DiscoverEthiopian Honey Wine - Tej: A Timeless Tradition

Ethiopian Honey Wine – Tej: A Timeless Tradition

Ethiopia is a country of immense diversity and rich traditions. Among them is the ancient craft of brewing Tej, an exquisite honey wine that has been a cornerstone of Ethiopian culture for centuries. Tej is more than a beverage; it is a symbol of hospitality, community, and heritage, embodying the Ethiopian spirit in every sip. I was able to try Tej in a unique Ethiopian restaurant and have been craving it ever since!

The Origins of Tej

To start off let’s learn a little bit about Tej! The history of Tej is as old as Ethiopia itself. It can be traced back to the Aksumite Empire, around 100 AD to 940 AD. Early Ethiopian manuscripts and folklore often speak of this golden-hued drink. As a matter of fact, it’s had in royal courts and religious ceremonies. It is believed that the knowledge of Tej making was handed down through generations, from the ancient highlands of Ethiopia to the bustling cities and remote villages that are the landscape today.

Crafting the Ethiopian Nectar

At its core, Tej is a blend of honey, water, and leaves or branches from the gesho plant (Rhamnus prinoides). This native shrub serves as the bittering agent (like tannins) and provides a unique flavor profile akin to hops in beer. The specific type of honey used, often harvested from wild bees in the Ethiopian highlands gives this wine a distinctive taste depending on the region’s flora. The mixture is fermented in traditional clay pots called a “gebeta”. The wine will sit in these gebetas anywhere from a few days to several months, depending on the desired sweetness and alcohol level.

The variety of Tej is vast, with each region and each household boasting its own version. There are predominantly two types of Tej. The sweet: lightly fermented & enjoyed casually and The potent: an aged variety reserved for special occasions. The fermentation time, the proportion of ingredients, and the type of honey used all contribute to the diversity of styles and tastes of Tej.

Tasting the Liquid Gold

Sampling Tej is an incredible experience. The drink is somewhat like beer, somewhat like wine. While there is sweetness from the honey, fermentation makes it tart, and gesho adds bitterness. It’s a balancing act. The lighter versions tend to be sweet and refreshing, whereas the aged versions develop a deeper, complex flavor profile, often with notes of spices, herbal undertones, and a warm, honeyed finish. It is traditionally served in a “berele,” a vase-like glass that enhances its aromatic qualities.

Tej in Ethiopian Society

Ethiopian honey wine is more than a drink; it’s a tradition deeply woven into the cultural fabric of the country. It is a symbol of hospitality, often served to guests in homes or traditional Tej houses known as “Tej betoch.” These establishments range from simple settings where locals gather for conversation and camaraderie, to more elaborate venues where Tej is accompanied by traditional Ethiopian dishes and performances of folk songs and dances.

The Legacy and Global Reach

Over the centuries, Tej has remained a vibrant part of Ethiopian culture. It’s making and consumption has been passed down through generations. In recent years, the allure of Tej has transcended Ethiopian borders, finding a place in global cities with Ethiopian diaspora communities. 

Where to Get Tej

In Ethiopia, the best way to experience authentic Tej is by visiting a “Tej bet” or Tej house where it is brewed and served with great care. For those residing outside of Ethiopia, Ethiopian restaurants are great places to start. Many of these establishments brew their Tej or import it, providing an authentic taste of Ethiopian hospitality. 

Additionally, global cities with sizable Ethiopian communities have markets and shops that specialize in African or Ethiopian products, including Tej.

For enthusiasts who prefer the convenience of online shopping, several online stores sell Tej or Tej kits (which include ingredients to brew your own Tej at home). However, availability can vary based on your location and local regulations on alcohol importation.

Different Types of Tej

Tej can broadly be categorized based on its sweetness levels: 

1. Sweet Tej: 

Certainly the best type of Tej! It is especially popular among those trying Tej for the first time. It is characterized by a significant sweetness that masks the alcohol content, making it very approachable.

2. Dry Tej: 

A less common variant. Dry Tej has a reduced sweetness, allowing the intricate flavors and the influence of the gesho to come forward more prominently. It’s similar to dry wines where the fermentation process consumes most of the sugars.

3. Aged Tej: 

Over time, Tej develops more complex flavors. Aged Tej, often kept for months or even years, diminishes in sweetness but gains a depth of flavor that can appeal to connoisseurs looking for a robust beverage.

Best Brands to Try, If You Can Find Them 

While the commercialization of Tej is not as widespread as other wines, there are a few noteworthy brands that have gained recognition:

Queen Sheba Tej

Named after the legendary Queen of Sheba, this brand is one of the few that has found its way to international markets. Its sweet profile makes it a popular choice among newcomers.

Axum Tej

Another brand that pays homage to Ethiopia’s history, specifically to the ancient kingdom of Axum. This brand offers a more traditional taste and is appreciated by those seeking authenticity.

Honey Wine Company

Based outside of Ethiopia in the U.S. this company produces Tej utilizing traditional methods. They offer variations in sweetness which provides options for different palates.

Final Thoughts

While Tej is a traditional Ethiopian beverage, its global presence has been steadily increasing. This beverage brings Ethiopian culture to the table. Whether you prefer sweet, dry, or aged Tej, the essential qualities of this honey wine—its link to history, its communal spirit, and its exotic flavor—make it a drink worth exploring. As Tej continues to gain international acclaim, its variety and availability are sure to expand, bringing a piece of Ethiopia to enthusiasts everywhere.

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