summit.

Then, somewhere between 1314 and 1322 A.D. (scholars believe), an anonymous author composed the Kebra Negast ("Glory of Kings"), a book that became the Ethiopian national story. This lengthy saga clearly intends to turn Yekuno Amlak's newly declared "Solomonic Dynasty" into historical fact: It embellishes the brief biblical story of Solomon and Makeda and creates the child Menelik.

Yet this story remains the central mythology of the nation and is now recognized as the legend that helped to found and foster a culture and a civilization, which began definitively in the first century A.D. with the Aksumite Empire, in what is now northern Ethiopia and Eritrea, then slowly evolved into modern Ethiopia. For the next two millennia, empires and emperors waxed and waned, until a 19th Century surge of unification and conquest under the powerful Emperor Menelik II forged the modern nation.

1. Ethiopian History 3. Tej in History 4. Tej Today 5. Making Tej 6. Finding Gesho 7. Winery Tej 8. Science of Tej

9. The words for honey wine and honey in Ethiopia's many languages         10. Watch Making Tej, a step-by-step video

2. By Any Other Name: The Language of Tej

THE HISTORY AND ORIGIN of the word "tej" - as with so many words in so many languages - is probably as clear as it will ever get. It's the word, in Amharic, that Ethiopians have long called wine made from honey. Amharic, a Semitic language, has been the state language of Ethiopia for centuries, although it's not the country's most widely spoken first language. That honor goes to Oromo, a Cushitic language. The Amhara culture dominated the country long ago and imposed its language as official.

From Leslau's Harari (top) and Gurage etymological dictionaries
But several other Ethiopian languages - some Semitic, some not - use the word "tej" or something like it to mean "honey wine," and Amharic itself seems to have borrowed the word from a root word in an Ethiopian Semitic mother tongue. [See the chart with the words for "honey wine" and "honey" in every Ethiopian language.]

Wolf Leslau's three-volume Etymological Dictionary of Gurage, a southern Semitic language related to Amharic, has an entry (bottom left) for t'egay, t'ege, t'äge, däg'ä, which are variations of Semitic-language words for "honey," "honey water" or "honey wine." Leslau's Harari dictionary also has an entry (top left) that shows the word for "mead" in Harari (another Semitic language) along with related words in other languages, including the Cushitic Sidama and Qabena.

In the notation of linguistics, these words for "honey wine" - which clearly have a kinship to tej - can best be represented as *d'agay, a theoretical root word, where the asterisk indicates that a root word has been reconstructed by scholars from the best available evidence. The word *d'agay probably goes back a few thousand years, before the time when a single ancient South Ethiopian Semitic language split off into Amharic, Tigrinya, Tigré, Harari, Gurage (with its numerous dialects) and several others.

Complicating the picture slightly: Whereas ancient South Ethiopian Semitic languages used *d'agay to mean "honey" and its derivatives, ancient North Ethiopian Semitic languages called honey mar, which is the modern Amharic word for "honey." But in South Ethiopian Semitic, mar tended to mean "beeswax." Linguists hypothesize that the northern branch adopted mar, the southern word for "beeswax," to mean "honey," just as the northern branch morphed the word *d'agay into t'ej and took it as the word for "honey wine."

About two millennia ago, then, when Northeast Africa may well have been more culturally advanced than much of Europe, the South Ethiopian Semitic mother tongue used *d'agay and its evolutionary forms to mean "honey," "honey water" or "honey wine." In Amharic, the "d" sound has since evolved into a "t," and "gay" has evolved into "ge" and then into "j." So this is how linguists theorize that *d'agay became t'ej:

The variant spellings of the final form represent two things: the difficulty of transliterating Amharic into English; and the pronunciation differences, noted in the chart just below, between Ethiopian cultures with related languages, as well as non-related languages that have borrowed the word.

Note, too, the apostrophes in some of the names. Together with consonants called plosives (p, t, k), the apostrophe represents an ejective, a distinct sound in Ethiopian language that's transcribed in this way in linguistics. Listen closely to an Ethiopian saying "t'ej" and you'll hear the consonant with the apostrophe spit or snap just a bit inside the mouth.

Because most people won't know this sound, the spelling of "t'ej" is commonly simplified to "tej" when transliterating from Amharic to English, eliminating the apostrophe, which means nothing to everyday readers. Some linguists prefer that it be written t'ejj, with a double "j" used to represent the hard "g" sound of the Amharic letter that ends the word. Still others will transliterate it as t'äjj, with a diacritic, in an attempt to better represent the vowel, which probably sounds more like the "u" in "but" than the "e" in "edge."

Although the Amharic "t'ej" almost certainly came from *d'agay, how this particular root word came to represent "honey" or "honey wine" - or how any word in any language comes to represent anything - is anyone's guess. The late Professor Leslau, a groundbreaking authority on Ethiopian Semitic languages, doesn't cite any extra-Ethiopian roots in his writings on these words, although some of his work has now been surpassed by more recent studies and groupings of Ethiopian languages.

Ethiopian
Language
See Full Chart

Honey Wine

Language
Family

Amharic,
Kistane-Soddo

t'ej Semitic
Sebat Bet
Gurage cluster
(six dialects)
t'ej, dag'a Semitic

Silt'e

tajji Semitic

Wolane

t'ajay Semitic

Zway

t'eje Semitic

Inor, Mesqan, Gogot/Dobi

dag'a, t'ej Semitic

Harari

gohoy, t'ajji Semitic

Gafat
(extinct)

s'aj Semitic

Tigrinya, Tigré, Ge'ez, Saho

mes/miys Semitic

Bilin
[in Eritrea]

mes/miys, mid Cushitic

Xamtanga,
Qimant

miz Cushitic
Oromo

daad'ii

Cushitic

Arbore

d'aadi

Cushitic

Kambaata

daat'a

Cushitic

Qabena

tajjita

Cushitic

Komso

taadita, tajjeeta Cushitic

Baiso

t'ejii Cushitic
Hadiyya, Libido

dik'aasa

Cushitic

Awngi, Kunfal

mishi

Cushitic

Sidama

malawo/malabo, t'ajje

Cushitic

Afar

malb, gohoyu

Cushitic

Somali

khamri malabeed

Cushitic

Gedeo, Burji

boka/booka

Cushitic

Tsamai

xoronko Cushitic
Kafa, Boro,
Mocha

bito

Omotic

Anfillo

bita

Omotic

Hozo, Seze,
Bambassi

bit'

Omotic

Kwama

biti

Omotic

Zargulla

c'ajj

Omotic

Aari

s'ajji

Omotic

Dorze, Dizi, Gamo-Gofa

t'ej

Omotic

Maale

dago

Omotic

Wolayta, Chara

'eessa

Omotic

Yemsa

éésa Omotic

Bench

es Omotic
Karo

ala, sia

Omotic

Hamer-Banna

zia, alla, ant'si

Omotic

Shabo

'oo Nilo-Saharan

Nyangatom

a-tede Nilotic
(Nilo-Saharan)
Anuak

ogool

Nilotic (Nilo-Saharan)

Majang

ogool

Surmic (Nilo-Saharan)

Chai, Tirma

gimáy, t'acc

Surmic
(Nilo-Saharan)

Me'en

gima, boké

Surmic
(Nilo-Saharan)

Mursi
See Full Chart

gimma

Surmic
(Nilo-Saharan)

Non-Ethiopian Language
See Full Chart

Honey Wine

Country
(Lang. Family)

Sudanese

duma

Sudan
(Nilo-Saharan)

Kikamba, Imenti

uki/uuki

Kenya (Bantu)

Xhosa

iQhilika

South Africa (Bantu)

Maa

enaisho olotorok

Tanzania, Kenya (Nilo-Saharan)

Among the world's myriad languages, wine made from honey goes by many names. But two of them, with variations that adapt them to the features of each language, tend to dominate.

One common name is mead or its linguistic kin. The etymology of this word - through Greek, Latin and other ancient avenues - does nothing to suggest extra-Ethiopian influences on the word "t'ej." The second common name, somewhat more generic, is hydromel, which comes from two Greek words: "u'dro," meaning water, and "méli," meaning "honey." Simple enough. In fact, the modern French word for honey is miel, and the modern Italian word is miele. And then there's metheglin, a spiced mead. The word comes from Welsh and means "medicinal liquor." Not surprisingly, Ethiopians (and other cultures) have often used mead to soothes what ails them.

Variations of "mead" and "hydromel" are common among Indo-European languages (see the language chart with African and non-African languages added). In the west, the Spanish call it aguamiel ("agua" is the Spanish "hydro"). In the east, the Russians call it medovukha (clearly a variation of mead), and even the Indian language Sanskrit calls it medhu. In between, there's the Italian idromele, the Greek ydromeli, the Lithuanian and Latvian medus, the Danish and Norwegian mjød. The similarities to either mead or hydromel are apparent.

None of this helps to explain the origins of the Ethiopian word tej, nor of the other Ethiopian or African words for honey wine. This is certainly no surprise. It also reaffirms the theory that Africans began to cultivate honey and ferment it into wine without European influences.

Just as interesting is mes, the most widely known alternative name for tej because it's used in Tigrinya, the dominant language of Eritrea, which was once part of Ethiopia. The two countries share a lot of history, including the evolution of their Semitic languages, and both Amharic and Tigrinya are written with the same unique Ethiopian alphabet developed to write Ge'ez millennia ago.

The ancient language Ge'ez - the "Latin of Ethiopia," now extinct, except as the liturgical language of the Ethiopian Christian church - also called the beverage mes, and both modern Tigrinya and modern Tigré retain the word, derived from the Ge'ez root word *mys. This is no surprise, especially in Tigré, the extant language closest to Ge'ez. Leslau, in his Comparative Dictionary of Ge'ez, relates mes to the Arabic mata, which means "mix well," and with the Old South Arabian myt, which means "wine." It seems quite likely that Ge'ez borrowd "myt" and transformed it into "mes," thus making the history of "mes" easier to trace than the history of "tej."

And notice the crossover of this Semitic word: Bilin, a Cushitic language of Eritrea, has borrowed mes, but older people also call it mid; and both Xamtanga (miz) and Awngi (mishi), Cushitic languages of Ethiopia, use forms of it as well. Notice, too, that these words are not so far from the English mead - perhaps a linguistic coincidence, as sometimes happens. Or perhaps not.

In fact, the many different names for honey wine across Ethiopia, [see the chart at right or its full version], where the country's myriad cultural and ethnic groups speak more than 80 languages, suggest that even separate Ethiopian cultures developed honey wine as their own traditions.

Most of Ethiopia's languages are classified in one of four language families: Semitic, Cushitic, Omotic and Nilo-Saharan (especially its Nilotic and Surmic sub-groups). Although Amharic is the official and most widely spoken language, it's the second language (by necessity) for many Ethiopians.

But there's another twist. In Afaan Oromo, the most widely spoken first language in the country, honey wine is called daad'ii, which isn't as divergent from tej as it may seem. In fact, the kinship between the two words may reflect a strain of Ethiopian history.

Some Cushitic linguists suggest that Amharic - the Semitic language that dominates the country, even though the Cushitic Oromo people and their language are more numerous - may have borrowed tej as an altered form of daad'ii. As noted earlier with the root word *d'agay, the "d" has changed into a "t" and the "g" into a "j" in modern Semitic languages. But the Amharic "j" or "jj" (a long sound) can reflect, in some borrowed words, the evolution of a former Cushitic "dy" or "di" sound.

More evidence for this hypothesis: Why do the other major Semitic languages - Tigrinya and Tigré - retain the old Ethiosemitic mes for honey wine, but Amharic uses tej? Tigrinya and Tigré are spoken in northern Ethiopia and Eritrea, farther away from the central part of the country, where the Amhari and the Oromo met, mixed and, long ago, fought to control the country's cultural and lingistic destiny.

Using the Cushitic "daad'ii" as the root word for "t'ej," this could be another possible evolutionary path:

Of course, this begs the question: Where did "daad'ii" come from? Could it, too, have come from the Semitic root word *d'agay? In what direction did the borrowing go? We'll certainly never know. Still, if "tej" is an evolved form of "daad'ii," or even if "daad'ii" was an intermediate form, it could further show how the Amhari people have dominated the majority Oromo people in Ethiopian history, taking their name for honey wine and transforming it into the word known 'round the world. And if, as the linguist Max Weinreich wrote (quoting others), "a language is a dialect with an army and a navy," then the Amhari may have used language as another weapon to conquer their more numerous rivals.

Incidentally, the Oromo use the word booka for the yeast used to ferment their honey wine, and their best-quality daad'ii is daad'ii booka, with the yeast still in it. This is the type of daad'ii used at ceremonies. A few other Ethiopian Cushitic languages have borrowed booka or something similar for "honey wine."

Daad'ii is so revered in Oromo culture that the Macca Oromo of Wallagga, Ethiopia, have even written a song that sings its praises and alerts people to its dangers. In their 1996 essay "On Some Masqala and Daboo Songs of the Macca Oromo," Alessandro Triulzi and Tamene Bitima translate this paean to honey wine.

In the 1930s, the German researcher Carl Seyffert published a book on honey in Africa (see Chapter 7 below) in which he identifies three qualities of Oromo honey wine: hamtuu, the weakest (literally "bad, feminine"); boru, medium strength (literally "hard, heavy, thick"); and bekumu, the strongest (possibly from "beekuma," meaning "intelligence, ingenuity," or possibly a root word for "booka," badly transliterated by a non-linguist). In Amharic, beteha refers to a mild tej that's not fully fermented or that might not have used enough gesho.

Other cultures have found other fermenting agents. The Majang people of Ethiopia use the bark of the mange tree to make ogool. The Anuak, a Nilotic people of Ethiopia, pound and dry the bark of three trees - the aromo, the buodho and the jaa - to make their strong ogool. The jaa, Kigelia aethiopica, is commonly called the "sausage tree" because of the shape of its seed pods. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Nandi people make a honey wine called kipketinik, a mixture of fermented honey and water flavored with the flower of the sausage tree.

Ethiopian hip-hop artist Fantu Mandoye created a video, "Min Tej Alena," which means, roughly translated, "there is no good tej any more." His video, posted on You Tube, is in Amharic and English.

To ferment their honey wine, called d'aadi, the Arbore people of Ethiopia use aar, which is made of sorghum sprouts. The word means "bull," a testament to its fortitude. When a household has d'aadi fermenting, the residents may not shout or fight in the house, and when the wine is ready to drink, the first taste always goes to the spirits of the family's ancestors.

Note, in the chart, how numerous Ethiopian languages have shared and borrowed their various words for honey wine. The Amharic t'ej becomes tajji in Silt'e, another Semitic language, and c'ajj in the Omotic language Zargulla. The Semitic language Inor retains the older dag'a, where the "d" sound doesn't morph into a "t." Sidama, Afar and Somali - Cushitic languages of Ethiopia's Moslem cultures - use forms of malb, their word for honey, to mean "honey wine." This and other alcoholic beverages are rare in Moslem communities. And whereas it's impossible to say how far a borrowed word can travel, the Chadian Nilo-Saharan language Kenga calls honey "tèèjè."

No doubt tej goes by numerous other names in small communities whose languages have yet to be fully documented, although many Ethiopian languages - Chaha, a dialect of the Semitic Gurage language, as well as about 15 other Gurage dialects, and even Cushitic and Omotic languages - borrow the Amharic word "tej." In fact, the word "tej" has taken additional forms in Amharic: In Addis Ababa, tejjam and tejjo refer to a drunkard, and tejete means to brew tej.

The information for the chart was provided by scholars of Ethiopian and African languages from around the world. Because Ethiopia wasn't the only culture to ferment honey, a fuller version of the chart includes the words for "honey wine" in many more non-Ethiopian languages, just to show how widespread the tradition of fermenting honey is. I welcome additions. Those pan-African honey wines aren't always exactly like tej, but they're certainly fermented in the same spirit.

Finally, a word about spelling. The orthography of transliteration is always a challenge with Ethiopian languages: Unique among millennia-old African tongues, Amharic has its own alphabet. But there's no standardized way to convert Amharic fidels (letters) into English, and many of the less widely spoken languages of the country only developed a written tradition, if they have one at all, when they came in contact with outside cultures. The Latin alphabet tends to dominate, although some African languages use Arabic script.

The orthography of the language chart is based upon the advice of linguists and their etymological dictionaries, and these many names for "honey wine" represent the best possible scholarly attempts to recreate their pronunciations in English. Sometimes the orthographic variations - especially in the word "tej" itself - seem insignificant, and linguists do disagree on some of them. But most of these words are so difficult to represent in our alphabet that only native speakers can truly hear - and correctly pronounce - the differences.

1. Ethiopian History 2. Etymology 4. Tej Today 5. Making Tej 6. Finding Gesho 7. Winery Tej 8. Science of Tej

9. The words for honey wine and honey in Ethiopia's many languages         10. Watch Making Tej, a step-by-step video

3. Tej in History

NOBODY KNOWS EXACTLY how or when the Ethiopians first decided to mix honey with water and then flavor and ferment it with gesho (Rhamnus prinoides), a species of buckthorn that grows native only to Africa.

Excavations at Aksum, the first great civilization to emerge in what is now Ethiopia, have found accounts of the consumption of honey wine and its use in rituals. Aksum formed as early as 100 B.C. and collapsed in the 8th Century A.D., reaching its zenith in the fourth century A.D. under King Ezana, whose writings mention honey wine.

The Encyclopedia of World Environmental History says that tej is "thought to be one of the oldest alcoholic beverages ever produced," and B.S. Platt, in a 1955 article in the Proceedings of the Nutrition Society, wrote that "fermented honey drinks may have been the earliest alcoholic beverages known to man, and the discovery of them has been attributed to the Hamites." The German researcher Carl Seyffert's important 1930 study of honey and bees in Africa (see Chapter 8 below) documents the affection of African cultures for honey wine. The website gotmead.com, "your mead resource," tells the name for mead in numerous languages: After the Ethiopian entry "tej," it notes that this has been its name "since about 400 B.C.," a fact that linguists might dispute (see Chapter 2). No other country on the gotmead.com site bears a historical notation after its word for mead.

From Eva Crane's 1999 book, adapted from Carl Seyffert's 1930 book (see Chapter 8 below), a map showing where ancient Africans drank honey mixed with water. The key (red square) reveals that people in Ethiopia (blue square) added a fermenting agent to the beverage.

Eva Crane, in her 1999 book The World History of Beekeeping and Honey Hunting, tells us that the ancient 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." According to Crane, Strabo doesn't specifically say that the Ethiopians fermented this drink. But gesho, the fermenting agent of tej, is a species of buckthorn, so fermentation must have taken place. (See map at left.) This may be the earliest reference to Ethiopians fermenting honey water with gesho.

"In many areas [of Africa], particularly in the east," Crane writes, "honey was fermented in water for a longer period, with the root of some other part of a specific plant which had been found to increase fermentation and thus give a higher alcohol content. One of the most famous of these drinks was tej or t'edj in Ethiopia; Christianity had arrived there in the 300s, and alcohol was not prohibited."

Crane notes that according to 16th Century European chronicles, Ethiopians added saddo wood (Rhamnus tsaddo) to cause fermentation. Gesho, of course, is Rhamnus prinoides, clearly kin to the fermenting plant observed by the Europeans.

In some Nilotic cultures, located largely in southwestern Ethiopia, people use sorghum beer and honey wine to anesthetize animals before a sacrifice. The Nyangatom, a Nilotic people of Ethiopia, once had a clan that did this. The Maasai, of Kenya and northern Tanzania, still employ the practice for their eunoto ceremony initiating senior warriors, during which they strangle the sacrificial animal with a leather waist cloth taken from a woman's garment.

One of the earliest written records of tej comes from inscriptions on stones translated in 1962 by the Dutch scholar A.J. Drewes in his book Inscriptions de l'Ethiopie Antique, which is written in French. His revelatory work requires no reading between the lines: The ancient Ge'ez inscriptions that he deciphers tell us explicitly what some proto-Ethiopians drank.

"Memorandum concerning the food of the royal court according to the law of the country," begins one text, written during the height of Aksum's power. The inscription goes on to describe the victuals: There's virgin mutton, virgin beef, honey, wheat, beer, a bucket of butter and - best of all - honey wine. Drewes dates the inscription to the third century A.D.

In Ge'ez, it's called mes, the word still used by Tigrinya today. But we know it as the intoxicating tej, and here we have proof that the Aksumites fermented it. The inscription says the mes came served in a gabata, which Drewes translates as sargato (a frying pan). Ethiopians today serve their wot-covered injera atop a large round plate called a gebeta.


Read about my book Mesob Across America: Ethiopian Food in the U.S.A.


Accounts from as early as the 16th Century, when European exploration of Abyssinia began in earnest, document the presence of this special honey wine, usually consumed only by Ethiopia's ruling elite. The production of tej surely predates those accounts by a millennium or more.

These historic chronicles, published in the 16th through early 20th centuries, offer many sweet tidbits about tej: its production and consumption, and its place in Ethiopian society. In the passages that follow, notice how the recipes differ in the proportions of honey to water, and how the authors describe slightly different fermentation processes: Some say, for example, to leave the mixture in the sun, while others say to keep it out of the sun.

Notice, too, that the name "tej" itself has numerous spellings in historic accounts, once again because there's no standardized way to transliterate Amharic. Gesho, too, is spelled in a variety of ways in the historic literature.

The writers all agree that only the privileged classes drank tej before its democratization in the 20th Century, and the servant who got a taste was a lucky one indeed (although sometimes he would taste it to confirm that it hadn't been poisoned). So important was tej to the highest of Ethiopian society that royal homes would have a tej azaj, or tej butler, in charge of the royal mead. Another recurring theme: the weakness of the warlike and capricious Emperor Theodorus (1855-1868) for tej. His affliction with drink helped to bring about his downfall and death.

Taken together, this body of writing by more than two dozen travellers creates a thorough portrait of tej in Ethiopian history. Most of the explorers even enjoyed the often potent potable, although some seemed almost embarrassed to admit it.

"The Ras [chief] insisted upon my dining with him every day," wrote the Scottish explorer James Bruce in his groundbreaking account of his time spent in Ethiopia in the 1770s, "when he was sure to give me a headache with the quantity of mead, or hydromel, he forced me to swallow, a liquor that never agreed with me from the first day to the last."

Theophilus Waldmeier, an English missionary, wrote in his 1866 memoir: "Raw beef is not always eaten, but it is liked by people; and honey wine (mead) is much appreciated, but all cannot afford to obtain it, which is no loss to them, as it is intoxicating." Four years later, Henry St. Clair Wilkins stops for a meal with his party in Takoonda and writes: "Here we partook of our own fare in contentment, after an ineffectual attempt to swallow some tej, the home-brew of the village." Charles Hindlip, another Englishman, writing in 1906, refers to "teg, the national drink made of honey, nasty and strong."

Rhamnus prinoides leaf,
commonly called gesho
Clearly, tej is not a potable for all tastes. But most of the visitors found tej more to their liking than did Bruce, especially when enjoyed with spicy Ethiopian food.

The first Western account of Ethiopian culture was written and published in the 1530s by Father Francisco Alvares, a Portuguese priest who spent six years in Ethiopia with a mission from his country. He seemed to enjoy tej more than his Scottish counterpart of two centuries later. "They make wine from many seeds," Alvares wrote, "and the wine of honey is much the best of all." He reported that this wine "walked about with great fury, the mistress of the house, concealed behind a curtain, taking her own share."

Later, the cleric recalls a celebration and a most generous host:

The ceremonial, presentation and welcome all over-flowed with drink. He had near him four large jars of very good mead, and with each jar a goblet of crystalline glass. We began to drink, and his wife and two other women who were with her helped us well. They would not leave us until the jars were finished; each jar held six or seven canadas, and yet he ordered more be brought, saying that he would not let them go if we did not drink more. We left him for good reasons, saying we were going away to relieve ourselves.

That 16th Century Portuguese pastor apparently used a different translation of the Bible than Robert Moss Ormerod, the 19th Century Briton who, upon visiting Ethiopia, declared: "This honey-wine is the obstacle here to the progress of Christianity. Total abstinence on the part of missionary and people is indespensible." He was, of course, quite wrong: Ethiopians today enjoy both Christianity and tej.

Jeronimo Lobo, another Portuguese explorer of the 16th Century, observed that "the common drink of the Abyssins is beer and mead, which they drink to excess when they visit one another; nor can there be a greater offence against good manners than to let the guests go away sober: their liquor is always presented by a servant, who drinks first himself, and then gives the cup to the company, in the order of their quality." Of some time spent with an Ethiopian monk, he reported: "Having invited him to sup and pass the night with me, I set before him some excellent mead, which he liked so well as to drink somewhat beyond the bounds of exact temperance."

In his seminal 1684 history of Ethiopia, the German scholar Job Ludolphus makes brief but appreciative mention of tej. After discussing the nation's food and its preparation, he observes:

Their drink is somewhat more dainty, and is the glory and consummation of their feasts, for so far they still retain the custom of many of the ancients, that as soon as the table is clear'd, they fall to drinking, having always this proverb in their mouths, That it is the useful way to plant first, and then to water. They drink themselves up to a merry pitch, and till their tongues run before their wit, and never give off till the drink be all out. They make excellent hydromel by reason of their plenty of honey, which inebriates like wine. They call it tzed; they make it smaller for their families, mixing six parts of wine, with one of water.

Hormuzd Rassam, in his 1869 book, had two experiences with tej. Early in his journey, he writes that his host "brought me, as an introductory present, a horn of téj - mead, the common beverage of the upper classes in Abyssinia - which, by the way, was as sour as vinegar." But later, before an early morning meeting with Emperor Theorodus, "his Majesty sent me a large glass bottle containing about three gallons of very old and clear téj, which he requested me to drink for his sake. He was aware, he said, that I was not partial to such beverages, nevertheless as the téj was coeval with his reign he wished me to try it, and to give my opinion of its quality. I drank a little to satisfy him, and found it much superior to any liquor I had hitherto tasted in the country." This demonstrates the important of the tej-maker, and once again reaffirms Theordorus' affection for his tej.

An 1872 issue of the National Sunday School Magazine offers a squib on the coronation of Yohannes, citing to a volume of tej that seems more like lore than fact: "Prince Kassa of Tigre, entitled 'King of Kings of Ethiopia, by the will of the people of Abyssinia,' has been crowned Youarnisse [Yohannes], otherwise John, Emperor of Ethiopia. There were upwards of 300,000 people present. The camp reached for about eight miles. The plain of Axum was covered, and the feast lasted for ten days. Sheds were built, reaching nearly a mile, where all the people feasted. About 20,000 cows were killed, and 40,000 gallons of honey-wine drank."

Emperor Menelik II
honored his guests
with copious tej

Click to enlarge
Edward Gleichen, a traveler from fin-de-siècle England, wrote in 1898 that during a meal with Emperor Menelik, a maid-servant "proceeded to hand them the tej in small flagons, over which a piece of rag was thrown to keep away the evil eye. At the conclusion of this repast, a species of native spirit distilled from honey and flavoured with aniseed was handed around. This is a most potent liquor." He is probably referring to araki/areque, a sort of Ethiopian ouzo. "Tej is extremely popular with all ranks," he adds, "but it is only the middle and upper classes who can afford it. It is decidedly intoxicating, and the apostles of temperance, were they to visit the country, would find their work cut out for them." Later, he says more about tej in this excellent account of its varieties:

For the benefit of those who do not know tej, I must explain that it is the drink of the upper classes of the country; it is made by fermenting honey and hops and water together, and this process produces a strange-tasting drink rather like a bitter cider, and intoxicating, distinctly. The brands of tej differ according to the locality: Ras Makunnen's [father of Hayle Selasse] best tastes like sweet, strong old Madeira, and Menelik's like still hock, whilst the inferior kinds vary between bad sherry and sourish water with dead bees and lumps of wax and bark and earth floating in it. The lower classes drink talla, a sort of weak beer, made out of barley, which tastes just like what it is - inferior barley-water with beery reminiscences.

Tej also played a role in diplomacy. In his 1868 book that tells about a British mission to Abyssinia, Henry Blanc recounts this moment between the ambassadors and Emperor Theodorus:

A little later we were rather startled by a message from his Majesty informing us that he would come to see us. Though we did our best to dissuade him from such a step, he soon afterwards came, accompanied by some slaves carrying arrack [araki] and tej. He said, "Even my wife told me not to go out, but I could not leave you in grief, so I have come to drink with you." On that he had the arrack and tej presented to all of us, himself setting the example.

Commenting on a mission to Abyssinia 20 years earlier by the Rev. Samuel Gobat, Blanc makes this secular observation: "He travelled over the country for three years, preaching, discussing with the debteras [literates] and priests, who, for a glass or two of tej (mead), made him every possible concession, and overwhelmed him with exaggerated eulogies, which he has jotted down in his journal with inconceivable naiveté." Then, Blanc recounts this fascinating story about what the working class will risk for a taste of tej:

On one occasion a soldier who was on guard crept near the queen's tent, and, taking advantage of the darkness of night, whispered to one the female attendants to pass him a glass of tej under the tent. She gave him one. Unfortunately, he was seen by a eunuch, who seized him, and at once brought him before his Majesty. After hearing the case, Theodore, who happened to be in good spirits that evening, asked the culprit if he was very fond of tej; the trembling wretch replied in the affirmative. "Well, give him two wanchas [a large horn cup] full to make him happy, and afterwards fifty hashes with the giraf [a long hippopotamus whip] to teach him another time not to go near the queen's tent. Evidently, Theodore, with a large experience of the beau sexe of his country, was profoundly convinced that his precautions were necessary.

In the village of Beatmohar, in 1876, Robert Bourke visits a European friend, gets a taste of tej - and confirms once again the predilection of the emperor:

Kirkham at once produced some honey-wine, called "tej" in Abyssinia; it was excellent, and proved very refreshing after our ride. "Tej" is made in the following way: to one part of honey are added seven parts of water, and well mixed; then some leaves of a plant called "geshoo" are put into the mixture, to make it ferment; it is put outside in the shade and left for a day or two. A piece of cotton cloth is strained over the mouth of the large earthenware jar, or "gumbo," and through this the "tej" is poured; the servant tapping the cloth with his fingers to make the liquid run freely. It one wants to make it stronger, the first brew is used instead of the water; adding honey and geshoo leaves in the same way. In the time of King Theodore that monarch had tej five years old, which made any one drink in a very short time. But those were the "good old times" which we read of.

Emperor Theodorus,
who became
a slave to tej

Click to enlarge
The German explorer Heinrich Thiersch, writing in 1885, didn't quite consider tej to be wine and offered this brief observation: "Another snare for [King] Theodore was that referred to in the Proverbs of Solomon, xxxi, 4, 5: 'It is not for kings to drink wine; nor for princes strong drink: lest they drink, and forget the law, and pervert the judgment of any of the afflicted.' There is no wine in Abyssinia; for where the palm-tree begins to flourish, the grape-vine ceases to grow. But in its place is the fermented honey-wine (tetsch), and brandy is but too well known. Theodore became a slave to these pleasures, and thereby a slave to anger and a spirit of revenge."

But not only kings lost their heads from tej. In this 1885 anecdote about Ethiopian weddings, from The Illustrated English Magazine, we learn that "on the bridal night a most novel custom is observed by groomsmen - they occupy the bridal chamber with the married pair. This, no doubt, is in case the husband, taking too much tedge, begins to quarrel so early in the honeymoon, they are there to keep matters amicable."

In an 1856 account, the legendary explorer Sir Richard Burton affords tej this lengthy footnote:

This is the Abyssinian "Tej," a word so strange to European organs, that some authors write it "Zatah." At Harar it is made of honey dissolved in about fifteen parts of hot water, strained and fermented for seven days with the bark of a tree called Kudidah; when the operation is to be hurried, the vessel is placed near the fire. Ignorant African can ferment, not distil, yet it must be owned she is skilful in her rude art. Every traveller has praised the honey-wine of the Highlands, and some have not scrupled to prefer it to champagne. It exhilarates, excites and acts as an aphrodisiac; the consequence is that at Harar all men, pagans and sages, priests and rulers, drink it.

Henry Dufton's 1867 account of his time in Emperor Theorodus' Ethiopia again confirms the necessity of enjoying tej if you want to conduct diplomacy with the locals: "Before proceeding to business we were well supplied with tedge or honey-wine, which was followed by the strong arracky of the country, neat; so that before the interview was over we, who had not touched strong waters for a long period, were slightly affected by them. We should assuredly have refused to drink, especially the arracky, but were afraid of giving offence." He later reports that the time of day made no difference to his hosts: "We were now well supplied with arracky and tedge (honey-wine) in the drinking line, as well as with a plain breakfast of teff bread and stewed meat to satisfy the more solid demands of hunger." Finally, there's this lengthier account:

The entrance of [the governor] was the signal for the circulation of hydromel or tedge. This was kept in large gumbos or stone jars with narrow necks, covered with a piece of cotton-cloth, through which to drain it, so that the leaves of the gesho, a plant used in the making of the wine, may not pass through. From these gumbos it is poured into narrow-necked Venetian flasks called barillyè, these being preferred to glasses as the dust and flies are thus excluded in a great measure. Notwithstanding this advantage pertaining to the barillyè, in a great man's house it is not uncommon to see coloured glass tumblers, which, being scarce and expensive, are considered articles of luxury. The servant, after presenting the tedge, always holds out the hollow of his hand, which the receiver fills with wine, and sees the servant drink before he will taste himself - is it a provision against poison. The Abyssinians also present and receive everything with both hands, even if it be a pinch of snuff; they have a peculiar fondness for snuff, taking it into the mouth in preference to the nose.

Samuel White Baker offers an account of tej in his 1868 book about a visit to Abyssinia, although his transliteration of a key component in the wine is more than a bit off:

I paid all my Tokrooris their wages, and I gave them an entertainment after their own taste, by puchasing several enormous bowls of honey wine. The Abyssinians are celebrated for this drink, which is known as "tetch." It is made of various strengths; that of good quality should contain, in ten parts, two of honey and eight of water; but, for a light wine, one of honey and nine of water is very agreeable. There is a plant of an intoxicating quality known by the Abyssinians as "jershooa" [gesho], the leaves of which are added to the tetch while in a state of fermentation; a strong infusion of these leaves will render the tetch exceedingly heady, but without this admixture the honey wine is by no means powerful. In our subsequent journey in Central Africa, I frequently made the tetch by a mixture of honey and water, flavoured with wild thyme and powdered ginger; fermentation was quickly produced by the addition of yeast from the native beer, and the wine, after six of eight days, became excellent, but never very strong, as we could not procure the leaves of the jershooa.

Inside an Ethiopian tej bet ("house")
See a slide show of tej bet images
Martim de Albuquerque, a French writer, offered this tidbit in 1907:

The epithet of "dry" or "sec" is not only applied to European intoxicants. The favourite drink of the upper classes in Abyssinia is a kind of mead, called tej, which is composed of honey mixed with water, and allowed to ferment. For ordinary drinking tej, one part of honey to seven or eight of water is considered sufficient, and in this a slightly bitter herb, called geshu, which answers in some ways to hops, is infused. A stronger quality, from which araki, the spirit of the country, is distilled, is manufactured from one part of honey to three of water, with a stronger infusion of geshu. This mixture, in which the sugar is not apparent to the taste, is known as yedaraka [derek] tej, or literally dry tej.

Curiously, large portions of this passage appeared verbatim in a squib on tej in a 1908 issue of the magazine Notes and Queries. The magazine entry was signed by W.F. Prideaux. Unless that was a pseudonym for Martim de Albuquerque, the squib is clearly plagiarism by modern standards.

Herbert Vivian, a Briton visiting Ethiopia in 1901, noted the enormous number of servants present in the homes of the wealthiest Ethiopians. He observed: "Every retainer has his own duties, and will under no circumstances consent to do any others at all. In a big household one man looks after the tej and nothing else, another concerns himself only with the guns, another is merely treasurer, another has charge of certain animals. In fact there is an infinite division of labour."

Arthur J. Hayes, a doctor visiting Ethiopia in 1905, was once called upon to treat a tej-related ailment. After recounting the tale of a satisfied patient, he tells us:

Another Habash found me less satisfactory as a physician. He had come to ask what medicine he could take to cure the headache caused by tedj. Now, tedj is the beer, or mead, of the country; it is made from fermented barley, and flavoured with honey diluted in the proportion of one part to three parts of water. It is a very heady - and, to the Europeans, a most nasty - drink, and the Abyssinians consume enormous quantities of it. Parkyns was told of a man who swallowed twenty-six pints at a sitting, on the occasion of a wedding-feast at which the English traveler was present. But he regarded this statement as "a stretcher." I told the inquirer that the one and only prescription was not to drink tedj, and thereupon the little audience of his fellow-countrymen enjoyed a laugh at his expense.

Then, in a footnote to this tale, Hayes says: "I do not know whether the women drink much tedj, but even the ladies of the land did so in Bruce's time." He goes on to describe a bacchanalian feast, taken from Bruce's 18th Century writing, in which the women ate, smoked and drank on par with the men. He concludes: "And as there is a complete absence of gêne [embarrassment] in the conduct of modern Abyssinian women in other respects, I have little doubt that they still favour the tedj when the mood prompts them."

These parchments, hand-painted on cow hide, show two scenes of Ethiopian life related to tej. In the top scene, Ethiopians enjoy a traditional meal around two mesobs. Notice the berele with tej. In the bottom scene, some Ethiopians pound gesho - that is, grind the leaf into a fine power for use in making tej.

In Montagu Wellby's 1901 book on Ethiopia, the author learns about "the national drink" at a bakery/brewery in Harar:

Adjoining the bakery were the "tej" brewers. To drink tej is the highest bliss of some Abyssinians; it is one of the main objects of their existence. Without tej and without women life would be a blank to them. The process of making it is simple enough. Water and honey, in proportions of 5 to 1, are mixed together, and to this is added an infusion of the leaves of the geichi bush, which gives the drink its intoxicating strength. The longer this mixture stands, the stronger it becomes, till finally the essence of tej - known as araki - is distilled from it. The women employed in its manufacturing were generous enough with their offerings, pouring first a little into their own hands to drink, and then handing me the glass.

In 1904, Philip Maud published a piece in National Geographic about his trip to Ethiopia and recalled a meal served to his party by a district governor. "Serving-men plied us with 'tej,' the national drink of Abyssinia, which is made from honey," he wrote. "Old 'tej' is very heady, but not unpleasant in taste. Abyssinians of importance never travel without their 'tej" women. These ladies make the 'tej' in camp, and carry it on the march."

Dutch explorer Benjamin Nachenius encountered tej, which he noted is called "mes" in Tigrinya. He then explained how it's made, noting that one must "knead" the honey/water mixture by hand before letting it sit in the sun for several days:

Slechts de honigwijn (in het Amahrignan "tetch" en in het Tigrinya "mees" genoemd) was met heel veel zorg bereid en van uitmuntende kwaliteit. Deze hyonigwijn wordt door de Abyssiniërs op de volgende wijze bereid. In een grooten aarden pot wordt tegen één deel honig drie à vier deelen water gemengd en dit goed met de handen door elkaar gewerkt en gekneed; daarna voegen zij daarby den wortel (voor de mindere kwaliteit) of de bladeren (voor de beste soort) van eene plant door hen "geessho" genaamd, waarna de pot hermetisch gesloten wordt en gedurende drie à vier dagen aan de warmte van de zon blootgesteld. Na verloop van dien tijd heeft de gisting voldoende plaats gehad en heeft de tetch zijnen eigenaardigen half zoeten, half rinschen smaak verkregen en is daarbij koppiger geworden dan de meeste zware wijnen. De Abyssiniërs weten er ook een sterken araki of brandewijn uit te stoken. [Read an English translation of the passage.]

Octave-Ernest Collat, a French explorer, offers a brief anecdote that confirms, as late as 1906, other accounts of drinking tej: "Dans les festins, un domestique place à côté de chaque convive une petite carafe appelée 'berille,' pleine de 'tetch,' dont il se verse dans la main les premières gouttes pour témoigner en les buvant de l'absence de tout maléfice." In other words: "At feasts, a servant places beside each guest a small carafe called a 'berille,' full of 'tetch,' of which he pours in the hand the first drops to testify by drinking them of the absence of any evil spell."

The Italian explorer Matteucci Pellegrino visited Abyssinia in 1880 and confirmed some of the properties of the wine:

É incre dibile la quantità di tec che beve un ricco abissino specialmente in fin di tavola. Il tec o idromele è la bevanda più favorita in Abissinia. Essa si compone di miele, acqua e ghisció. Si scioglie il miele nell'acqua, la quale deve essere in tal quantità da diluirlo interamente e da produrre un liquido chiaro e poco dolce. Fatta questa prima mescolanza, si prendono delle foglie di ghisció rasciugate al sole, e si pongono sopra il fuoco in un meetad, per farle leggermente abbrustolire. È bevanda piacevole al gusto, se il ghisció non è soverchio, ma se ve n'ha di troppo non è piacevole, riscalda gli intestini ed inebria. [Read an English translation of the passage.]

A somewhat patronizing and slightly unappetizing account of tej comes from Edward Randolph Emerson's 1908 guide Beverages Past and Present:

On state and formal occasions [in Ethiopia] it is the practice to serve tedj in brillas. A brilla is a round glass bottle with a long slim neck, and an absurdly small orifice; it holds about a pint and somewhat resembles a wine decanter. Owing to the small throat it takes considerable time to fill them but on the other hand it cannot be said that the expert - and every Abyssinian is an adept - is very long in emptying it; the novice, however, finds it no simple task, for when the brilla is elevated above a certain angle the liquor refuses to flow, and again if the lips are too tightly closed over the neck the progress of the fluid is materially hindered. When the tedj-bearer comes around, after pouring a little into his left hand and drinking, he passes the brilla to the guest, who immediately takes a sip and then, placing his thumb over his mouth, he retains it until he has finished its contents, and calls for another or as many as he desires. There is no limit placed upon the number a man may drink and if he is overcome nothing is thought of it, excepting, perhaps, by the individual the next day.

At first sight the use of the brilla seems rather strange, but when it is looked into more closely, it is seen these people have solved quite a difficult problem, and the practice shows a degree of niceness that one would hardly expect to find in a people of their character and environments. It there is any other country that has more flies in it than Abyssinia the traveler will do well to stay away from it. No matter in what part of the land you may visit there will be flies so thick it is almost impossible to eat without getting them in the food, and tedj, being made from honey, is sweet and of course more than usually attractive to these pests. If the liquor is poured into a glass it would necessitate the immediate drinking of the whole amount and, even if that was done, the chances would be that a fly had managed to gain access to it before it had all gone down the drinker's throat. On the other hand with the use of the brilla all this annoyance and trouble is obviated. The brilla is held in the hand with the thumb over its mouth, and conversation proceeds with only a momentary interruption now and then, caused by raising the bottle to the lips.

Emperor Melelik II's receptions
always flowed with tej

Click to enlarge
This raises the subject of the tej drinking vessel the berele (or "brilla" as Emerson writes it). In ancient times through the 19th Century, tej would often be served in cups carved out of animal horns. Theodore J. Bent's 1896 account is one of many: "We paid daily visits to Abyssinian houses during our stay in Asmara, and got to know some of the people quite well. They would give us tedge or hydromel out of great horn cups - horns which in the first instance must have been of enormous dimensions, and which, as we got into the interior, we found every chief had, out of which to regale his guests with mead. These horn cups on journeys they carry in stamped leather cases, and hang to the saddles of their mules."

But Robert Peet Skinner, writing a decade later, begins to document the emergence of more modern methods of enjoying tej. At a banquet, "serving men with large baskets kept the good things going, and others passed tall blue enameled drinking-cups filled with tedj. In the good old days the drinking-cups were of horn, but modernism 'made in Germany' has obliterated at last this vestige of the Biblical civilization of Ethiopia. So great was the demand for tedj that a pump forced it through a pipe, under the end of which one cup replaced another, as soon as the one preceding was full."


Read about my book Mesob Across America: Ethiopian Food in the U.S.A.


In 1877, the Frenchman Emilius Cosson offers this delectable tale of an Abyssinian feast - an important rule of tej:

The old chief received us very courteously, and motioned us to sit down on the sofa at his side, the rest of the company arranging themselves on the ground at his feet, while the servants and soldiers stood in a row around the wall. A large earthen jar of tedge (mead) was now brought in, and several glass bottles in wicker cases. They were taken out, filled, and handed to the guests, who were not slow in emptying them in the primitive fashion, for there were no glasses. In Abyssinia it is considered polite to drink at least two bottles of tedge at a visit, but you are at liberty to pass the bottle when half empty to a favourite servant, for him to finish. A good tedge is rather heady, so we always took care, when out visiting, to keep a native servant, with a steady head, standing behind us, for the special purpose of emptying our bottles, a duty which it seemed to give the greatest satisfaction to perform.

The Abyssinians hold to the ancient rule which forbids the mixing of cups and council together, and it is not their custom to discuss any serious subject while drinking tedge; things which would give grave offence, if said before drinking, are accepted as merely banter under the genial influences of the mead; chaff and jest are therefore freely indulged in at these feasts. This custom, however, renders it a very difficult matter to induce an Abyssinian to talk seriously, as he is sure to try to put off the trouble of so doing by sending for the tedge horn, after the arrival of which, it is useless to try to make him talk sense.

On another leg of his visit, in the village of Guddofelassie, Cosson learned more about the customs that surround tej:

It was not long before the shoum, or chief of the village, came to offer us a present of tedge (mead), which he brought in glass bottles carefully encased in wicker-work, for bottles are precious things in Africa.

When an Abyssinian servant offers his master tedge, he makes a cup of his two hands, and expects to have some of it poured into them for him to drink; this is his perquisite, and it also serves as a guarantee that the liquor has not been poisoned. The same custom prevailed in Europe in the middle ages, when every nobleman had his "taster," only the Abyssinian drinks out of his hand, as he does not know the art of poisoning the edge of a cup, and it would be considered highly disrespectful for a slave to touch his master's drinking horn with his lips.

A 2004 stamp
of R. prinoides
In his 1881 book about a visit to Abyssinia, William Winstanley writes at length about tej and its preparation:

I have not hitherto described how the honey wine in general use among the upper classes is made, and as I engaged a native servant, Baldo Mariam, who was specially skilled in its manufacture, I will now proceed to impart this information. The component proportions vary from one of honey to four or eight of water. I cannot recommend the latter strength myself, and never made it weaker than one to five. These are placed in a jar, and exposed to the rays of the sun for one or two days, herbs possessed of a bitter flavour (gesho) being previously added, and it is in the quality of these herbs used, and the time they are allowed to remain in the wine, that the great difference in flavour consists. I constantly fancied that the wine offered me was not sweet enough, whereas it would of course be ordinarily the impression that hyrdromel must be necessarily very sweet. The fluid, if made originally strong, is improved by keeping, and will remain good for months; it ought not in any case to be consumed in less than a week later its manufacture.

The quantities drunk by natives struck me as prodigious. It affects the head, and occasions stupefaction, but the exhilaration produced by lighter grape-wine is wanting, and quarrelsomeness and stupidity are the usual sequences of over-indulgence; that it can produce nausea and headache I am prepared to vouch. The Abyssinian is very convivial by disposition, and passionately attached to intoxicating beverages.

Charles Johnston published two volumes in 1844 of his extensive travel through Ethiopia, and he devoted two pages to his discussion of tej, beginning with its medicinal value. Notice that Johnston - perhaps because he didn't understand Amharic well enough, or because his translator wasn't clear - seems to mistake a "barilla" (berele) for a particular type of highly fermented tej.

After the reaction following the hot stage of the fever, I felt quite certain a horn or two of "tedge" honey wine would not do me any injury. My servant soon breasted the high hill, and fortunately just in time to find a person in authority, who, immediately he was shown my durgo order, procured a large bullock's horn full of the sweet wine. The manufacture of tedge or honey wine is a royal monopoly, and is not publicly sold; of course there is a kind of conventional license, not exactly smuggling, by which, for double or treble its value, this beverage may be obtained. Even then the purchased article is probably the rations that have been preserved by some carefully disposed guest of the monarch, who, pouring his daily allowance of the bullock's hornfull into a large jar, collects a stock for a day of rejoicing or for private sale.

Tej server in Ethiopia
filling a berele
The process of brewing tedge is simple enough; cold water being poured over a few small drinking hornsfull of honey placed in a jar, is well stirred up; to this is then added a handful of sprouted barley, "biccalo," scorched over the fire, and ground into a course meal, with the same quantity of the leaves of the "gaisho," a species of Rhamnae, not unlike the common tea plant, and an intense but transient bitter like gentian or hops. The mixture being allowed to stand for three or four days, ferments, and is generally drunk in that state, but is then rather a queer kind of muddy beverage, full of little flocculent pieces of wax. It is more agreeable, but not unlike, in appearance or character, very strong sweet-wort. To a superior kind, made for the King's own table, besides the "biccalo" and "gaisho," is also added a kind of berry called "kuloh," which grows not unlike the fruit of our elderberry, and may possible be the production of some tree belonging to that species.

The jars containing this are sealed with a large cake of clay mixed with the lees of the decanted liquor. This kind of tedge is allowed to stand for several months before it is used, and is called "barilla," from always being handed to guests in small Venetian bottles of green glass, the fracture of one of which is a grievous offence with his Shoan Majesty, and he always makes the careless party pay for it.

In his 1892 book Drinks of the World, James Mew has an entry on tej, suspiciously taken from Johnston's 1844 account because it mistakes a "barilla," the drinking vessel, for a type of tej:

Taidge or Tedge or Tej is a kind of honey wine or hydromel, said by Father Poncet to be a delicious liquor, pure, clarified, and of the colour of Spanish white wine. The process of its manufacture is simple. Wild honey is mixed with water, and set in a jar, with a little sprouted barley, some biccalo or taddoo bark, and few geso or guécho leaves. A superior kind is made by adding kuloh berries. This is called barilla. The taste of tedge has been described as that of small beer or musty lemonade. The women commonly strain it through shifts.

Mansfield Parkyns, in his 1868 account, once calls the wine by its Tigrinya name. Speaking of how Ethiopians make the festive ambasha bread, he writes: "To make it a stiff dough, as in Europe, it is first generally leavened by the addition of a little 'mése' (honey wine) or beer, for they understand little of the art of kneading." Parkyns did spend time in the northern Tigrai region, where Tigrinya is spoken, so his reference to "mes" (as we now spell it) makes some sense.

Parkyns also shares an anecdote about a medicinal purpose for tej. He reports that tapeworms are a very common condition in Abyssinia, and after describing the bark used as a partial remedy, he turns to part two of the treatment: "About noon, when it [the bark] has taken the required effect, a good quantity of beer or tedge is considered beneficial, on which account, if the sufferer be a servant, he begs for a supply from his master, or any friends who may be dining with him; coming round at meals, holding in his hand a small cross made of two bits of stick or straw, and exclaiming, 'For the sake of Mary, for the sake of the Savior,' &c., when a horn of liquor is usually given him."

But Parkyns' most detailed discussion of tej was so good that it bore repeating. William Dalton's fanciful 1865 book The Tiger Prince reads like a novel, with dialogue between its characters and stories that feel as embellished as they do real. Dalton visited Ethiopia at the same time as Parkyns, and in The Tiger Prince, Parkyns appears as a character and narrates a two-page tale of tej taken word for word from his own book, although Dalton does use "quotation marks" in presenting the passage. It's an extraordinary account of a feast, the most vivid documentation of the interplay between the Abyssinian gentry and their servants during a tej-drinking ceremony. As told by Dalton, Parkyns' story begins when a "great jar of mead" arrives in the banquet hall, a jar so large that

one man cannot possibly carry it. Its mouth is covered with a piece of rag, drawn tight over it as a strainer, to prevent bits of wax, bark, and other extraneous matters from falling into the drinking-vessels when the mead is poured out. These vessels are the wanchas, or horns, common tumblers, and a sort of bottle from Venice, called brillé. The office of pouring out the mead devolved on one of the logonamy, who brings in the jar. He supports it under his arm, raising and lowering it to fill the wancha, which is held by another servant, called the fellaky, who keeps tapping or scratching the rag with his fingers, to facilitate a free flow of the liquor. Under the mouth of the jar is a bowl to catch the droppings. It is easy for this functionary to appropriate to himself one glass out of every five or six, if he knows how to arrange matters with the logonamy, who holds the jar, so that he may keep pouring on a little after each vessel is filled. Besides this, he has the right of emptying into his reservoir about one inch of the liquor from every wancha filled (which is a great deal, as they are very broad at the mouth, and narrow downwards), and from every brillé, or bottle, two inches.

In Dalton's book, cultures unite as revelers dance, invigorated by tej
Click to enlarge
The first horn poured out is drunk by the logonamy, who holds the jar, and the second by the tedge melkernia, who has the superintendency of the brewery; the fellaky then arranges the horns on the ground near him as fast as they are filled, and the asalafy, or waiter, takes them up, drinks one himself, presents one to the master of the house, and afterward hands them round to the company. Before offering a glass to any one, the waiter pours a little of the contents into his left hand and drinks it off; this is to allow that the mead is not poisoned. Ordinary persons drink about two thirds, the remainder being the perquisite of the waiter, who, as soon as the glass is returned, drinks off the content. He would not, however, presume to put his master's cup to his lips, but, raising it above his head, pours the contents into his mouth from a distance. This feat is rather difficult to perform; for if he has not the knack of letting the mead flow straight down his throat without attempting to swallow it, he must choke; and if he has not the dexterity to give a right direction to the stream, it will probably be spilt down his neck. If it be a wancha, it is still more difficult to manage, on account of the depth of its mouth.

It may be readily imagined that, at a large party, all these tops and bottoms of glasses would form together a considerable quantity, and that the servant would have as much as he could do to carry himself, to say nothing of the glasses, were he to drink all that falls to his share; so he either distributed it among his fellow-servants, or collects it in a bowl for a great tipple with his friends in the evening.

Finally, Parkyns' narrative ends, and Dalton concludes the tale in his own voice: "Not a word was spoken during the eating. The copious draughts of mead, however, let loose the company's tongues, and so far, and at such random did they now run, I may say that they had all run into one; producing a din that might have been heard a mile away, their voices being as loud as their appetites were strong. So copiously, however, did they drink, that, in a very short time, what with their feeding and libations, the great din must have subsided into a blended, and, certainly, not very harmonious snoring."

Gerald Portal, writing in 1898, offers this long detailed account of tej, which he also refers to as "mése," noting its regional connection. His tale is rife with the classism associated with tej and Ethiopian culture of the era:

A few minutes later presents arrived, consisting of two sheep, which I did not want, and a most welcome jar of "tedge," a fermented drink greatly prized and drunk in large quantities by the Abyssinian aristocracy.

This tedge, or "mése," as it is called in some parts of Tigré, when well made, is by no means disagreeable to the European palate, being not unlike new cider; but it varies greatly according to the taste of the chief for whom it is brewed. Its composition is as follows: one part of honey is mixed with about five or six parts of water, and well kneaded about with the hands, until the honey is thoroughly in solution. This mixture is poured into a large but narrow-mouthed earthen jar called a gumbo, into which are then put a quantity of the leaves of a bitter herb called gesho, in appearance not unlike tamarind leaves; sometimes instead of these leaves a smaller quantity of tsaddoo, or bitter bark, is used. The mouth of the jar is then covered with a cotton cloth, and the liquid is left to ferment for two or three days. The fermentation begins within a very short time, and is apparently very violent in its action.

Emperor Menelik II
Click to enlarge
At the end of three or four days, or even less if the weather is warm, the tedge is ready for drinking, and in a great man's house is usually first poured through a cotton strainger into a large hollow cowhorn or buffalo-horn. This horn is then brought by slaves into the presence of the chief and his honored guests, and the tedge is again poured into narrow-necked glass flasks like small decanters, holding about a pint, from which it is not very easy to drink gracefully, but which have the advantage of excluding most of the dust and flies.

Tedge can, of course, be made sweet or bitter according to taste, by regulating the proportions of honey and of the bitter leaves, while its strength for intoxicating purposes increases in proportion to its bitterness. We noticed during our journey that the bitterness of the tedge varied, as a rule, according to the social standing of our host. Thus, Ras Alulu and the king himself liked their tedge very "dry" or even "brut" - too dry, in fact, for our foreign tastes; whereas most of the ordinary chiefs of districts and commanders of divisions gave us a sweeter and, to our taste, more welcome brew.

When, in any chief's house or tent in Abyssinia, the slave brings in the jar or horn of tedge, he pours it at once into the narrow-necked flasks, the first of which he then takes to his master, to whom he presents it with both hands and with bowed head; the slave then makes a sort of cup of the palm of his hands, which is invaraibly filled from the flask by the master, who sees his servant drink these few mouthfuls before he will touch it himself or offer it to a guest. This is a safeguard against poison, but although in many cases it is quite unnecessary, it would be a grave breach of etiquette to omit any part of the ceremony; and to offer a cup of wine to a stranger without it being previously tasted in his presence would be a manque de tacte which might lead to serious complications.

A berele, c. 1899, in a book by the Russian A.K. Bulatovich
(Click to enlarge)
The privilege of making tedge is restricted to persons of rank and position, and any common soldier or person of lower orders convicted of encroaching on the privileges of the aristocracy of Abyssinia would have to pass through some very unpleasent moments before being considered to have purged his offence. This excellent and sanitary law was made by the late King Theodore, who argued that the chiefs and upper classes could be expected to have self-control and be trusted not to drink too much of the intoxicating liquor, where the lower orders, if allowed to make or drink tedge, would not know when to stop, and would seize every opportunity of getting drunk and of reducing themselves to the level of the beasts whom in many characteristics they already so nearly resemble.

Frederic Villiers, a "war artist and correspondent" (according to his books), published an account of tej in 1921 with some phrases that sound suspiciously like Portal's 1898 account. Decide for yourself:

Tedge, or mêsé, as it is sometimes called, is not unlike new cider. One part of honey is mixed with about six parts of water and stirred until completely dissolved. Then it is poured into a narrow-neck earthen jar and a bitter herb called sesho, the bark of the traddo tree, is added. The liquid is then left to ferment and at the end of four days it is ready for consumption. For a snappy drink I can highly recommend tedge. It is strained through cotton cloth, tied round the mouth of the earthen jar into cow horn, which are used as drinking utensils. The beverage can be made sweet or bitter according to taste, and is most refreshing and sometimes very potent - especially the bitter variety. I think this would satisfy some people in these prohibition days who like to have a "snap" in their drink, for with perseverance one could get quite forward on sufficient horns of tedge.

This so-called barbarous land had drastic liquor laws long before the most civilized countries of Europe and America ever thought of them. In Theodore's reign in 1868 the common people were not allowed to make tedge because their Emperor came to the conclusion that they did not get drunk like gentlemen, but made beasts of themselves and quarreled in their cups. The drink which he permitted the lower classes to have is less harmful to the human stomach than near-beer. It is made from toasted bread soaked in water and sweetened with honey and, like tedge, strained into earthen jars. This drink, I am told, resembles an old fifteenth-century beverage in England called mead.

In his 1901 memoir, Augustus B. Wylde recounted a rare tale of an Ethiopian Moslem drinking tej. "The respectable and total abstainer Saïd got drunk, though not badly," Wylde wrote. "He said it was the first and last time that he would ever drink tedj, and I believe him." Later in his narrative, Wylde told the Western world about the pleasures and perils of tej, confirming much of what Winstanley wrote, and adding some new wrinkles:

We entered a big rectangular room in which the rasses [chiefs] and head man were waiting to receive us on a raised platform and we after shaking hands were given chairs in the post of honor next to Ras Mangesha. Music, singing and dancing of the usual Abyssinian description then commenced while the feast was being got ready, and hydromel in glass bottles was handed round, the tedj bearer always pouring out a little of the liquid onto the palm of his hand and drinking it to show it was not poisoned. These brillas are nearly all made in Austria of colored glass and are like a small wine decanter without a stopper and hold about a pint. Their necks are very small and they take a long time to fill. When once they are handed to the guest he takes a sip and then places the thumb over the neck of the bottle to keep out flies that are always very numerous on these occasions. The beauty of drinking out of a brilla is that it need not be done in a hurry and one can be made to last a long time, and perhaps an Abyssinian will drink four or five full while a European is getting through one. The tedj has different effects on different natures. To one it may be an intoxicant, to another it has only a soporific effect, and it depends greatly on the quantity of geshu [gesho] plant used to bring on fermentation. Geshu is, I think, of the laurel tribe, as it is an evergreen, never entirely losing its leaves. It has an insignificant little flower and the leaves have but little taste, until added to the honey and water, of which tedj is made.

Later in his journey, Wylde came upon a proto-intoxicating repository:

After following the Meli for about three miles, we went off the road to the village of Woha Eilou, a properly belonging to Queen Taitou, the wife of King Menelik. The man in charge was very civil, and gave us everything that he had of the best, besides a jar of very fine tedj. When we arrived it was raining hard, and he put Schimper and I up in his house, and the female proportion of the establishment crowded round us to have a long look at the Englishman. Next morning I was shown over the estate, which was very well cared for and produced a great quantity of corn, and a good deal of butter was made. Besides these two very necessary articles, three houses were full of bee hives, and the honey taken from the wanza flowers being greatly prized, as being of a white colour, makes a very clear tedj. The honey is sent to Adese-Ababa for the queen's use.

Although only the upper classes normally drank tej, apparently emperors would sometimes relax the rules. In a 1911 issue of Blackwood's Magazine, under a chapter heading "Christmas at the capital of Menelik," writer Ian Hay reports that during a holiday celebration at the Ghibbé (imperial palace), "many of the crowd in the hall were soldiers, and their officers sat in three rows on the steps of the great dais, and instead of tel [tella] were given tedge ad lib., served to them in water carafes, from which they drank without troubling themselves about glasses, emptying a bottle at one draught. It was an extraordinary scene and very picturesque."

A few pages later, the author tours a royal kitchen and sees

several large barns filled with great tubs of tedge (the native mead, made from fermented honey), all half sunk in the earthen floor, and covered with thin sheets of calico, as the tops were left open, to keep out the flies and dust. In one of the barns a carpet was spread, and a small table, with chairs beside it, was set. Some dim and dirty-looking glasses were on it, and we were invited to taste samples of the tedge and red wine. I drank a little tedge, which was really not at all unpalatable, but I thought very strong. It was of extra quality, being made for Royalty.

Then, the author describes a process rarely seen in the literature - the extraction of honey from the comb for making the tedge: "This was managed by putting a great quantity of it into a cloth suspended over a large wooden tub. Leather thongs were then passed double over it in two places, and four slaves pulled them tight as they jerked the cloth backwards and forwards from side to side: this squeezed the honey out into the tub underneath. The refuse wax was then made into squares like bricks, and piled all around the sides of the barn."

In his 1995 book The Making of Modern Ethiopia: 1896-1974, historian Teshale Tibebu describes the 19th Century geber (taxation) system of the late 19th and early 20th Century, "wherein people thought they were getting free food and drinks from the generous teleq saw (big man)." In fact, this system

was a mechanism of creating hegemony across the various ranks of the ruling class, and also over the producing class, although the latter were hardly represented in the redistributive-banquet culture. Banquet was a means of elaborating hegemony throughout the polity. Raw meat and tej of different qualities were served at the banquets. The best food and drink was offered to the notables. The clergy belonged to his group. Then came the intermediate level food and drink. Last were the non-producing poor. They received talla (local beer), instead of tej, and the leftover food. If talla was the only drink served at the banquet, a distinction was made in the quality of the talla - the best for the notables, the next best for the commoners, and the leftovers for the non-producing poor. The non- producing poor were not bound by the etiquette of eating moderately, which they shared with the clergy. In some case, raw meet and tej of the same quality were served for the entire audience in the banquet hall, and the leftover was given to the non-producing poor.

Depending upon the region and local variations, tax paid in honey was quite widespread. The annual tax in honey was about four pounds. The honey collected thus was used for making tej (mead). If the people of the region did not produce honey, they had to pay its equivalent in kind or cash.

In the tej bet, about 30 women worked, producing two kinds of tej: one for the commoners, and one fit for the emperor, who never drank it. The mekwannint [nobility] ate quietly and unusually remained sober, as on these occasions they were on public display. Champagne and cognac were provided first, followed by tej, which few ever finished since they preferred champagne and cognac. The nobility's preference for champagne and cognac to tej shows that they had begun to develop Western consumption tastes. The gabbar [commoner] who sat in the banquet hall and was offered tej hardly thought that the tej was the very honey he had offered as tribute, mixed with water.

Finally, there's this mention of tej from a book whose title is almost as dizzing as the beverage itself. Written in 1838 by Samuel Morewood, A Philosophical and Statistical History of the Inventions and Customs of Ancient and Modern Nations in the Manufacture and Use of Inebriating Liquors observes:

[The Abyssinians] have a good agreeable liquor made from honey, which is very intoxicating. The honey of Abyssinia is very plentiful, and is white, hard and well flavoured. The use of this material in making intoxicating beverage, is not not only extensive in this country, but also in the adjoining states, and it seems to be a staple commodity. When Alphonsus Mendez passed through Dancali, near the coast of Babel-Mandel, it was with this liquor he was entertained by the monarch, who, on entering the hall of audience, was preceded by a domestic with an earthen pitcher full of hyrdomel, while another attendant carried a porcelain cup, out of which, with ceremony, his Majesty pledged his guest in a flowing bumper.

So goes the history of tej, which apparently didn't escape the attention of anyone who explored Ethiopia.

Incidentally, these writers spelled tej in a variety of ways because there has never been an international standard for transliterating Amharic into English. This accounts for "geshu" rather than the now-accepted "gesho" - which is how it appears on stamps issued in Ethiopia - as well as other spelling quirks of writing Amharic in English. [Look at 12 Ethiopian stamps honoring gesho and beehives.] The complex nature of the Amharic syllabulary - with its 276 letters, including some consonants that you can write with more than one letter - doesn't help the situation.

1. Ethiopian History 2. Etymology 3. Tej in History 5. Making Tej 6. Finding Gesho 7. Winery Tej 8. Science of Tej

9. The words for honey wine and honey in Ethiopia's many languages         10. Watch Making Tej, a step-by-step video

4. Tej in Ethiopia Today

EVERYONE IN ETHIOPIA can now drink tej, whether or not the emperor and his guests offer it to them. It is, in fact, considered to be the "national drink." Some make it at home - for weddings, women traditionally prepare gallons and gallons of it - and Ethiopians will often use tej to replace some of the water required in making certain dishes, such as a spicy wot.

Many people drink their tej at a "tej bet," or "tej house," a commercial establishment, very often owned and operated by a woman, that specializes in serving tej. The alcohol content of the tej that you buy in a tej bet varies widely, from 6% to 11%, according to studies, and this may account for the custom of dancing with a berele of tej on your head.

The name "tej" refers to an Ethiopian wine made with honey, water and gesho. Sometimes you'll see it referred to as "ye'mar tej," where "mar" is the Ethiopian word for "honey" and "ye" is a preposition that means "with" or "of." Thus "ye'mar tej" is "Ethiopian honey wine made with honey." Why the redundancy? Because you can also make "ye'buna tej," which is Ethiopian honey wine flavored with coffee (buna), or you can make "ye'birtukan tej" (flavored with orange), or "ye'zinjibil tej" (flavored with ginger), or "ye'muz tej" (flavored with banana), and so on with numerous other flavoring agents (including, an Ethiopian woman told me, jalepeno peppers!). "Ye'mar tej" simply tells you that the only flavoring, apart from the requisite gesho, is honey.


Read about my book Mesob Across America: Ethiopian Food in the U.S.A.


The sweetness and alcohol content of tej depends upon how long you ferment it and what kind of gesho you use. The longer the fermentation process, the more the sugar from the honey will turn to alcohol. Tej left to ferment for months and months can almost take on the taste and color of liquor (but still with a sweet undercurrent).

The strongest tej is called derek, which is the Amharic word for "dry." This is often the result of tej made with gesho leaf, or tej made with gesho stick but fermented for a very, very long time. Derek tej made with leaf is slightly bitter, a taste prized by the people who relish it. Next comes makakalanya, or tej of "medium" sweetness. This is the tej most frequently served in tej bets and homes. Finally, there's laslasa, or "sweet" tej, which is usually just berz, a mixture of honey and water, without gesho, that sits for two or three days before consumption. Under the bountiful Ethiopia sun - "thirteen months of sunshine," the country's promotional slogan says - that's enough to get a little bit of fermentation going.

The neighborhood tej bet is a very popular gathering place in Ethiopia. Google Earth even has an aerial map showing the location in Nekemte of Edme Ketle Tej Bet (at the center of the map). The name means "wise leaf." You can also look at aerial locations of these other Ethiopian tej bet. There are myriad such places all over the country.

There's even a city in Ethiopia called T'ej Washa, located in the North Wello region of the country, east of Lake Tana and Gondar, the nation's former capital. The word "washa" means "cave," and while I don't know whether the town's name truly has anything to do with honey wine, standard Ethiopian dictionaries list no other meaning for the word "tej."

To make all of this tej, Ethiopians need plenty of honey and gesho. Ethiopia is the largest honey producer in Africa, and fully 70% of the honey sold in Ethiopia goes to the making of tej, according to an April 2007 report by an Ethiopian research agency. Other reports say the amount of Ethiopian honey used for tej is as high as 80%. This means that a valuable export crop is lost to national tej production.

But the situation is changing slowly, according to a July 2006 story in Africa News. The piece reported on a lecture by Dr. Nuru Adigaba from the Holeta Bee Research Center:

The presentation made clear that honey is a significant cash crop in Ethiopia with 95% of what is produced coming to the market and generating 360 to 480 million birr revenue for those in the business. But the most striking fact is that almost the entire volume of the honey marketed is consumed by the local demand as an ingredient production tej. "When honey is bought for preparing tej what matters the most is volume and weight rather than quality, which is key in table honey production," Nuru said. As a result, the apiculturalists would not be compelled to produce honey that is up to the standards demanded by the international market.

However, he admitted that there was a gradual shift from using the honey output only for tej to using it to produce table honey with a growing emphasis given to the sector by private investors. "For instance, currently around seven companies have been involved in establishing honey processing plants, which will collect and process table honey both for export and for local markets," he said.

Gesho, too, is abundant in the country (see below), and some of it is even exported to Ethiopian grocery stores and wineries around the world.

An Ethiopian tej bet
(Click to enlarge)

You can drink your tej from a glass if you like, but as already noted, it's traditionally enjoyed using a berele, a flask-like vessel with a wide bottom and a long, narrow neck. The picture at right, which you can click to enlarge, shows tej served in a glass and a berele. The photo was taken at a tej bet in Lalibela, Ethiopia, and the color of this tej is the richest yellow I've ever seen.

Homebrew tej, including the tej you'll drink in a tej bet, usually has a lower alcohol content than commercially bottled tej, although you can allow it to ferment for many months to give it more kick. It's even been studied by scientists: A 2005 study looked at tej for its yeast and lactic acid content, and another study, conducted in 2001, examined the chemical and nurtitional properties of the wine. [Chapter 8 below offers more links to studies of tej and honey in Ethiopia.]

Numerous American wineries make tej (see Chapter 7 below), and at least two wineries in Ethiopia also make tej and bottle it for sale: They are called Nigest Tej and Tizeta Tej - "nigest" means "queen," "tizeta" means "memory" - and neither can be easily found in the United States, if they can be found here at all. An Ethiopian friend tells me that he's heard of a third brand made in Ethiopia: Kane Tej. I'd welcome knowing more about it.

Commercially bottled tej looks and tastes more like a dry or medium-dry white wine, and its alcohol content ranges from 11 to 13 percent, the same as most commercial wines. The restaurants in Washington D.C., despite that city's enormous Ethiopian population, all sell commercially bottled tej rather than homebrew, and one Ethiopian visitor to D.C. noticed the difference: "For the first time," he wrote, "I also tested tej that looked like white wine. I do not know what they did to its color. It tastes like tej, it smells like tej, it is made out of tej-making ingredients, but it looks like white wine."

When a tej is especially strong, Ethiopians will say it has "betam teru moq'ta," which means that it gives you a "very good buzz." The word "moq'ta" literally means "heat." Incidentally, all factory-made alcohol, including Nigest Tej and Tizeta Tej, is taxed in Ethiopia, but homebrew tej and tella (an Ethiopian homemade beer) is exempt from the national alcohol tax.

Gesho is the ingredient that makes tej tej. Without gesho, you have a beverage that the Ethiopians call birz, a mixture of honey and water that is allowed to ferment, very slightly, on its own for a few days before it's consumed. Birz doesn't have the spicy pungency of full-on tej, and it certainly doesn't have the alcohol content.

The gesho is a woody plant with leaves on its branches. Both parts of the plant can be used in making tej. (See Chapter 5 below.) The woody part of the gesho, when used for tej, is called "gesho inchet," which means "gesho stick." The leaves are called "gesho kitel," or "gesho leaf." Pieces of inchet can be as thin as a piece of linguini or as thick as your thumb. Kitel comes in two consistencies: Sometimes it's sold as dried crumbled leaves that look like oregano, and sometimes the leaves are ground into a fine powder that looks almost like flour. This powdered variety is called "gesho duket," and it's best used for making t'alla, the Ethiopian homebrew beer.

Each type of gesho produces a different color and flavor of tej. Most Ethiopians today will tell you that they prefer gesho inchet. Tej made from inchet is pale yellow and tastes at once sweet and spicy. Tej made from kitel is amber and usually has more of a pungent flavor. Notice that in the historic accounts of tej, many of the chroniclers say that Ethiopians used gesho leaf in making their tej. These writers also observed that royalty preferred a sharper-tasting tej. In fact, although the chroniclers may not have realized it, the sweeter tej they seemed to enjoy may well have been made with gesho stick. The sharper royal variety almost certainly used gesho leaf.

Just as historical narratives told of tej, so do some recent books, newspaper articles and web site. And just some people - particularly the British, it seems - still can't take it.

Writing in the U.K. Guardian, Bob Maddams decribes an Ethiopian new year's celebration, warning revelers, "Parties don't really get going until around midnight and in Ethiopia don't stop till dawn. Go easy on the tej, though. It's got a kick like an Ethiopian mule, and you might just need another thousand years to get over the hangover."

Christine Campbell, writing for the The Independent of London, attended a feast in Gondar, where

everyone was drinking tej, home-brewed wine made with honey. Hospitality dictated that I must be served a full cup - in this case a large blue plastic beaker. Two or three sips of this potent brew in the already intense heat were enough to convince me that drinking more could prove unwise, and a nearby shrub was the beneficiary. No one seemed to notice. The priests, in robes of yellow and blue of Vermeer-intensity, were cheerfully practising their English. The women were too busy dicing meat and chopping garlic, onions and herbs with eight-inch scimitars.

And Marie Javins, writing on her web blog about a trip to an Ethiopian tej bet, seems to agree: "The women danced, too, jerking their shoulders back and forth in a way that looked shockingly non-PG for modest Ethiopia. We stared in awe, or maybe we were under the influence of the tej the group had ordered. Tej is a sickenly sweet honey-like wine, finished by no one at our table."

Matt and Ted Lee toured Ethiopia's best eateries with the Ethiopian-born, Swedish-raised American chef Marcus Samuelsson and offer this anecdote about a tej bet:

In a district of luggage makers, we found Gonder Tej Bet, a barnlike establishment with green walls and rows of long, low wooden benches painted the same hue. In this cool, dim oasis, merchants in dark suits chatted quietly. The bar had its wine-making operation on-site: green fermenting barrels, shoulder-high, open at the top and draped with burlap.

As we took our seats, a man in a blue work suit approached and poured tej - the only beverage served - from a stout, blue-enameled tin kettle into bulbous glass flasks. The wine was almost opaque, the luminescent color of fresh orange juice, and deliciously off-dry, like a Riesling spiked with turmeric. After a few flasks of the low-alcohol brew, we were ready for lunch and headed to Habesha, Samuelsson's favorite restaurant in Addis.

Addis Ababa's Berele Cultural Center, shaped like the tej drinking vessel, will have a museum, library, restaurant, conference hall and wedding hall.
"About a month ago," writes one sojourner on his web site, "I went up to the now infamous Honeymoon Tej Bet in Sululta with a friend visiting Addis from the States. We were treated to a jam session with people dancing as if it were their last night on earth. We noticed the unusual dance style of a young man who had no trouble balancing a birile of tej on this head as he moved to the hypnotizing beat of Ethiopian traditional music. We immediately reached for our camera. This had to be shared!!!" He has now posted his video for all to see. Watch for the man in the video dancing with a berele of tej on his head.

The Friends of Ethiopia web site has an articled called How Microbrew Can Save the World in which the author discusses the history of homemade alcohol. Eventually, the discussion turns to tej:

Consider the case of Ethiopian t'ej and tella. T'ej, Ethiopia's national drink, mixes fermented honey with a variety of herbs and sometimes fruits. Historically, t'ej drinking was reserved exclusively for royalty, but eventually it became a drink enjoyed by all on special occasions. Female household heads brewed t'ej for weddings, naming ceremonies, religious holidays, and other celebrations. Tella is for common drinking, brewed from locally grown grains and flavored with an indigenous plant called gesho, which has been shown to have medicinal benefits.

T'ej is stronger than industrial beer and much cheaper than imported spirits, so it has slowly become the drink of choice for impoverished men--the same refugees from the country-side who seek economic opportunity in the city, but instead find unemployment, loneliness, and despair. Nowadays, t'ej is more often associated with excessive drinking sessions in debauched t'ej halls than with royal ceremony. Having lost much of its dignified luster, the quality of t'ej has also plummeted. Processed sugar often replaces honey as the source of fermentation, and chemical food colorings are used to approximate the yellow glow that comes when real honey is used.

But the picture isn't all bleak, and the piece goes on to discuss Tizeta T'ej, which is made by a company started by an Ethiopian man living in Canada. He has since moved home to Addis Ababa to operate his company.

Certainly most Ethiopian tej bet are perfectly safe, as are their wares. But during the days of the Communist dictatorship called the Derg, life in Ethiopia was precarious, and a tej bet could be nefarious. On the web site of the Ethiopian Student Association International, one blogger recalls this tale:

I know a story of this guy who was sold in the mid 1970s. He was a superintendent some place in Gondar. He was not originally from Gondar, though, probably from the south.

One night he was invited to a tej bet by his local friends. His friends were with other strangers that he did not know. They drunk tej all night and when it was time for to go home, he was told he was going with the strangers. Guess what: They kidnapped him and took him with them. This was not just a regular kidnapping. Those so-called friends were paid to bring him to the tej bet. His whereabouts were not know for several years, and later when the Derg was fighting TPLF [a liberation movement] in northern Gondar, he was discovered by his students.

In her 1994 book A Song of Longing: An Ethiopian Journey Kay Kaufman Shelemay recounts this tale of a practical joke that led her and a friend to a tej bet. Looking for a place to stay for the night, they asked a local for advice:

We followed him to a building across the road. On the porch stood several young Ethiopian women wearing faded, Western-style cotton dresses. They took us inside and poured us each a beer. Looking around at the large room flanked by smaller rooms, we realized we were in the tavern, called a tedj bet, which serves as both social club and brothel.

As dusk settled our hostess showed us to one of the small rooms, nearly filled by a well-used bed promising unnamed diseases. For a while we set inside with the door open, occasionally, stepping out into the main room to see what was going on. This tedj bet had no live musician to play tunes on the one-stringed bowed instrument called the masenqo, so as evening fell someone played masenqo music on a small tape recorder. Business picked up as men from the area stopped by to drink and have a good time. We were clearly the subject of many conversations, and as the crowd became rowdier, we began to feel uncomfortable. After a final visit to the maggot-infested outhouse, accompanied by curious neighborhood children and a snarling dog, we retired to our room and locked the door.

We unpacked out peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and fruit juice stashed away for just such an emergency and read aloud Philip Roth's Our Gang by candlelight. As the noise outside mounted we consoled ourselves with the fact that there were two of us. At around 9:00 p.m. the music stopped, and we laid down upon the flea-ridden bed fully dressed in our hooded raincoats and hiking boots, small utility knives open at our sides.

At 5 a.m. we awoke, hurriedly drank coffee provided by the ladies of the house, left a few Ethiopian dollars in payment, and headed toward the bus. As we walked out the door a group of people laughed and applauded. We knew then that we have been the objects of the local equivalent of a practical joke. We waved, adjusted our packs, and walked across the road to the bus.

Despite the appearance this account may give, a 2002 study of sex workers in Addis Ababa found that only 1.4% of tej bets surveyed had sex workers in them. Count on the Kiwis to know a good drink when they see it. Curtis Palmer, a member of a New Zealand wheelchair basketball team called the Wheelblacks, travels a lot and once visited Ethiopia. His blog offers this about Ethiopian good and drink: "You eat your meal with your fingers by picking up the veggies and stuff between the ingera. You use your right hand only and it can get messy, especially with my gammy hands. My favourite was this stuff called shiro. It's a bean type mushy stuff that is kinda like bean dip. The locals combine it with smoking chillies and wash it down with this stuff called tedge. Tedge is grouse and it's pretty much home brewed petrol." In Aussie and New Zealand slang, "grouse" means "excellent."

Bienvenue en Éthiopie, a French travel guide, offers this very helpful and interesting account of where to get and not get your tej on a cross-country vacation:

Le tedj est un mélange de feuilles et de miel mis à fermenter et qui donne une boisson de couleur jaune orangé au degré d'alcool d'environ 15%. Le qualité de tedj dépend en grand partie de l'utlisation exclusive de miel, souvent remplacé à la ville par du sucre, afin d'accélérer le processus de fermentation. Les amateurs doivent être avertis que le mélange d'alcool et de sucre peut se révelér traître. En revanche, on trouve de très bon tedj à la campagne, de Gondar à Arba Minch. [Read an English translation of the passage.]

Pour le tedj, ou hydromel, il faut savoir ne pas en abuser dès qu'il a une odeur de sucre ou d'alcool trop évidente: ce sont des boissons de mauvaise qualité et leur absorption n'est pas recommandée. A Abra Minch, plusieurs tedg bet proposent un tedj pur miel qui ravira les connaisseurs et permettra d'initier les profanes. En revanche, éviter ceux de Jinka où vraisemblablement le miel est de mauvaise qualité. On trouve de bon tedj à Lalibela mais d'autant meilleurs si l'on s'aventure à la périphérie de la ville. Pour ceux qui voyagent dans les montagnes du Sud-Wolo, la qualité sera au rendez-vous dans les tedj bet de campagne. A Sodo dans le Woleyta, il y a également de bons tedj, ainsi bien sûr qu'a Gondar et à Dessie. Dans ces villes toutefois, ne pas hésiter à essayer plusieurs endroits et ne pas insister s'il vous apparait que le tedg contient du sucre.

A Addis-Ababa, il ne faut pas s'attendre à une grande qualité. Allez plutôt déguster celui de Honey Moon, dans la petite ville de Sulutta à 20 km au nord d'Addis sur le route de Dabra Markos. Lá, vous pourrez aussi déguster de l'excellent viande de chèvre crue et du gured gured, viande crue de boeuf marinée du beurre, ainsi que de kitfo, le tartare éthiopien, et du mouton grillé. Toutefois, au contraire de tedj bet de campagne où le berele (carafon) est à 50 centimes ou 1 birr, il faut compter 6 birrs par consummation. Qualité assurée. [Read an English translation of the passage.]

Another French guidebook, simply called Éthiopie, tells tourists to look for good-quality tej at the Hotel Axum perpendicular to Gebreselassie Road. This establishment is a favorite of Ethiopians, says the book, but it's frequented almost exclusively by men.

Despite warnings that the tej in Addis Ababa isn't as good as the tej one finds in the countryside, each of these books recommends a restaurant in Addis where a patron can find good tej: Shangra La, on Cap Verde Street across from the Desalegn Hotel; and Addis Ababa Restaurant, not far from St. George's Church. There are also many small tej bets in Addis and environs that a glossy color guidebook would probably never discover.

"There is no better place to reconcile husband and wife and restore broken families than a churchyard where the words of God are heard daily through the prayers and ecclesiastical sermons that are conducted," begins a story in the Aug. 7, 2005, edition of Africa News. The lengthy piece then recounts the mediation of a marital dispute. It ends like this: "The chairman offered an invitation for all of us to share together in some food and beverage. The priest supported the idea, saying that it was a divine idea and that a little wine will chase away Satan and his squad. He seemed to be yearning to dip his lips into a flask of tej after all his deliberations."

In his book 1970 book Traditional Ethiopian Church Education, Imbakom Kalewold confirms this heavenly indulgence. In a review of the book, Amnon Orent tells us that "people sometimes pay for clerical services with talla (a native beer) or tej (a kind of strong mead); Ethiopian priests are notorious for their drinking. Assafa Gabra Maryam, an Ethiopian playwright, characterizes a priest as saying 'if one stops drinking, what else is left in this world?'"

Tej is also a currency in Ethiopian elections, according to a 2004 story in the Addis Tribune. "Those of us who were around can bear eye witness accounts of the political gymnastic that went into the election of parliamentarians," says Asratemariam, the author of the piece. "Some of us were astute enough to garner a few 'biriles of tej' in return for our votes."

In 2002, James P. DeWan of the Chicago Tribune did a story on mead to coincide with the Real Ale Festival in the city. Needless to say, the subject of tej came up, and it provokes a history lesson:

Like most Ethiopian restaurants, Mama Desta's Red Sea Restaurant in Chicago serves tej. "When Ethiopians make tej they add hops," owner Tekle Gabriel said, "which temper the sweet honey flavor with bitterness."

That mead is made from honey is what caused its ancient popularity as well as its ultimate decline. Sugar was not widely available in the known world until well into the second millennium. For thousands of years before that, honey was humankind's primary sweetening ingredient. Since spontaneous fermentation is not uncommon in nature, it stands to reason that ancient cultures would have discovered mead independently of one another.

Even so, Gabriel said he knows people in his native Eritrea who claim that mead originated in that region.

"In Ethiopia, it's been going on for thousands of years, and it's still very common today," he said. "In almost every Christian home in every village you'll find people making their own."

Added to this was the growing popularity of beer. Though honey stored very well, beer's main ingredient, malted barley, kept well, too, so beer could easily be brewed at any time without having to wrestle a hive of angry bees. Mead soon became relegated to royalty or, for the commoners, special occasions.

"At certain times some of the Ethiopian emperors thought it should be only for the nobility, so occasionally they outlawed its brewing in commoners' houses," Gabriel said. "Besides, barley is much more available and beer quenches the thirst better, anyway, so in Ethiopia honey wine mostly is brewed around the holidays."

Colin Barraclough offers this brief but vivid description in a 2002 piece about his trip to Ethiopia for the Financial Times of London: "At night, I stumble into a tej bet, a back-street bar with straw covering the mud floor. I sit on a goatskin rug and listen to the family's cows lowing. The owner, a gracious woman named Terfi Abouhay, brings me tej, a yeasty honey wine served from tear-shaped glasses."

Writing in The Monitor, a newspaper in Addis Ababa, B. Mezgebu offers this discouraging observation (his opinion, of course) about dining in the Ethiopian capital city:

Quality control of food product is another aspect of the uneasy relationship between sellers and buyers. How much milk is your milk? And how much of it plain water? What are the real ingredients of our local wines? Which vineyards, may we ask, supply the grapes? The uniquely Ethiopian tej is nowadays being concocted of so many things (including the herb that can make you permanently fall in love with the brew), the honey part is just a facade. You might say in fact tej ceased to be tej since the aristocracy in Ethiopia lost that exclusive privilege. Can you recall when it was the last time you ordered keiwot [spicy beef] in a restaurant? Long on berbere and innards and short on the choice meat that keiwot, as we knew it, was made of, people now avoid ordering it as if it were some unfathomable foreign food.
Another of the author's pieces, posted on a web site, drew this response from a reader: "Spots like tej bet are disappearing in Addis. Tej bet like Memehere Bet at Legehar were something of a relic for Addis, where old-timers spend time at an affordable price drinking tej. But now the spots are being destroyed, as they are needed for large buildings. In the next fifty years, Addis will be like another artificial city, with no monument and shrine of her own."

Christina and Dan, two San Franciscans visiting Ethiopia with their pre-teen children, report on their blog about a visit in Lalibela to "a traditional Ethiopian tej bar. It was, well, interesting. The kids had a non-alcoholic version, which tasted like orange juice (sort of), and Christina and I went for the hard stuff, which tasted like fermented honey, barley and malt (sort of). I don't think that BevMo needs to start stocking it any time soon, but it was a fun thing to experience, especially in a sort of funky, dimly lit bar with cool Ethiopian music playing and very quality atmosphere."

Alastair Humphreys, traveling recently in Ethiopia, recounts this anecdote in his book Moods of Future Joy:

While I waited for Rob I wanted to try tej. Tej is Ethiopian mead and I found an unmarked tej bar after a little acting on the street saw me pointed in the right direction. My impressions of a buzzing bee, a man glugging liquid, and a man rolling across the decks of joyful inebriation had done the trick. Tej looks like orange juice and is served in glass flasks, called berele, resembling the ones used in chemistry experiments. It tastes like sharp, fizzy honey. The bar was dark, with wood shavings on the floor. Apricot lights shafted through flaps in the walls and dust motes twirled in the beams. Old men wrapped in white robes leaned on their sticks and smoked hard. The air droned with idle conversation. Nobody minded that I was in their bar. I felt wonderful to be ignored.

Mark Waite, writing about his trip to Ethiopia for the Pahrump Valley Times, offers this tidbit, which adds another wrinkle to the atmosphere of the tej bet: "Jean and I stopped at a 'tej bet,' a house to drink traditional honey wine and sit on benches with the locals. The tej bet was interesting, with tribes people gawking at the rare sight of a television video where Jean and I sat as we drank honey wine."

Matthew Kadey, writing of his visit to Ethiopia, recounts this anecdote: "After we had our fill of church hopping, it was time to visit a tej bar, tej being a hype of honey wine that's an acquired taste to say the least. 'You either like it or you never want to try it again,' one tourist bluntly put it. Paint thinner run through dirty socks is how I would describe it."

Nik Grosfield spent some time in Ethiopia, and he blogged about his encounter with tej in Addis Ababa.

Finally, there's Seleda, a web site and webzine for young Ethiopian professionals, which lists "The Top 10 Signs You Are Ready To Go Back to Ethiopia." No. 9 on the list: "Your 857th attempt to brew tejj in your studio apartment just failed."

If that describes you, then read on.

1. Ethiopian History 2. Etymology 3. Tej in History 4. Tej Today 6. Finding Gesho 7. Winery Tej 8. Science of Tej

9. The words for honey wine and honey in Ethiopia's many languages         10. Watch Making Tej, a step-by-step video

5. Making Tej

TEJ RECIPES AND PREPARATIONS differ from one Ethiopian cookbook to another, and for the first-timer, it can seem a little daunting.

But it's really very easy, and cookbooks tend to complicate it. My instructions here come from my own home tej-making, and I'll include numerous tips and things to watch for during the preparation and fermentation. I hope this detailed, step-by-step-by-step account will make your tej production go smoothly. The drink is definitely best served chilled, and its sweet rich flavor nicely complements any spicy food (try it with Thai or Indian if you can't find Ethiopian food in your community).

Before we get to my preparation, let's look at one set of instructions that made it as simple as possible. In 1924, Major J.I. Eadie, D.S.O. - that is, Distinguished Service Order, a British military designation - published An Amharic Reader, a book filled with essays, poems and documents that explored the life and culture of Ethiopia. His book is considered to be the first chrestomathy of the Amharic language and of Ethiopian culture, and he collected the material in 1913, when he was stationed in Ethiopia.

Everything in the book appears in both Amharic and English - it was translated in India, and has a preface written by the Ministry of Defence in Baghdad - and on pages 88 and 89, Eadie presents a preparation for tej. Here is the English version:

When Taj is made, a horn or cup of honey is put in a large jar with 6 or 7 cups of water (that is to say the proportion is 1 to 6 or 7), and stirred. The next day all the impurities and wax float on the top. (The maker) having taken out the impurities and having slightly heated some Gesho, it goes into the birz whilst hot, and ferments all night. If it be in the highlands it is ready in 8 or 9 days, and if in the plains in 4 or 5 days. Taj, which is filtered and which has been mixed again with honey, will remain good for 20 years. This mixing again with honey is not just only once. It must be done when needed, when the Taj is becoming sour.

Taj for Araqi (spirits) is one part of honey to 5 parts of water so that the Taj may be thick.

The impurities being purified they give wax; what is left over from the wax also is called "Fagulo" and is used for rubbing on mitads. [See the original pages from Eadie's book.]

Making tej doesn't get much easier than that, although I doubt Eadie's short description offers modern readers enough to do it at home.

Ferenj Tej front label
(Click to enlarge)
I call my own brand Ferenj Tej, which is a bit of an inside joke. "Ferenj" is the Amharic word for "foreigner," so the name seemed appropriate. This word is also (with a slightly different spelling) the name of a race of aliens on Star Trek: The Next Generation, and the leader of that alien race is called the grand "negus," which is the Amharic word for "king." I've created a front and back label for my tej. Each is pictured in this section, and on the back label, you can read "The Ferenj Tej Story" (written, I assure you, with tongue in cheek). The Ferenj Tej motto, written in Amharic at the top of the front label, is "betam teru moq'ta," which means - well, keep reading.

Making tej requires three ingredients: honey, water and gesho. That last item is hard to find, but in a section below, I'll tell you where to find it. You must mix the liquid ingredients with three parts of water to every one part of honey. You can make as large a batch as you like with this proportion. I'd recommend mixing it in a wide-mouth jar that can hold at least one gallon of liquid. A wide mouth on the jar is imperative: You need to be able to get the gesho out of the container easily during the fermentation process, which takes a minimum of 21 days, or possibly even as long as two or three weeks more, depending upon which of the following methods you use.

Here's a list of the ingredients and utensils that you need to make tej, all of them easy to find, except of course for the gesho:

Ferenj Tej back label
(Click to enlarge)

Honey, water and gesho. Any kind of store-bought honey will do. You may also want to use or even need to use some commercial yeast. I'll get to the details of that a little further on.

A glass jar with a wide mouth and a lid. I recommend nothing smaller than a one-gallon jar.

Two measuring cups, a pair of tongs (for removing the gesho), a large pitcher, and a small funnel.

Cheesecloth and a fine mesh strainer with a handle.

Empty wine or liquor bottles. Of course, you will need a wine re-corker if you choose to use empty wine bottles. Therefore, I recommend empty liquor bottles, which have screw-on caps that make things much easier. You might also use a larger bottle or wine jug with a screw-on cap. You'll need to soak the empty bottle in hot water for 10 minutes or so to remove the labels. Or you can buy new bottles, but I think recycled bottles add to the homebrew nature of the enterprise. (In a 1999 article in the Addis Tribune, writer Indrias Getachew reported: "In Tchid Terra, bottles are cleaned and sold to buyers who will use them to store home-brewed tej and tela or arake; indeed, bottles are very valuable products, an important input for the informal alcohol industry in Ethiopia.")

Okay, now you're almost ready to make tej. But first, a few words about yeast.

In Ethiopia, home tej-makers mix the honey, water and gesho and let it all ferment naturally. Yeast is already there on the gesho, and if nothing interferes, it will begin to feed on the sugar in the honey and grow (that is, "reproduce") on its own. You can make tej at home this way as well, and my first set of instructions below will walk you through the natural process - "natural" meaning that you don't help it along by adding a little extra yeast.

But I've found that here in America, a batch of tej can go bad if foreign microbes enter the process. These microbes might be bacteria, or they might be unwanted types of yeast. To prevent that, you can use some pure, strong brewer's yeast of the species Saccharomyces cerevisiae, which scientists have found to be the dominant yeast (among many) in Ethiopian tej. You can buy this at any brew shop or even online. The common and widely sold brand Lalvin D-47 works fine, and you can buy it at any brew shop or online, even at Amazon.com.

More and more, I've been getting reports from people who tell me that their tej does become contaminated. So I'd recommend you use the three-week method with yeast, rather than the five-week method without yeast. It's up to you.

First, I'll give you the step-by-step process for making natural tej, without yeast. Plan on letting it ferment for at least five weeks, or possibly longer if you want it stronger - that is, with a higher alcohol content.

After that, I'll tell you how to modify your process using yeast. This method takes three weeks (plus maybe a few days) to ferment to an enjoyable level of alcohol.

And just how strong will your tej be? If you mix it with three parts water to one part honey, and if you let it ferment fully - that is, until the yeast has no more sugar to consume - you'll have a maximum strength of about 14% alcohol. Using more honey will get you more alcohol at the end.

As I describe making tej without added yeast, I'll annotate the process. So don't be overwhelmed! Once you separate my copious tips from the basic recipe, you'll see that it's really very easy.

Into a wide-mouth glass jar, pour one part honey to three parts water. For your first batch, 16 ounces of liquid honey and 48 ounces of water will do nicely, giving you a half gallon of finished tej. Honey is sold by weight, but you must measure the honey for your tej by liquid volume. About 12 ounces of honey by weight equals eight ounces of liquid honey.

Blend the mixture very well with a spoon, but don't shake the jar to mix it. That will make it unnecessarily foamy. Keep stirring and stirring until the honey dissolves thoroughly in the water and has a uniform color.

A bag of gesho inchet
(Click to enlarge)
Add the gesho inchet (pictured at left), enough to cover the top of the liquid and to have some gesho floating in the liquid beneath the surface, and stir it around just a bit. Experience will ultimately tell you how much to use, but it's okay to be a little conservative on your first batch. For the amount of honey and water I describe here, about a fifth of a pound is just about right.

If you use gesho kitel, measure about three level tablespoons of the dried flaky leaf into one gallon of liquid and stir it a few times until the leaf begins to get soaking wet in the liquid. NOTE: Using kitel will later require some extra steps during the straining process, and I strongly advise that you use gesho inchet.

Now, put the lid on the jar and forget about it for one week. You don't want to seal the lid tightly if it screws on - just give it one turn, or better yet, place it gently on top. After two or three days, you'll begin to see fuzz and mold forming on the gesho. That's fermentation, a process that happens in the presence of sugar and yeast. All plants have yeast on them naturally, but not all plants have an appealing flavor. Gesho does - it adds a pungency to the tej - so when it's used to provoke the fermentation process, the flavor of the gesho also soaks into the liquid. (Smell the gesho before you use it to get a sense of its flavor.)

After one week, open the jar and stir the mixture. Then, put the lid back on and leave it be for another week.

At the end of the second week, it's time to remove the gesho. Using tongs, remove all of the gesho inchet, then stir the liquid a little bit and seal it up again. You don't need to strain the liquid here if you use gesho inchet.

If you use gesho kitel, then you need to strain the liquid at this point in the process. This is messy - the reason why you should avoid using gesho kitel to make tej. Place several pieces of cheesecloth in a tight wire mesh strainer, and put the strainer on top of a pitcher large enough to hold all of the liquid. Then, pour the tej through the cheesecloth in the strainer. This will filter out the gesho. You will probably need to strain

Some gesho kitel
with inchet chips

(Click to enlarge)
it at least twice, and you should lay down a fresh piece of cheesecloth when the first one gets thick and dark with the soaked kitel. After straining the gesho from the liquid, return the liquid to the wide-mouth jar and replace the lid. During the straining process, to make sure you've strained it well, remember this Ethiopian proverb: "Tej has no spots and a poor man has no friends."

For three more weeks now, the tej will continue to ferment. After one week, you can open the lid, stir it just a bit, and then cover it again, allowing it to ferment for yet another week, then stirring it again. ("It likes to be stirred," an Ethiopian friend has told me.) Be sure to taste a spoonful at this point so you can compare the still rather sweet mixture to the finished product. During this three-week part of the process, you will see tiny bubbles rising from the bottom of the liquid to the top, and some of them will form foam or pools of bubbles on the surface. That's active fermentation. You may also see tiny gesho remnants floating around busily in the liquid. The fermentation bubbles cause this.

One thing to note: Sometimes tej made with kitel gets very foamy and active during the last three weeks of fermentation. This is why you use much less kitel than inchet when you begin the three-week process. If your tej made with kitel bubbles and foams a lot, you can stir it every two or three days during the last two weeks of the process.

After 21 days of fermentation without the gesho, your tej is ready to strain, chill and drink. Put a piece of cheesecloth in a wire mesh strainer, and put the strainer over a large pitcher. Pour the liquid through the cheesecloth in the strainer. This filters out the remaining particles of gesho. If you use gesho kitel, filter it a second time. There will be no need to filter it twice if you use gesho inchet. You must then put the pitcher into the refrigerator for a few days before bottling it - we'll get to that just below.

You really can't ferment tej for too long, and the longer it ferments, the stronger it gets. A three-month batch will get lighter and lighter in color as more of the sugary honey turns to alcohol. Eventually, though, the yeast will consume all of the sugar, and the fermentation will stop. When you see no more tiny bubbles rising from the bottom of the jar, you know it's as done as done can be.

By the way, tej needs to be kept as warm as possible while it's fermenting: at least 70 degrees if you want good steady fermentation. If you live in a warm climate, then you'll have no problem during the summer, unless you keep your home cold with air conditioning. But during the winter, if you don't keep your home sufficiently warm, you may find that you need to let the tej ferment for an extra week or so. An Ethiopian friend tells me that when the temperature in Ethiopia drops - to, say, 50 or 60 degrees - people making tej will wrap the jar with the fermenting liquid in as many blankets as they can find.

When you decide to stop the fermentation and strain it, you next need to rack it. That's a winemaking term that means letting the yeast in the liquid settle to the bottom of a container so you can strain it out. To rack your tej, strain it (as described above) into a pitcher, then put the pitcher into the refrigerator for two days. You'll see silt forming in the bottom: That's the lees - the yeast coming out of solution.

Now, bottle your thoroughly strained and racked tej. Pour the liquid from the pitcher through a small funnel into the bottles you've chosen to use. Do this very, very slowly, trying hard not to stir up the lees that have settled to the bottom of the pitcher. It does no harm to get some lees into your bottle. It's simply that your bottled tej will look better and clearer without it. Seal it up, put it in the refrigerator to chill, and enjoy it with Ethiopian food. The funnel isn't essential, but it sure makes things easier than trying to pour the liquid from the spout of a pitcher into the tiny opening of an empty wine bottle.

The tej will continue to ferment in the bottle, and every time you open it, you may hear the hiss of pressure being released. Time makes the flavor grow stronger, although racking it takes a lot of the residual yeast out of the liquid. If you don't get some of that yeast out, the cap on the bottle might explode from the pressure of continued fermentation.


Read about my book Mesob Across America: Ethiopian Food in the U.S.A.


You won't see quite as much sediment (i.e., lees) in the bottom of the pitcher if you make your tej with inchet. You'll see a lot more sediment - some of it lees, some of it dissolved gesho leaf - if you use kitel, and sometimes that sediment will distribute itself throughout the liquid when you pour a glass. That's okay and perfectly harmless. It just doesn't look too appetizing. That's why I prefer inchet, which makes a clearer tej. It's also why you want to rack your tej rather than pouring it directly into a bottle.

That's how I make natural tej, and how Ethiopians have taught me to make it. When it works, it's very easy, and all of the work comes at the beginning of the five weeks and at the end when you strain and bottle it.

But as I said earlier, I've seen American batches go bad because of microbes that enter the liquid and kill off the natural yeast. If you begin to make a batch of natural tej and you see that happening, you can "save" your batch within two weeks or so by adding some Saccharomyces cerevisiae. After two weeks, the batch will probably be too far gone to salvage. So if you want to avoid the possibility of losing a batch, then make it with a touch of added yeast. Here's what to do:

Start just as I describe above: Mix the water, honey and gesho, stirring it all thoroughly. Then, add a little yeast - and I do mean a little: about as much as the size of the fingernail on your index finger, or even your little finger. D-47 and the likes are strong and pure. Just sprinkle and stir a little into the sugar-rich environement and it hungrily begins to feast on its abundant new food supply. After you add the yeast, add the gesho and stir again.

Within 36 hours, you'll begin to see fermentation in the form of a layer of white bubbles gathering on top of the liquid. Within another day or two, those little bubbles will turn into a thick white foam. After one week, stir the gesho into the liquid. You can stir every few days if you like. It won't hurt, but I don't know if it helps.

After 10 days, remove the gesho with the tongs, just as you would for a natural batch. Put the lid back on and let it continue to ferment.


Read more about making tej on my Ethiopian food blog.


After three weeks, taste the tej. If it's too sweet, let it go a few more days. If it's strong enough - and by now, it should be - then you can begin the process of straining, racking and bottling - same as above. And if, after three weeks, it's strong but you want it even stronger, then let it go for two more days, taste it again, and let it go even longer. It's your buzz.

That's how to make a batch of tej, with or without added yeast. But there's one more thing you should do if you want to continue making tej, and you should do this regardless of what method you use.

The racking process shows you how much yeast remains "invisible" in your finished tej unless you put it in the refrigerator, which causes that yeast to settle to the bottom and go dormant. But chilling yeast isn't killing yeast, so before you strain your tej, you should save a few ounces as a starter for your next batch.

This starter is finished tej with rich active yeast still in it. Just put some in a small bottle, and put the bottle in your refrigerator, which is also where you should keep your packets of yeast. Then, when you begin your next batch of tej, you can use the starter to get the fermentation going more quickly: Simply shake the little bottle of starter to get the settled yeast back into solution, then pour it into your honey/water mixture before adding the gesho.

The result: Your tej will begin fermenting in days, just as if you had added some commercial yeast. This will allow you to have consistency of flavor from batch to batch. Every time you prepare to bottle a new batch, save some starter for the next one. You'll never have to use any of your commercial yeast again if you have starter, and you'll never have to worry about outside microbes infecting your tej.

So is tej made with starter a "natural" batch? Strictly speaking, no, it isn't: You're using a helper with rich active yeast that's already growing and multiplying. But if your starter is from a natural batch, then you're just one step removed. And in any case, your helper is tej, and that's natural enough.

In a natural batch of tej - but not in a batch that uses commercial yeast or a starter - there is one more thing that can go wrong, and it's called Brettanomyces bruxellensis. It's a naturally occurring yeast that threatens to give any wine a taste best described as resembling kerosene or lighter fluid. Some winemakers believe that a slight "Bretty" taste adds character to a wine. Others say it ruins the wine no matter how faint the effect. In tej, Brettanomyces can grow if your vessel isn't cleaned well from a previous batch, or if the yeast happens to be on your gesho.

You'll know your tej has gone Bretty if it smells like kerosene or lighter fluid after the first or second week, and if you see brown scum and large opaque bubbles forming on the top of the jar among the tiny white fermentation bubbles that you want to see. Drinking Bretty tej won't harm you, but the flavor added by the Brettanomyces will compete with - and possibly overpower - the sweetness of the honey and the pungency of the gesho. Your taste buds will have to decide how much you can handle. You can overcome Brett in a natural batch by adding some commercial yeast the moment you detect it. This yeast should overpower the Brett if you catch it early enough. Or it may not, and you may have to start over - yet another reason to consider using commercial yeast in your first batch and then using starter for the rest of your tejmaking.

All in all, it's best not to worry about your natural batch of tej turning Bretty because there's nothing much you can do to stop it. Remember that this is science at its most ancient and raw.

If you like your tej specially flavored by your own hand, you can add a small quantity of any one of these ingredients for the last two or three days before bottling it: banana, coffee, ginger, orange peel, lemon peel, jalapeño peppers. Yes, that's right: jalapeño peppers. A server at Queen of Sheba restaurant in Washington, D.C., told me that jalapeño is her favorite add-in. I've tried it, and it's wonderful, although it does make the tej quite spicy.

Ethiopians also drink tella, a homebrew beer made in a much more elaborate way, using barley and wheat as well as gesho.

On the web site gotmead.com, Miriam Kersh has posted a detailed recipe that begins by making tella and ends by adding honey to the tella to turn it into tej. I had not encountered this preparation until reading Kersh's article, but she got her recipe from an Ethiopian friend, so give it a try if you feel really adventerous. The same web site has a reprint of an 1989 article, T'ej in America, from Meadmakers Journal. The article includes a recipe.

On the website Folksy Brews, a fellow named Mike offers an unusual recipe for tej that doesn't use gesho. From the comments posted by readers, it seems to work. And Sean Richens has also posted a recipe and some information for a brewing discussion group.

Writing on the web site brewboard.com, a knowledgeable member with the sobriquet "braindead" discusses tej and offers a preparation, along with a glimpse of the science behind it. "This recipe gives a result very much like champagne & OJ," he writes. "It's very easy drinking and very alcoholic. The sourness is from the lactobacillus introduced on the malt selected by the antibacterial action of the gesho. The flora make quite an impressive sight under the microscope but don't let that frighten you!"

It also seems that this web site has helped a group of people at the Northern Brewer Homebrew Forum in their own experiments with tej. They have initiated a discussion and traded tips about making tej at home.


Finally, when you drink your tej, be sure to do so with a hearty Letenachin! That's the Ethiopian toast, written just above in Amharic. It means "to our health."

1. Ethiopian History 2. Etymology 3. Tej in History 4. Tej Today 5. Making Tej 7. Winery Tej 8. Science of Tej

9. The words for honey wine and honey in Ethiopia's many languages         10. Watch Making Tej, a step-by-step video

6. Finding and Buying Gesho

A 2004 stamp
showing gesho

(See the series)
GESHO IS NOT AN ITEM that you can pick up at your local Piggly Wiggly on the way home from work. You'll only find it in major urban areas that have an Ethiopian population large enough to support an Ethiopian grocery store, and even then, not all stores will carry it (Ethiopians tend to bring gesho from back home when they visit family).

The gesho plant is more or less a staple in Ethiopia, where tej is beloved by all and gesho is essential to its creation. In the 1991 book Plant Genetic Resources of Ethiopia, author Jan Engels has a short entry on gesho:

Rhamnus prinoides. Buckthorn or "gesho" is found growing in the wild all over Ethiopia between 1500 and 2000 m, but it is cultivated well, sometimes even on a larger scale as a field crop. Rhamnus covers about 5000 ha of the land under permanent production (Jansen, 1981). It is a woody bush, whose leaves are used like hops for the preparation of alcoholic beverages such as 'tala" and 'tej,' which are common household drinks in the country. 'Gesho" is widespread all over the country. It serves the needs of the people so well that at least at the moment no improvement is needed.

Right now, I know of only one online U.S. company that sell gesho:

Brundo Ethiopian Spices of Oakland, Calif., a homey little grocery store and butcher shop on Telegraph Avenue, is part of a large community of Ethiopian businesses in Oakland. The shop sells both gesho inchet ($2.95 for five ounces) and gesho kitel ($6.95 for five ounces) through its web site. That's about $9.50 a pound for the inchet, plus shipping of course. The kitel is much more expensive per pound, but you use much less of it when making your tej. Enter "gesho" into the site's search engine to find both products. Phone: 510.298.7101. E-mail: info@brundo.com.

The Washington, D.C., area hosts the largest population of Ethiopians outside of Ethiopia, and it abounds with places to buy gesho over the counter. Surprisingly, I have a hard time finding gesho at grocery stores within the district. But in several Maryland and Virginia towns that abut D.C., gesho is abundant. These shops aren't difficult to find by car with directions from Mapquest. Or you could always call them to see if they're willing to ship you some gesho. (I buy mine in person a few times a year when I visit D.C.) Prices vary, sometimes between grocery stores right across the street from each other.

Here are some places that I can recommend if you're on the market for gesho inchet. I've visited all of these grocery stories and chatted with the owners, who are always very helpful and friendly. I'll also direct you to some gesho kitel, although as I say above, in the section on tej recipes, I prefer the inchet and recommend it for novice tej makers. But be forewarned: The availability of the gesho comes and goes. Sometimes the Ethiopian suppliers are reliable, and the markets run out. Prices, too, can change. In fact, as demand for the product grows, so does the cost.

Nile Market, 7815 Georgia Ave. NW, Washington, D.C. (202.882.1130). During the summer of 2009, this market had some beautiful thick gesho stick for a remarkably low $7.95 a pound. And while you're at it, have a meal at the adjoining restaurant. The veggie combo platter is delicious and generous.

Lena Market, 1206 Underwood St. NW, Washington, D.C. (202.291.0082). This small market has nicely priced gesho, usually around $7 or so a pound.

NCF Market, 3821 S. George Mason Drive, Falls Church, VA (703.635.7843). This lovely little market had the best price in the greater D.C. area during the summer 2011. For $5.95 a pound, you get nice thick sticks.

Sheger Market, 912 East/West Highway, Takoma Park, MD (301.270.0200). This tiny market has the best price for gesho that I've found: $13/pound in 2009 (up from $8.50/pound the year before). They sell in bulk from large burlap sacks of gesho, so you can buy as much or as little as you like. The market is just outside the district. It's around the corner from Arada Market, which also has gesho, but at $15/pound.

Addisu Gebeya, 2202 18th St. NW, Washington, D.C. (202.986.6013). Gesho inchet can be hard to find here: It tends to sell out quickly when they get some in stock. Gesho kitel is a little bit more abundant.

In Chicago, you can find gesho at two locations: Homeland Food Market, 6046 North Broadway (773.973.1445), an African market that sells products from many African countries, and which has some gesho inchet in pre-sealed bags; and Lili Market, 1614 W. Devon St. (773.465.7315), which sells a very fine gesho kitel powder. The powder doesn't make the best tej, but it works. The stick at Homeland is very good, but they don't have a lot of it, and I don't think they restock often. The friendly folks at Kululu Market, 6129 N. Broadway (773.262.3169) sell gesho, but they don't always have it in stock.

The Los Angeles Ethiopian community has a cluster of shops and restaurants along a block on South Fairfax Street that they call Little Ethiopia, and Merkato Market (323.935.1775), in the heart of Little Ethiopia, is rich with Ethiopian products. You can also get gesho inchet online or over the counter from Brundo Ethiopian Spices in Oakland, noted above.

Toronto has a well-developed Ethiopian community. You can find gesho there at Ethiopian Spices (416.598.3014), a grocery story on Kensington Avenue. The company does not have a web site.

Several other U.S. cities have Ethiopian grocery stores, often combined with restaurants. They probably stock gesho, but they have no web sites, so you'll need to order by phone if they do mail order. You can try: Addis Grocery and Deli in New Orleans, 504.891.7500; Merkato Ethiopian Music and Food Store in Portland, Ore., 503.331.9283; Maru Grocery in Houston, 713.665.6662; Hirut Ethiopian Grocery, Dallas (Sachse, Texas), 972.530.5128; and Zuma Grocery, Seattle, 206.781.8600. I welcome information on others. New York City has a surprisingly small Ethiopian community (about 2,500 people) and no Ethiopian markets since Abyssinia Ethiopian Grocery in Harlem closed a few years ago. And finally, there's South End Food Emporium in Boston, 617.536.7172. This specialty shop isn't exclusively Ethiopian, but it sells Ethiopian spices, injera and gesho.

All in all, then, Washington is your best bet for finding gesho. Unfortunately, none of the Ethiopian grocery stores along D.C.'s U Street seem to carry gesho. U Street, which has lately become known as "Little Ethiopia," is lined with Ethiopian restaurants, markets and businesses. It's the place to go to immerse yourself in Ethiopian food and culture in Washington. But alas, you cannot find gesho there - at least, not yet. You can, however, get excellent meals at restaurants like Axum (my personal favorite), Ambassador (across the street from Axum), Madget, and the touristy (but still very tasty) Dukem.

And don't forget Lalibela restaurant, at 14th and P streets NW. It's not part of the U Street conglomerate, but it's just a 15 minute walk from U Street or from Dupont Circle, and it's a block from a Whole Foods Market. Lalibela's yet som wat (vegetarian platter) is superb, and they specialize in spicy delicious beef dishes to accompany it.

By the way, all of the Ethiopian restaurants in D.C. sell bottled tej, which is, as I've already noted, much more traditionally wine-like than homebrew. The sweetness and sharpness of winery tej varies widely. In Chicago, the Ethiopian restaurants all sell homebrew, and some have bottled tej as well. In both cities' restaurants you can also sample several brands of Ethiopian beer, which all taste pretty much like their American counterparts. And if you ever visit London, be sure to try Tobia Ethiopian Restaurant, which makes its own homebrewed tej in several flavors, and which even offers a lesson about tej on its website.

1. Ethiopian History 2. Etymology 3. Tej in History 4. Tej Today 5. Making Tej 6. Finding Gesho 8. Science of Tej

9. The words for honey wine and honey in Ethiopia's many languages         10. Watch Making Tej, a step-by-step video

7. Finding Tej Made by Wineries

IF YOU DON'T HAVE THE DESIRE, drive or patience to make your own homebrew tej, you can buy it from several U.S. wineries (plus one in Ethiopia and one in Germany) that make it. As I've noted just above, this tej tastes quite different than homebrew. Here are some options. Most of these wineries allow you to order online or by calling them. [Watch my short video about commercial brands of tej.]

Axum Tej and Saba Tej, both made by Heritage Wines of Rutherford, N.J. (888.835.2986). Araya Yibrehu, the company's owner and winemaker, also produces Royal Mead and a Royal Mead blackberry variety. He will soon begin to import Makeda Tej, a South Africa wine made with Ethiopian honey. Araya's American tej varieties use some expensive and hard-to-get Ethiopian honey in the mix, along with American honey and, of course, gesho. He also hopes to market a sparking tej - Ethiopian champagne, you might say, as well as a brand of Ethiopian coffee. Araya was co-owner in the late 1970s of Sheba, the first Ethiopian restaurant in New York City.

Time Traveler Tej, Parker, Colo. (303.766.7531). Robertson and Associates Winery launched this honey wine in January 2014. The winemaker, Cris Robertson, is a beekeeper turned mead-maker turned t'ej-maker, and he uses gesho to flavor his wine, which he makes from orange blossom and wildflower honey. The company ships to numerous states, and just a few months after its launch, Time Traveler Tej won a gold medal at the Los Angeles International Wine Competition.

Big Tree, Woodland, Calif. 530.231.2001. A group of doctoral graduates from University of California at Davis came together in 2013 to create Queen Sheba Winery, and they now sell three kinds of tej on their website: Green Dry, made with honey from clover; Orange Dry, made with honey from orange blossoms; and Gold Dry, made with wildflower honey. The creators of this tej did their doctoral work in the biological sciences as they relate to research and industry.

Bee d'Vine, San Francisco, Calif. (415.644.8607). Ayele Solomon's honey wine doesn't call itself t'ej, but it's still very Ethiopian. The wine's label subtly incorporates elements of ancient Ethiopian culture as a nod to t'ej, and Ayele himself was born in Ethiopia. His family moved to the U.S. when he was a child. The company has also created a charity to help Ethiopian beekeepers convert from inefficient old-style hives - which hang precariously from trees - to modern hives that produce seven to 10 times more honey. For every case of wine sold, Bee d'Vine will contribute $4 to the charity. Bee d'Vine sells its wine nationwide through its website. The wine comes in two varieties: brut (dry) and demi-sec (semi-sweet).

To teach people about honey wine, Ayele has written an illustrated book, The Celebrated Story of Honey Wine, that's free for download at the company's website. You can also order a printed copy of the book, which pays homage to t'ej, as well as honey wine in general, tracing its history back for thousands of years.

Agazen Tej, made by Laddsburg Mountain Winery of New Albany, PA (570.363.2476). The name is the Amharic word for the animal we know as the mountain nyala, a native Ethiopian species that's kin to the kudu.

Docho Tej, a new tej made by a winery in Burtonsville, Md. It comes in two varieties: regular and coffee flavored (called "yebuna tej"). It's available at a few markets in the Washington, D.C., area, and the company can be contacted at: yebunateg@gmail.com. The name "docho" is an Oromo word that has come into use in Amharic. It means "short and husky," which describes the round-bottom berele from which tej is consumed in Ethiopia. The tej's label depicts a berele.

Begena Tedj, made by Wilhelmine Stordiau (+49-(0)69-308-366-02) of Frankfurt, Germany. Stordiau was born and raised in Ethiopia, the great-granddaughter of an Ethiopian woman, and making this tej (German spelling: tedj) is a return "home" for her. A "begena" is an Ethiopian stringed instrument similar to a lyre. Frankfurt has nearly a score of Ethiopian restaurants, more than any other German city.

Lost Tribes Tej, made by Lost Tribes Brew of New York. The company worked with an Ethiopian Jew living in Israel to create its recipe, and a portion of the sales of the tej goes to help the Beta Israel ("House of Israel"), which is what Ethiopian Jews call themselves.

Enat Tej, made by Enat Winery of Oakland, CA (510.632.6629). "Enat" is the Ethiopian word for "mother," and this company bases its tej on a recipe provided by the Ethiopian mother-in-law of the company's owner (hence the name of the tej). The winery makes two varieties: traditional and orange.

Seifu's Tej, made by Lakewood Vineyards, Watkins Glen, NY (607.535.9252). Lakewood created this tej for Seifu Lessanework, the original owner of Blue Nile Ethiopian Restaurant in Ann Arbor, Mich. The winery now sells it to other Ethiopian restaurants.

Sheba Tej, made by Brotherhood Winery, Washingtonville, NY (845.496.3661). Brotherhood is considered to be the oldest operating winery in the U.S.

Meskerem Tej and Regal Tej, made by Easley Winery, Indianapolis, IN (317.636.4516). The first wine is named for Meskerem Ethiopian Restaurant, which has three locations in New York City. Some relatives of the New York owners also have a branch of the restaurant in Charlotte, N.C. The two varieties of tej are very much alike but made with slightly different recipes.

The Queen's Honeywine, made by Nigisti Abraha, an Ethiopian-born woman who lives in Denver. Her name, "Nigisti," means "queen" in Amharic, hence the name of the wine. She takes orders online at her web site (303.929.7106).

Yemar Tej, made by Berrywine Plantations, Mt. Airy, MD (301.831.5889). This winery makes two varieties: amber medium sweet and pale dry.

Yamatt Tej, made by Rabbit's Foot Meadery of Sunnyvale, CA (408.747.0770). The name means "mother-in-law's tej."

Tej, made by Diamond Spring Cellars, Bloomington, IN. The bottle lists no phone number for the winery.

Tej (hopped mead), made by Camas Prairie Winery of Moscow, ID (800.616.0214).

Nigest Honey Wine, made by Awash Winery, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia (+251-011-371-7050). This is a difficult tej to find in the United States. I know of only one importer who distributes it - Kebede "Teddy" Tadesse (410.698.2035) - and he tells me that Americans find the taste to be rather strong, so few restaurants sell it.

Tej, another European brand, made by a company in called Honeycomb Sweden. The company's website doesn't mention whether it uses gesho to ferment the tej.

Dogfish Head Brewery of Milton, DE, produced a tej a few years ago, and then made a new batch in 2008. But it's now all sold out. Still, you might check back at the company's web site now and then to see if they produce more.

1. Ethiopian History 2. Etymology 3. Tej in History 4. Tej Today 5. Making Tej 6. Finding Gesho 7. Winery Tej

9. The words for honey wine and honey in Ethiopia's many languages         10. Watch Making Tej, a step-by-step video

8. The Science and Economics of Tej

SCIENTISTS, ECONOMISTS AND SOCIOLOGISTS - in Ethiopia and from around the world - have recently come to recognize the importance of honey, bees and homebrew tej to the Ethiopian culture and economy. Here's a roundup of the reports and studies they've issued:

A study conducted in 2001, and published in The Journal of Food Technology in Africa, examined the chemical and nutritional properties of tej.

In this study, Bekele Bahiru, a professor on the faculty of science at Addis Ababa University, analyzed 200 samples of tej made at different times and in different places. "As tej fermentation is a spontaneous process that depends on microflora naturally present on the substrates and equipment," he writes, "the different metabolic products of the randomized microfloa at different stages, the physical and chemical environment, duration of fermentation and concoction practices would result in physico-chemical variations in the final product." In short: No two glasses of tej are exactly alike.

Bekele notes in his introduction that virtually every culture in the world has an indigenous fermented beverage, and in Africa, such beverages are often used at important occasions like "marriage, naming and rain making ceremonies, at burial ceremonies and settling disputes." He then says that "good-quality tej is yellow, sweet, effervescent and cloudy due to the content of yeasts. The flavor of tej depends upon the part of the country where the bees have collected the nectar and the climate." His study goes on to find that the pH of tej ranges from 3.02 to 4.90, making it decidedly acidic. The alcohol content of his samples ranged from a mere 2.7% to a hearty (for wine) 21.7%. Tej has fewer carbohydrates than European honey wine and more proteins than grape wine. Read the report.

Bekele's 2005 study in the journal Food Microbiology again looked at tej for its yeast and lactic acid content. The research concludes that yeasts of the species Saccharomyces cerevisiae make up 25% of the yeast that ferments tej, while three other yeasts do 40% of the work between them.

And Bekele reveals one of the secrets of tej. "Some tej makers also add different concoctions such as barks or roots of some plants or herbal ingredients to improve flavor or potency," he writes. "Due to concoction, adulteration practices and possibly some other reasons, producers usually are not willing to tell about additives used and their compositions." Read the report.

In 2000, the Chemical Society of Ethiopia sponsored a conference on Ethiopian alcoholic beverages and published a 160-page book, "The Proceedings of the Workshop on Modern and Treaditional Brewing in Ethiopia." The nine essays in the book, all based on papers delivered at the conference, include many references to and facts about tej, including this flow chart for the making of tej. The chart appears in the article by Ayele Nigatu and Kelbessa Urga of the Ethiopian Health and Nutrition Research Institute.

In 1977, Sally Vogel and Abeba Gobezie presented their research on Ethiopian tej at an international symposium on fermented foods held in Bangkok. I can find no independent publication of their findings. But Keith Steinkraus' Handbook of Indigenous Fermented Foods (see just below) has a summary of their work and reprints their tej recipe in the form a flow chart. Google Books also offers a preview of Steinkraus' book that includes the Vogel and Gobezie research and the the flow chart in the context of the book.

Keith H. Steinkraus' Handbook of Indiginous Fermented Foods devotes two pages to tej, including Vogel and Gobezie's 1977 flow chart recipe of how it's made (see just above). Steinkraus writes that "honey wine has been an indigenous fermented beverage for thousands of years" and that "honey was the only concentrated sugar widely available in prehistoric times." His book describes tej as "yellow, sweet, effervescent, and cloudy, due to the content of yeasts."


Read about my book Mesob Across America: Ethiopian Food in the U.S.A.


Although he notes that Ethiopians use hops and spices to ferment and flavor their "home-processed honey wine," he doesn't specifically mention gesho as the fermenting agent. "Yeasts of the genus Saccharomyces," he says, "are responsible generally for conversion of sugars to ethanol: no inoculum is used. Thus, the fermentation depends upon yeast present in the environment. The fermentation would very likely be improved if desirable strains of fermentative yeast belonging to the genus Saccharomyces were isolated and used for inoculum." No doubt it would. But then, would it be true homebrew tej?

An Ethiopian man harvests mange bark to make ogool, a Majang honey wine

This 2005 study, published in the African Journal of Biotechnology, looked specifically at the fermentation yeast in "ogool," the honey wine of the Majang people. The study notes that ogool is fermented with the bark of a tree called the mange (Blighia unijungata) rather than the stems and leaves of the gesho plant used for tej. Having documented the yeasts active in ogool, the authors conclude: "Efforts are currently underway to research indigenous alcoholic beverages brewed in tropical and subtropical areas and to isolate useful microbial resources so that the methods and microorganisms used in their production can be studied and possibly applied to modern brewing." In other words: Everything old is new again. Read the report (PDF format).

One of the earliest studies to discuss tej at length is Carl Seyffert's Biene und Honig in Volksleben der Afrikaner, published in Germany in 1930. Seyffert's book, which has not been translated into English, provides a comprehensive look at pan-African honey wine, drawing its information from many earlier published books and articles about numerous African cultures. His research is exhaustive - he consulted more than 600 other works for his research - and, in its time, was definitive. The title means "bee and honey in the lives of African people."

One controversial assertion in his book is that bee culture came to Africa through the Hamites from Indo-Germanic pastoral culture. Later studies dispute this, saying that Africans learned to cultivate bees and honey on their own.

The passage on "hydromel," the generic name he introduces and uses most often (interspersing his text with "mead" now and then), appears on pages 88-102, followed by two pages of writing about African honey beers. He names dozens and dozens of cultures and countries, recounting quick anecdotes about their predilection for hydromel, and often sharing their special names for the beverage, some of which are included in the language chart above.

Mead, he writes, is "the favorite drink of the Bambarra of Mali," and the Moslem Hausa people of Nigeria, though forbidden by their faith to consume alcohol, drink mead anyway. The book includes a concise and informative map with a key that shows the three uses Africans make of potable honey and where they do it: some cultures drink pure honey water, some add honey to alcoholic beverages, and some add a fermenting agent to honey water to create honey wine. The largest cluster of cultures that do the latter is in Ethiopia.

Seyffert calls Ethiopian honey wine tetsch, a common German spelling. The ruling Amhara "can't live without it," he writes, and it's "a vice of the Galla" (the European name for the majority Oromo culture). As the national drink, he notes, tej is abundant and inexpensive. He gives recipes for making tej, talks about berele and other vessels for drinking it, and also about gesho for flavoring and fermenting it - all in all, a breezy and informative account of African honey wines, with Ethiopia and tej at its epicenter.

A beekeeper harvests honey from his hive the old-fashioned way

Another early study of tej appeared in a 1959 issue of Annals of Microbiology, a journal published in Milan. The article - in Italian, and not available online - looks at the microbial makeup of tej and analyzes it for its various yeasts (which are a fungus). At the end of the piece, there's a concise English summary of the findings. The spelling of tej in the English summary is identical to how it's spelled in the Italian text:

Microbiological analysis have been made on two samples of honey (white and red) and on two samples of "tecc," all coming from Ethiopia, with the purpose to isolate the yeasts responsible for the natural fermentation.

The study of the 84 isolated cultures showed an absolute prevalance of Saccharomyces ellipsoideus while Sacch. mangini were found with lower frequency. Hansenula anomala was found with particular abundance on the honey.

We have also obtained some asporogenous yeasts belonging to the species Candida krusei and Brettanomyces bruxellensis var. non membranaefaciens. All the isolated cultures were capable of growing on substrata with high concentrations of glucose and, among them, Hansenula anomala showed the highest resistence.

Many of the obtained cultures can be advantageously used for the rational preparation of "tecc."

So tej is a playground of microbial activity, and all of those microbes give tej its flavor and its kick. [See a closeup of Saccharomyces ellipsoideus, the most abundant yeast that ferments tej.]

A team of Japanese scientists published an essay on "Traditional Alcoholic Beverages in Africa" in 1999, and the piece includes a page on tej with two photographs and a flow chart. The report, written in Japanese, has a brief English abstract that says: "African alcoholic beverages are classified into three groups of (1) from sugary substrates, (2) from starchy substrates and (3) distillated products from (1) or (2)." Tej is clearly a (1). The piece lists numerous traditional African brews in English before discussing them in Japanese. Read the report (PDF format, text primarily in Japanese).

Jon Abbink studies alcohol and culture in his essay Drinking, Prestige, and Power Alcohol and Cultural Hegemony in Maji, Southern Ethiopia, which appears in the 1997 book Alcohol in Africa. He looks at three cultures - the Me'en, the Suri and the Dizi - discussing various local alcoholic drinks and how they define and influence power relationships within and between villages.

"There are reports," he writes, "that the Me'en and Suri people have their own honey wine, called boké, somewhat similar to the highlander drink t'adj, but it is difficult to say whether it was made independently or derived from the example of t'adj." His essay goes on to discuss numerous brews of the Maji region and how they can bring prestige or derision to the people who drink them.

The Encyclopaedia Aethiopica, a massive, four-volume tome on every imaginable aspect of Ethiopian culture and history, has entries on "Drinks," "Honey" and - in volume four, to be published in 2009 - "Tej".

In the entry on "Drinks," Jon G. Abbink writes that "Tälla [homebrew beer] and Tägg are known under various names, differing according to language or ethno-region. . . Tägg is the typical Ethiopian honey-wine or mead, made of water, honey (and occasionally sugar in cruder blends) and a fermenting leaf (geso). In popular bars it was, and often still is, served in long-neck berelle, old perfume bottles, a custom dating from the late 19th cent. The best tägg is considered to be the filtered kind. Tägg or daadhii (in Oromo) has become the most popular drink of many Ethiopians, not only in towns but also in countryside bars. In parts of southern Ethiopia there are similar indigenous types of fermented honey-wine, e.g. boke."

The book's "Honey" entry also discusses tej. "Honey is used in both food and drink," writes Gianni Dore. "After pressing it is used for the preparation of mead and, in its regional varieties, Tgn. mes, Orom. daadhii, Amh. tägg, is undertaken by men or women according to social context, area and time. The regulation of the proportion of honey to water, the dosage of aromatic herbs (geso, lat. Rhamnus prinoides; taddwo, lat. Rhamnus staddo) and the preparation and fermentation time define its alcoholic, gustative and social values, differentiating between good and domestic mes and commercial mes, from white to red to black to a bitter one, din, the cheapest and most unpleasant. A typical tägg can have around 14% alcohol."

Another section of the "Honey" entry discusses the role of honey wine in the social structure of Ethiopia: "Mead, often reserved for the chiefs, as sumptuary consumption, has symbolized a line of social demarcation: its presence in the retinues of the chiefs in war and in the shared feasting at the banquets of the élite symbolized the rank of the host and his table-companions, giving rise also to specialized roles," such as the asallafi, or servant who serves tej, and the mälkäñña, the "official charged with brewing, storing and serving" the tej. Dore concludes: "Nevertheless, tägg has lost some of its status due to its association with tägg bets, mead houses frequented by the poor."

Traditional Ethiopian beehives

The downside of tej, and other alcohol, is the risk of dependency. One report mentions tej but attributes alcoholism in Ethiopia to other locally made liquors with a higher alcohol content. Read two studies.

Honey, the key ingredient in tej and an important export product, has also been studied, often at length. A 2007 report, by Bayene Tadesse and David Phillips, mentions tej often and estimates that 70% of honey produced in Ethiopia goes to the making of tej.

The "honey channel" is somewhat simple and goes like this:

Presently, most of the honey harvested goes through tej brewery channel. In this channel, many actors are involved at different levels. Yellow honey is usually preferred for tej and berz. Beekeepers directly sell their honey to local honey collectors (dealer or cooperatives) at district or zonal levels. Then, the collectors sell the honey to tej houses in their localities and/or transport it to the big honey dealers at Addis Ababa. The big honey dealers supply the honey to tej houses. Some collectors (e.g. cooperatives) also sell crude honey wax to tej processors from which they can make berz or use for coloring. Some beekeepers who are also producing large quantities of honey also directly supply to tej houses in their areas. Although economically not so significant, tej is informally exported through country visitors and transitory.

As this passage notes, yellow honey is the best for making tej. "Yellow honey usually originates from pulse and oil crops like niger seed, weeds like mech, and other annual crops called meskel flowers," says the report. "It is usually harvested during November to December. This honey has a strong flavor and bitter tasts and is most preferred for tej production and coloring."

Another related product, beeswax, owes its economic good health to tej as well. "The beeswax channel starts mainly from tej brewery," the report says, "which collects the wax as a by-product of tej or berz. The tej brewers either sell the crude beeswax or semi-processed to the local beexwax collector who supply to beeswax refineries in Addis Ababa. Tej prodjucers remove the crude beeswax (called sefef) from the tej and allow drying. Tej brewers produce partially refined beeswax (call keskis) by melting the crude beeswax with sufficient water and then straining using sisal sacks."

All of this is part of the "honey sub-sector" of the Ethiopian economy, and the authors assert that "thousands of households are engaged in tej-making in almost all urban areas." No doubt in many rural ones, too.

A modern Ethiopian beehive

In much of Ethiopia, bee products are important to the economy. Read the report.

Because honey is so important to Ethiopians, scholars have conducted studies about the sustainability of small-scale production in the country. One such report found that introducing modern beehives into Ethiopia, and seeking fair trade designation for the country's honey, would improve the lives of people who harvest it. Read the report (PDF format).

In another study, researchers found that a lack of bee food during the dry season hindered production, although disease was not a problem.

A 2009 dissertation from Ethiopia's Bahir Dar University examined honey production in the Amhara region. Read the dissertation (PDF format).

A study conducted in 2009 determined that "developing appropriate policy and beekeeping development strategy that would be applicable to the different production systems will ensure the sustainable development of apiculture sub sector." Read the study.

A team of four Ethiopian reseachers has found great potential in some innovative methods of apiculture development. Read the report (PDF format).

Honey and beeswax help the economy, although Ethiopians themselves consume a lot of it.

"Tej is made within each local district, though substantial amounts of honey are transported to Addis Ababa for urban tej production," notes this report, which is undated but seems to have been written no later than 2001. "Attempts to manufacture tej on a commercial scale in the past have been unsuccessful. Even the larger producers in Addis Ababa sell their product informally, without consistent bottling standards, limited quality control, and almost no labeling or marketing of brand names."

Although it's still largely true that most tej is not bottled for wide commercial sale, two brands - Nigest and Tezeta - are now bottled, labeled and sold in Ethiopia.

Beeswax, a by-product of honey production, has potential in Ethiopia as an export, and tej bets supply a good bit of it.

"The bulk of the supply of beeswax to the Ethiopian beeswax exporters originates from mead brewers who produce Ethiopia's traditional national drink made from honey, locally known as tej," says the report. Although specialized beeswax extractors can also supply the product, "there are only a few of these extractors and their product is often adulterated with paraffin wax and animal fats to increase its weight so that it fetches a higher return. As a result, exporters are forced to rely to a large extent on the other immediate suppliers, the tej houses." Read the report (PDF format).

One scholar has studied resource management among beekeeping societies of South West Ethiopia. Read the report (PDF format).

An Ethiopian business organization works to support honey and beeswax production. Read the report.


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