Alcoholic drinks have played a role in society since ancient times — some speculate they existed as far back as 100,000 years ago — and are typically made by fermenting locally available ingredients. In Ethiopia, the largest country in the Horn of Africa, that bountiful commodity is honey, and Ethiopians have a deep history of fermenting it with yeast, water and gesho (a small evergreen shrub) to create t'ej (pronounced tedj), a type of mead, or honey wine. Ethiopia produces 45,000 to 50,000 tons (41,000 to 45,000 metric tons) of honey per year, making it the largest honey producer in Africa, and they use a lot of it to produce their beloved national drink.
The Rich History of T'ej
T'ej isn't just any historical drink: Some historians believe fermented honey wines to be the earliest alcoholic beverages known to man. Excavations from the Aksumite Empire, a civilization that reigned from approximately 100 to 940 B.C. E. in what is now northern Ethiopia and Eritrea, turned up accounts of its use in rituals. Numerous historians and scholars have uncovered texts that show the consumption of honey wine by Ethiopia's nobility and soldiers throughout the region's history. By the 20th century, t'ej was no longer just for high society or a drink enjoyed mostly during rituals and ceremonies, but had become a drink produced mainly in the home and consumed by most Ethiopians.
The Role of T'ej in Present-day Ethiopian Society
Today, Ethiopians have neighborhood spots dedicated solely to drinking t'ej, known as t'ej bets, or honey-wine houses, where locals can catch up on community happenings and imbibe with friends. But t'ej bets are heavily divided by gender lines; they're owned by women yet patronized by mostly men. In Ethiopia, culture dictates that women shouldn't go to bars and that men don't make t'ej.
How Is T'ej Made?
Making t'ej requires only four ingredients: honey, yeast, water and gesho. Gesho (Rhamnus prinoides), known as shiny-leaf buckthorn in English, is an African shrub that is used for various nutritional, medicinal and religious purposes. While not exactly in the same botanical family as hops, gesho serves the similar purpose of balancing sweetness by adding a bit of tartness or bitterness and aiding in the fermentation process. Making t'ej is a relatively simple process of combining the ingredients and leaving the mixture to ferment for three to four weeks (see this recipe for more info), but makers often improvise to create variations of flavor and intensity.
T'ej is traditionally served chilled and in a berele — a glass that resembles a beaker. The sweetness of the yellowish-orange elixir pairs especially well with spicy food, typical of Ethiopian cuisine. If you want to imbibe one of the world's oldest alcoholic beverages but can't make it to Ethiopia, try making t'ej at home or visiting an Ethiopian restaurant to get a boozy taste of Ethiopia's history and culture.