Cafe Romanat Shares a Coffee Ritual
In Ethiopia, coffee lovers savor the bounty of their country with an elaborate to-do that also occurs in Oakland cafes.
The Ethiopian coffee ritual involes open flames, green beans, an affinity for the scent of coffee, and patience.
Photos by Lori Eanes
You think you’re a coffee snob? Then toss aside your burr grinder and head to Santa Clara Avenue. And clear your schedule—this romp through caffeine nirvana may take hours. A stone’s throw from the Grand Lake Theatre, at Cafe Romanat, one can partake in an ancient Ethiopian coffee ritual that would humble even the most devout Peet’s-nik.
It involves open flames, ceremonial baskets, a mortar and pestle, and something Mebrat Hagos, who performs the cafe’s coffee ritual, describes as “addict smell.”
“People, they love it,” she said on a recent visit to her family’s restaurant near Lake Merritt. “More and more are coming for the coffee. It might be a little strong for American people. But they are learning.”
Coffee is to Ethiopia as coconuts are to Hawaii. Coffee plants grow wild in the mountains, and the Ethiopians have been enjoying its gifts at least since the 10th century, according to the Equal Exchange fair-trade coffee co-op. Nomadic Sufi mystics brought Ethiopia’s coffee to the Middle East, and from there it eventually spread to every kitchen in the known universe. Seattle may claim the mantle, but Ethiopia, according to the National Coffee Association, truly is the capital of coffee.
This is how they do it at Cafe Romanat. First, Hagos lights a fire in a small box. As the fire gets started, she tosses some fresh, green coffee beans in a blackened skillet called a kesel. Next, she shakes the skillet over the fire until the beans turn a rich, oily dark brown. This process takes about 10 minutes.
The next step takes a little longer. This is where Hagos offers the skillet to her guests so they can get a good whiff of the freshly roasted beans.
“Some people, they don’t like coffee but they are addicted to smell,” she explained.
Next, she dumps the beans in a handwoven basket to cool while she heats up a pot of water. When the beans are cool, she grinds them with a wooden mortar and pestle until they’re what modern baristas would describe as “coarse ground.”
At that point, the grounds go directly into the pot of boiling water. When the time is exactly right, she pours the coffee into small cups called cienne, and everyone sits around and sips coffee for two hours.
“It’s for talking and relaxing with family and friends,” she said. “Everybody does is this way. Nobody buys coffee in the store. Why not? It’s just ... better.”
One might think this ceremony is reserved for special occasions or has religious significance. One would be wrong. Ethiopians do this ritual three or four times a day for no reason other than that they love coffee. Each region has its own variations; some add salt, for example, or sugar or butter. Milk is a rarity. And Hagos swears, not a single Ethiopian has trouble sleeping.
Since she arrived in the United States five years ago, Hagos has sampled all of Oakland’s finest coffee offerings. When asked if she’d tried Blue Bottle or Peet’s, a forlorn look crossed her face.
“Yes,” she sighed, looking away sadly. “They’re OK. But they’re not good.”
Coffee ceremonies are common throughout Oakland’s vibrant Ethiopian and Eritrean communities. Restaurants and cafes throughout town offer their own versions. Anfilo Coffee, for example, has a loyal following at the Oakland-Grand Lake Farmers Market.
Andrew Ellis, author of Oakland: New Urban Eating, is a fan. Not just of the coffee, which he describes as deep and rich, but of the whole hoopla that goes with it. “Here, people sit in cafes with their headphones and laptops and don’t pay attention to each other,” he said. “I love that with Ethiopian coffee, it’s about sitting and talking and watching the coffee being made. It’s about so much more than the coffee; it’s about community.”