(CNN)As he tended to his goats one afternoon in the Ethiopian highlands some 12 centuries ago, a herder named Kaldi noticed that his bleating charges seemed energized after chewing mysterious red berries.
Intrigued by the strange reaction, Kaldi took the berries to a local monastery, where the monks promptly threw them in the fire disapproving of their apparently magical attributes.
As the berries were roasted by the heat, a heavenly aroma spread, and they were used to make the first coffee.
Or so the legend of coffee goes. What is more certain is that Ethiopia, widely regarded as the cradle of coffee, is a nation devoted to the stimulating beverage. The country is Africa’s biggest producer and ranks fifth globally. Last year it exported 190,000 tonnes of coffee beans, earning around $700 million, and in 2016 Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa will host the 4th World Coffee Conference, a high-level gathering of global experts.
Far from being just coffee exporters, Ethiopians are also major coffee lovers. Cafes densely line the streets of the capital Addis Ababa, and in 2013/14 3.6 million bags were consumed in the country, representing 71.6% of the total domestic consumption of Africa and 8% of all exporting countries.
TO.MO.CA, with six branches in Ethiopia’s capital, is one of the most recognizable cafe brands. It has been owned by three generations of the same family for over 60 years, and now the company is opening its first international outpost in Tokyo, Japan, this May.
“Ethiopians are coffee drinkers with a history of drinking and enjoying coffee for over 1,000 years,” says Wondwossen Meshesha, the 28-year-old grandson of TO.MO.CA’s founder and the company’s current chief operations officer.
“Here, it’s not just about getting a coffee on your way to work,” he continues. “Ethiopians socialize and meet their business partners in coffee shops.”
Meshesha says that only 20% of the coffee in the country is commercially farmed, with the rest coming from small holder farmers, who harvest coffee mainly in forest. “The specialty of Ethiopian coffee comes from the emphasis of consistency in production of quality coffee rather than volume of coffee production,” the young businessman adds.
More than caffeine
In Ethiopia, consuming coffee has traditionally been a ceremonial affair with a deep, spiritual meaning, conducted at home. The beans are roasted in an open pan so that their rich aroma draws family, neighbors and other guests to gather.
After they are ground with a mortar and pestle, the coffee is brewed in a jug and poured into small cups from a height, with an up-and-down motion. Cups are filled to the brim, representing a wish for “fullness of life” for the guest, and there are three servings, the last of which is called baraka, or blessing.
“[The] traditional coffee ceremony is very sacred to the Ethiopian culture. It’s not just about the drinking of coffee but it’s a spiritual ceremony. Both Christians and Muslim practice it, and its purpose is spirituality, and family and social gathering,” says Meshesha.
He feels certain that, in spite of the increasingly fast pace of life, the coffee ceremony won’t die out because of the special status it enjoys in Ethiopian culture. However Meshesha adds that his company, and other coffee shops which have sprouted across Ethiopia’s cities in recent years, try to present traditional coffee drinking in a modern way.
Away from abundant local consumption, the government is trying to promote Ethiopian coffee as a premium product abroad, and increase exports from 190,837 metric tonnes in 2013/14, to 200,000 which would generate $1 billion in revenue.
“We have 5,000 varieties of coffee in Ethiopia,” says Meshesha. “It has huge potential.”
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