ethiopian coffee ceremony setup

Ethiopian Coffee Ceremony: How Coffee is Honored in its Birthplace

Coffee is the third most-consumed non-alcoholic beverage after tea and water. Many can’t even fathom thinking about how their days would begin without getting that kick of caffeine. This shows how dependent people are on the drink and how it holds a special place in the lives of many around the world. Now, if coffee is so special in many places, just imagine where it stands in its birthplace.

Ethiopia happens to be the birthplace of coffee and, since its discovery, people have practically worshipped it. In Ethiopia, coffee is more than just a mere drink consumed to stay awake and get through the day.

Apart from being a commodity that sustains the livelihood of around 20% of the Ethiopian population, it is also an integral part of the social fabric. Coffee is a part of everyday life in the country and in a way responsible for bringing people together despite their differences in ethnicities, religions, lifestyles, status or customs. Local legends, the history of its discovery and the socio-economic benefits that coffee provides make coffee a sacred product in Ethiopia.

To honour this valuable item, the people of Ethiopia have been performing the buna ceremony or the coffee ceremony for thousands of years.

Today’s post is about the Ethiopian buna ceremony. First, we’ll understand how coffee was discovered in the country. Next, we’ll look at how the ceremony is done, step by step. Then, we’ll discover the origins of the buna ceremony, and lastly, discuss what the ceremony means to people and why it is important to them.

Brief Introduction to Ethiopian Coffee and Buna Ceremony

Buna is the Amharic word for coffee. The coffee plant is believed to be indigenous to southern Ethiopia. It was seemingly first discovered in the province of Kaffa, which is where the word coffee comes from. Today, Ethiopia is the largest producer of coffee on the African continent.

Ethiopia has the ideal climate conditions and terrain to produce top quality beans with superior flavour. One that is perfectly balanced in acidity and bitterness. The country’s highlands and its reception of sufficient rainfall provide the right temperature for the beans to grow. The quality of soil and local planting methods further aid the growth of the coffee plant.

coffee plant with bright red fruit
Coffee plant. Image Credit: Abat

The buna ceremony is a daily affair in Ethiopian households. Sometimes it is even performed more than once a day. The ceremony is time-consuming, artistic, intricate, traditional but flexible. Hence, the way the ceremony is performed and the way coffee is served at the ceremony may differ from region to region. Demonstrating great diversity in the Ethiopian culture.

Performing the Buna Ceremony 

The coffee ceremony is a complete sensory experience. All the senses are alerted at every step of the lengthy ceremony. The entire process takes time, so it isn’t ideal for people who are in a hurry. It takes at least an hour to just prepare the coffee. After that, the guests may take their own sweet time to enjoy their coffee. The beverage prepared is almost ritualistic; it needs to be savoured and appreciated, taking as long as possible. As they sip their coffee, the guests socialize, though they keep their voices down as the ambience feels sacred.


The buna ceremony is traditionally performed by a female member of the household. The hostess clothes herself in white to perform the ceremony. She usually wears the traditional Ethiopian habesha kemis and netela shawl.

Once the hostess is ready, she selects the most ventilated area available to her. This area is usually near a door or window, which also lets in natural light. Once the venue is selected, a bunch of fresh green reeds of the papyrus plant, known as qétéma is spread on the floor, like a mat. Green grass is a sign of a good omen. Many a time, flowers are added to the qétéma, to enhance the aesthetics and for aroma. Nature happens to be a crucial part of the ceremony.

woman roasting coffee beans
Full set up for the buna ceremony. Image Credit: Emily McIntyre via The Coffee Magazine

A three-legged wooden stool called berchuma is placed on the qétéma. In front of it stands a small wooden table with enough space to hold a tray. This table is around the same height as the berchuma. Since it is the main showpiece of the ceremony, its edges and rims are often ornamented. The hostess arranges handleless china cups known as cinis on a decorative serving tray. The cups are usually either made of porcelain or other earthenware. The cups are arranged according to where the guests will be seated.

Finally, an open-faced stove is placed next to the table, after leaving some space between the two. Inside, the stove burns pieces of charcoal, heating up for the ceremony. Once they are heated enough, one piece is taken and used to burn aromatic incense such as frankincense and myrrh. This is a familiar smell also found in Ethiopian churches, which is another reason why the ambience feels holy. Once the scent of the incense diffuses, it indicates the beginning of the buna ceremony.

The Process of Making Coffee

Now, the hostess is ready to carry out the most important part of the coffee ceremony, which is naturally, making the coffee. The majority of the time is spent executing the detailed process to make the drink. It takes experience and skill to successfully make coffee. That is why usually the elder female member of the household performs the role of the hostess. Like an older sister, a mother or even a grandmother.

First, the hostess takes a handful of beans and washes them thoroughly. The beans may be washed beforehand or it may be a part of the ceremony. She then discards the faulty beans from the bunch and dries them in a flat pan, over the charcoal stove. She stirs the beans until their husk starts falling apart.

After this point, the roasting process begins and the beans gradually change colour to a lustrous dark brown. The shine comes from the oils released from the beans. As they toast over the heat, the smell of coffee fills the air with its aroma. When this aroma mixes with the fragrance of the burning incense, they produce a heavenly smell, which just adds to the sensory experience. As a good hostess, she directs the smoke towards the guests with her hands, so they all get a good whiff of this comforting aroma. The beans are taken off the stove once all participants smell the smoke.

coffee beans roasted till they are shiny and dark brown
Traditional Ethiopian coffee beans, roasted. Image Credit: Culturally Yours

Next, the roasted beans are crushed with a traditional stone mortar and pestle, into a powder that is neither too fine, nor too coarse. In rural areas, where the ceremony is still done outdoors, the process of grinding coffee beans produces a familiar sound that excites everyone in the surroundings as they expect someone to soon call them to join them for coffee.

The powder is then added to a brewing pot known as jebena into which she then pours boiling water. The pot is placed over the charcoal stove and the mixture is allowed to brew for a couple of minutes, or until the coffee grounds settle at the bottom of the jebena.

a traditional brewing pot called jebena
Jebena, brewing pot. Image Credit: Stock Food

The coffee is ready to be served. Now, the hostess asks the youngest member of the family to call for all the family members, guests, relatives, friends and even people from the neighbourhood to begin the presentation. The hostess is the one who decides whether or not the person chosen to serve is ready for the task. It is an honour for the selected person to be part of the coffee presentation.

Serving and Presentation

Once everyone is seated, the hostess then artfully pours each cini from a slight height. The way that the liquid falls into the cup is precise as the impact of the fall isn’t harsh enough for it to splash out of the container. She keeps pouring the coffee until all the cups on the tray have been filled.

hostess pouring fresh coffee into the cups
Hostess carefully pouring coffee into cinis. Image Credit: ABC

The server then takes the tray and offers the first cup to the eldest person present out of respect, before serving to the other guests. Coffee is taken with salt or sugar without any milk. Snacks such as popcorn or traditional bread are served with coffee.

End of Ceremony

The hostess brews three batches of coffee with the powdered beans for guests so they drink at least three cups of the drink. Abol refers to the first time that the ceremony is performed, tona is the second time and Baraka is the third. Coffee served the first time is more concentrated compared to the last time. During Baraka or the end of the ceremony, the eldest man in the group rises and gives his blessings to the hostess and her family. And then blesses the rest of the participants. With this, the ceremony comes to an end.

Discovery of Coffee and the Origins of Buna Ceremony

There are many versions of a popular legend surrounding the discovery of coffee in Ethiopia. According to this legend, in the 9th century AD, an Abyssinian goat herder named Kaldi noticed that a few of his goats had suddenly become really excited after chewing on a plant with red berries. He had never seen this type of plant before but he wanted to know more about it, so, he picked some of the berries and presented them to the local monks, hoping to find some answers. But, that was also the first time that the monks first laid eyes on the fruit. When Kaldi told them about the way his goats started behaving after consuming them, the monks believed the fruit was evil, so they threw them into the fire. As the fruit burned, it produced a divine aroma that pleased the monks, so, they began experimenting with the fruit until they learned that the berry could be roasted, crushed into a fine powder and brewed in hot water to produce a drink that had the ability to keep them awake for longer. Allowing them more time to pray.

Soon after, local farmers learnt about it and they started cultivating the plants and selling them for profit. Coffee then quickly gained popularity, not just in ancient Ethiopia but around the world.

Kaldi discovering his goats are behaving strangely
Art depicted Kaldi and his energetic goats. Image Credit: Waycap

When it gained popularity locally, however, it formed a sort of cult-like following, which is when many of the rituals and beliefs about coffee were generated. For instance, some believed that coffee spawned from the tears of God. They also believed that the aroma and smoke produced while roasting coffee beans had therapeutic properties that could relieve a person from stress and tension.

History of the ceremony

The precise origins of the buna ceremony are unclear. However, certain scholars theorize that the ceremony may have begun with the Oromo people, the largest ethnic group in Ethiopia.

In the Oromo culture, the consumption of coffee in addition to saying prayers, especially on special occasions, can bring fortune and blessings to the person drinking the beverage, and their family. In some Oromo sub-groups, coffee is even thought to have mystical powers that can protect the family. Explaining the need to pay homage to the drink.

Other sources state that the ceremony, along with other coffee traditions, began with the ancient coffee cults. Members would honour nature and the feminine spirit by worshipping the Goddess Atete, who is the Oromo form of the better known Egyptian Goddess Isis. Naturally, coffee was a part of this worship.

This would suggest that many of the cult members were Oromo people, somewhat proving the fact that the ceremony did indeed start with the Oromo.

Initially, this worship would be done out in the open under sacred trees known as Adbar Warka, as it was a way to connect with divinity.

a big warka tree providing shelter to people
Warka tree. Image Credit: Warka Water

Together, the group would attempt to please God and request rainfall to support life on Earth. To do this, they would crush and boil the beans, processes that were regarded as a sacrifice. They’d ensure the smoke from roasting the beans would rise as high as possible. And, they’d show gratitude to God for the food available in nature. What was initially an animist ritual was then appropriated by people of other religions in the country.

Over time, the ritual was performed indoors like it is done today. As the Adbar Warka tree cannot be kept indoors, they would instead spread reed or grass on the floor before performing the ceremony. Additionally, veneration towards nature and the feminine spirit could also explain why only women perform the coffee ceremony. When women perform the ceremony, they are seemingly regarded as the human form of the spirit that exists in Abdar Warka trees.

Cultural Importance of the Buna Ceremony

people gathering for coffee ceremony
Image Credit: Beza Speaks

The ceremony is a way to foster friendships, interact with members of the community, resolve social matters and show solidarity. It is also an act of hospitality as it is performed when guests and new members of the community need to be welcomed.

For younger members of the family, it acts as a rite of passage, as they are allowed to do the honourable task of serving the coffee.

The importance of coffee is simply too great in Ethiopia, to the extent that it has become a symbol of national, cultural and spiritual identity. The ancient buna ceremony highlights this importance, as it connects humans, God and nature for thousands of years.

Coffee allows interactions, an exchange of ideas and fortifies relationships on a daily basis. It is one of those things that bind Ethiopians together despite the cultural differences of the more than 80 ethnic groups in the country. And a ceremony like the sacred buna ceremony strengthens these bonds as people relax and enjoy their cup of coffee together.

The spirit of coffee will live on in Ethiopia forever!

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Palmer, D., 2010. The Ethiopian Buna (Coffee) Ceremony: Exploring the Impact of Exile and the Construction of Identity through Narratives of Ethiopian Forced Migrants in the United Kingdom. Folklore, 121(3), pp. 321-333.

Workman, B., 2015. Ethiopian Coffee Ceremony. Skipping Stones, 27(1), p. 24.

Yoseph, M. E., 2013. A CULTURE OF COFFEE: TRANSMEDIATING THE ETHIOPIAN COFFEE CEREMONY, Washington: Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.

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