Honey Wine and Woody Hops
Although beer and wine have replaced it in the West, mead remains the national drink of one African nation. “Ethiopia is the largest producer of honey in Africa,” asserts Araya Selassie, a native of Addis Ababa who has been a United States resident for the past 20 years. “We have 5 to 6 million wild beehives. And 80 percent of the honey is used to make tej.”
Tej, also spelled te’j or tedj, is a unique type of mead flavored with an indigenous plant called gesho. Gesho is sometimes called “Ethiopian hops” or “woody hops,” even though the plant is a buckthorn and not actually related to Humulus lupulus. The prickly shrub, however, does serve much the same function as a preservative and bittering agent. Ethiopians use the leaves to flavor their indigenous beer, tella, and the branches, bark or shavings find their way into tej.
Selassie is the founder of the Saba Tej Co. based in Lindhurst, NY. Saba, he explains, is how the legendary Queen of Sheba is pronounced in Amharic, the national language of Ethiopia. Selassie contracts out the manufacture of four different kinds of tej to several wineries across the country.
Axum Tej, named for one of Ethiopia’s oldest cities, is produced at the Bonair Winery in Zillah, WA. Gail Puryear, Bonair’s owner, describes the gesho as “dried sticks.” The gesho is steeped in hot water to make a tea, and the “rather tannic” solution is added to the tej toward the end of the fermentation. For the honey wine, Bonair uses an assertive wildflower honey, which is capable of holding its own against the bitter, herbal qualities of the gesho tea.
Selassie—who is not related to emperor Haile Selassie—dreams of one day opening the first tej factory in Ethiopia. In the meantime, he notes that individual bars and restaurants make their own tej, just as English taverns in the pre-Industrial Age used to brew their own beer. The cloudy, orange liquid will vary in alcohol content from one establishment to another, and various flavorings may be added.
Exotic Ethiopian Cooking by Daniel Mesfin (Falls Church, VA: 1993) contains the following recipe:
Buna (Coffee) Tej
32 ounces honey
1 gallon water
1-1/2 cups gesho
1 pound coffee beans
An alternate recipe calls for six bananas instead of the coffee beans.
The recipes call for boiling the mixture, letting it stand five days, straining out the gesho, and allowing it to sit for another 20 days. There is no mention of adding yeast. This agrees with Selassie’s account of Ethiopian tej being spontaneously fermented. (Bonair Winery, however, uses a “highly active fermenting wine yeast,” says Puryear.)
Ethiopians have traditionally sipped tej from a vessel called a brilla. Selassie describes it as resembling a chianti bottle, with a bowl-shaped bottom and a long, narrow neck. The thin neck serves the same purpose as the lid on German steins: it keeps out flies and other winged intruders.
Tej is a kind of metheglin, or spiced mead. The word metheglin derives from the same root as “medicine,” and Selassie refers to tej as “a unique, healthy drink.” Because the gesho has anti-bacterial properties, he adds no sulfites, chemicals that can induce allergic reactions in some drinkers. Getting label approval was difficult, claims Selassie, because the government wouldn’t believe that he would market honey wine without preservatives. “We sent samples from one lab to another, coast to coast. It took eight months.”
Axum Tej and three other products—Saba, Royal Mead and Royal Mead Blackberry Honey Wine—are available at select outlets in the New York-Washington corridor, where a large chunk of the country’s Ethiopian population lives. At Ethiopian restaurants, tej makes an excellent accompaniment to the spicy cuisine and the spongy injera bread that patrons use to scoop up food in place of a fork or spoon.
Selassie also distributes in North Carolina, Georgia and a few western states. He’d like to go national, but that will take time. “We’re a small company.”