When Coffee Becomes the Show

Ethiopia's coffee ceremony is the pinnacle of the fresh brew

Video: Matt Taylor-Gross

"All Ethiopians are proud of their coffee," Kedega Srage tells me while we sip on a batch she made just moments before. I don't mean she flipped the switch on a coffee machine; I mean she donned a traditional dress and head scarf, roasted green coffee beans over an open flame, ground them with warm cardamom and clove, and brewed an elixir so dark and rich and refreshingly bittersweet that the plain moniker "coffee" feels wholly inadequate.

This is coffee Ethiopian-style, a proud ceremonial tradition from the ancestral birthplace of the coffee bean. Srage performs the ceremony four times a week at New York's Bunna Cafe, where she's also the head chef of the restaurant's skillfully executed Ethiopian menu. And since moving to New York in 2000 from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia's capital city, it's one of the ways she keeps in touch with home.

Roasting coffee beans moments before brewing them makes for an exceptionally delicious and vibrant cup of coffee, but there's more to the coffee ceremony than good taste. “The main reason we do the ceremony is to socialize with our friends, our family, or whoever is visiting your house," she explains. "It's the most important hospitality."

At Bunna, many of Srage's customers have no clue what's happening when she lights a burner in the center of the dining room and starts roasting beans. They rattle musically in the pan, and a toasty plume of smoke creeps its way toward the tables. But by the time the coffee gurgles over the top of the jebena, the clay pot used for brewing, one thing is clear: Everyone wants a taste.