The Great Addis Ababa Beverage Binge

Highs in the Ethiopian capital don't end at coffee.  
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Originally said to be the ‘drink of nobility’, tej is a sweet, saffron-coloured mead made from water, honey and gesho leaves. Photo by: Grant Rooney/agefotostock/Dinodia Photo Library

I never know the answer to the polarising question, am I a coffee person or a tea person, since I am decidedly a coffee-and-tea person. Why this pressure to choose between two A+ beverages? Luckily in Addis Ababa I did not have to. All thanks to the spris.

Combining coffee and tea in one single, potent cup, the spris is bound to send conservative blowhards keeling over in disgust. And I concede, it is not for everyone. But it was certainly for me.

My first spris was at Raizel Cafe, a small enterprise in the centre of Addis Ababa. It arrived in a transparent cup, a dark, sludgy top layer smothering a translucent, lighter brown bulk below. As I drained it, the first hits of chai gave way to a strong undertow of coffee. I was an instant convert.

Ethiopia is not an obvious choice for tourists, a landlocked country once synonymous with global hunger and developing world despair. But Addis Ababa, a city of three million, is aspiring to build itself as a great African city in the continent’s fastest-growing economy. A week later, I was smitten, spris and all.

But I was not a philistine throughout. I also consumed pure Ethiopian coffee repeatedly and enthusiastically during my eight-day trip. The country doesn’t let you forget that this is the birthplace of the coffee bean; legend claims that a shepherd wandering through Kaffa—the region that gives coffee its name—stumbled on caffeinated goats energised on wild beans. Several centuries later caffeinated humans continue to get energised on ground beans.

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The open-air Merkato market is a hotspot for chaotic bliss, with busy shoppers making their way through humans and animals, as music blares around them. Photo by: Sohadiszno/iStock Editorial/Getty Images

The local macchiato is a sturdy, flavoursome bolt of caffeine, chocolatey, foamy, richly addictive. Then there is the standard-issue black coffee that arrives in tiny, chai-style glasses, bursting with the burnt deliciousness of fresh roasting. Street-side stalls are common; but one of the best places was Tomoca, a small enterprise with a no-nonsense decor, busy queues and the pungent scent of singed beans.

It’s not just the birthplace of the bean though, you are also constantly reminded that this is the birthplace of humanity itself, the beginning of everything. The country’s tourism board brands it as the “Land of Origins.” Lucy, a 3.2-million-year-old human fossil, and the nation’s most famous entity, now rests at the National Museum of Ethiopia. Lucy, or Dinknesh as she is known in Amharic, is a small-brained, bipedal Australopithecus afarensis specimen discovered in 1974 and has been crucial to our understanding of human evolution. There was something arresting about visiting Lucy and other ancient remains even though bones in a glass case might be underwhelming for some. In case there was any doubt that this was the cradle of it all, a large information board illustrated how “the world became African.”

But almost everything else here is new. Emerging from a violent communist past and civil war, this is a country, and a city, swirling in the midst of construction. Skeletal buildings with scaffolding and Chinese signs are springing up everywhere. A new light rail was opened in 2015. A new address system is being planned. A new, reformist prime minister is in power.

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Addis Ababa is in the throes of transformation, with construction in full swing in different parts of the city. Photo by: benedek/iStock/Getty Images

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The city has shaken off a violent communist past and has welcomed change but still manages to retain its unique culture. Photo by: GTW/imageBROKER/Dinodia Photo Library

 

This was only my second time in Africa, my first time in sub-Saharan Africa, so everything crackled with the frisson of the new: the nameless streets, the white-clad Ethiopian Christians, the Chinese-hating locals, the chunky Amharic script. Even the chaotic Mercato, said to be Africa’s largest open-air market, heaved with energy—donkeys wandered through, music thumped, people chewed the narcotic khat leaves and women clutched at their purses.

But the most novel were the tej bars, tiny shacks serving the local brew of honey wine, originally said to be a drink of the nobility. It took several minutes to find Topia Tej Bet through the warren of darkened alleys behind a luxury hotel, and once my friends and I reached we were the only group in sight. Made from water, honey and gesho leaves (plucked from an African shrub), the sweet, saffron concoction arrived in transparent goblets. The tej, also Ethiopia’s national drink, tasted strange at first, then grew on me gradually. Two litres later, at 9.30 p.m. we were kicked out.

But we were not done yet. Bundling ourselves into a taxi, we made for Black Rose Bar, but as with Ethiopian cab drivers, he was having none of it, and refused to take directions from us. “Listen to Abba,” he said, using the generic honorific for elders, whilst confidently steering us in the opposite direction. “What about Google Abba?” one companion asked. But Abba simply laughed. My friend promptly disintegrated into pidgin, the refuge of the desperate and confused. “But we no go there,” she beseeched. Abba laughed and ploughed on, stopping triumphantly at Black Pearl Bar. He smiled; it was almost what we had asked for. Barely sheepish, he demanded more cash.

When we finally reached Black Rose Bar it was worth every misspent birr, every extra kilometre in the wrong direction. The buzzing lounge with the vibe of auteur cool, the dim but not too dim interiors, the ambient but not too loud music; all of it was just so.

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The spris is an authentic Ethiopian speciality, a sludgy and potent concoction made from mixing coffee and tea. Photo by; AndrzejKubik/shutterstock

That night among others brought me to these five words I did not expect to say: Ethiopian wine is a marvel. I can’t tell you much about the body or tannins or the subtle hints of avocado and rosemary, but I can tell you that both the Rift Valley Chardonnay (260 birr/Rs630) and Acacia Rose (200 birr/Rs485) were plenty delicious and plenty cheap too. Ethiopian beer was no slouch either. The two local brands I tried, Habesha, and Walia, were perfect; so bitter, so cold. But everyone’s favourite au courant trend Ethiopian food—best known by the sourdough crepe, the injera and its various accompaniments—was simply not for me.

Ethiopia was one of only two countries not to be colonised, except for a brief stay by the Italians, and that impact lingers in the cuisine. Local iterations of pasta were uneven—bland, thin spaghetti with boiled vegetables or fat noodles sitting in an anodyne tomato sauce. But at Ristorante Castelli, an Italian-run Addis Ababa institution, there was little room to complain. Situated in an old building on Mahatma Gandhi road off Piazza, it has been serving up hearty pastas in the capital since the 1950s, when Francesco Castelli, an Italian soldier, decided to stay back after the brief colonial misadventure.

With its creaking floorboards and large windows, it conjures up all the requisite charisma that behoves such a popular family-run outfit. The Castellis are among the few remaining European families in the city, and as Addis has developed and evolved around it, the restaurant, now run by Francesco’s daughter Tiziana Castelli, remains much the same.

Its walls are studded with pictures of celebrity visitors—including Jimmy Carter, Angelina Jolie and Bob Geldof, who called it his favourite restaurant in the world. Why do people love it? “The food, the food, the food,” exclaimed Tiziana. “The quality and the portions. We don’t give small sophisticated portions where people come out feeling hungry.” From deep inside me the afternoon’s mushroom ravioli and tiramisu grunted in agreement.

Essentials

The Ethnological Museum set in the former king Haile Selassie’s palace is a fine introduction to the country. It has also maintained the king and queen’s chambers (entry: 100 birr/Rs245). The National Museum of Ethiopia (entry: 10 birr/Rs25), contains four storeys, the most important being the basement that houses Lucy and other ancient remains. The first floor has a nice selection of contemporary Ethiopian art. The “Red Terror” Martyrs’ Memorial Museum offers glimpses into the country’s violent communist dictatorship (entry free). Tomoca has some of the best coffee to drink and to buy. Risorante Castelli is a perfect lunch pit stop and La Mandoline has some lovely French fare. The city does not lack for cheap, good quality alcohol—try a tej bar, such as Topia Tej Bet or a more modern option, Black Rose Bar. If you’re lucky you can catch the great musician Mulatu Astatke, the father of Ethio-jazz, at a local concert.

  • Bhavya Dore is a Mumbai-based freelance journalist. She was previously a beat reporter with the Hindustan Times. She usually writes on criminal justice issues, culture, books and sports.

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