On a recent Saturday afternoon in Little Ethiopia, Hwaget Haile walked through the dining room of Messob Restaurant with a pot of freshly roasted coffee beans. The beans crackled and hissed, blanketing the room in a thick, fragrant cloud of smoke.
Haile had just completed the first step of an Ethiopian coffee ceremony, an elaborate ritual performed three times per day in most parts of Ethiopia and Eritrea. The ceremony consists of roasting green beans over an open flame, grinding the beans with a mortar and pestle, and brewing the coffee in a clay vessel called a jebena. The hostess pours the coffee in a long, steady stream, aiming to fill dozens of tiny cups without spilling a drop.
Roasting and grinding the beans moments before brewing produce an exceptionally vibrant flavor: simultaneously strong and sweet, so smooth it practically glides off the tongue. Berhanu Asfaw, owner of Messob Restaurant, says the ceremony is an integral expression of hospitality in Ethiopian culture.
Asfaw says that in his home city of Addis Ababa, neighbors come together over coffee on a daily basis. He aims to replicate this experience for Ethiopian immigrants longing for a taste of home in L.A.
“Everybody starts in the morning with coffee before anyone goes anywhere,” Asfaw says. “It’s the most important thing. Even if you see someone pass by your house or some people come to say hi to you, you have to make a coffee for them.”
When Asfaw immigrated to the United States in 1981, he was surprised by the grab-and-go approach toward coffee consumption. He describes coffee as a tool for social engagement: best when savored slowly, in the company of good friends and lively conversation.
“Here, people just go to Starbucks, different places, to pick up a cup of coffee,” Asfaw says. “In Ethiopia, it doesn’t matter what kind of fast-paced life you have. You really have to make time for coffee in the traditional way.”
Nearly all of the restaurants in Little Ethiopia, located on a block-long stretch of Fairfax Avenue, offer a traditional coffee ceremony. The area has been a hub of cultural and economic activity for Ethiopians since the early 1990s. In 2002, the L.A. City Council approved the formal designation of the ethnic enclave.
On weekends at Buna Ethiopian Café and Market, a modest, homey operation, families spend the entire afternoon sipping coffee and catching up on neighborhood gossip. A few steps away at Rosalind’s Ethiopian Restaurant, the ceremony can be a more theatrical experience, especially in the evenings, when food service slows to a trickle and the live music gets going.
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The ceremony plays more than just a social role in Ethiopian society, however. Coffee is also an important aspect of the nation’s history. Legend has it that a goatherd first discovered coffee berries on an ancient Ethiopian hillside thousands of years ago. Asfaw says all Ethiopians take pride in this discovery, and the traditional coffee ceremony developed as a way to honor the crop.
While many Angelenos have only recently been introduced to specialty beans, coffee for L.A.'s Ethiopian community has long been more than just a commodity — it’s part of their way of life.