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Originally published Monday, April 6, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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Coffee ceremony at Burke Museum steeped in Ethiopian tradition

Visitors discovered the social qualities of an Ethiopian coffee ceremony Sunday at the Burke Museum.

Seattle Times business reporter

The opposite of instant coffee is not a nice, slow French press.

It is a centuries-old coffee ritual from Ethiopia, the birthplace of coffee.

Stepping inside on Seattle's most gorgeous day so far this year, a few dozen visitors to the Burke Museum participated in the ceremony Sunday. They chatted and sipped Ethiopian coffee roasted before their eyes by three native Ethiopians who enjoy sharing the ritual with fellow Seattleites.

Zelalem Yilma began by roasting green coffee beans over a burner while Yobi Guma gave visitors a snack of roasted barley with peanuts. Grass was spread on the ground to encourage abundance or fertility, and incense burned to drive away bad spirits, or as a religious symbol for Christians.

As the coffee began to crackle and smell good, Yilma added cardamom, cinnamon and cloves to the roast while Menkeli Kanaa talked with visitors who sat in a semicircle facing the women.

Women traditionally lead Ethiopian coffee ceremonies, and these particular women — who have full-time jobs at a university, a school district and a hedge fund — have led them for people at Starbucks, Seattle's Best Coffee and fundraising auctions.

The slow, socially oriented ritual is a daily part of life in Ethiopia, where families and friends spend the time gossiping, learning and solving problems.

It is such an integral part of Ethiopian life that common turns of phrase are based on it. To say "I don't have someone to have coffee with" in Ethiopia means you do not have a friend, Kanaa said. "And your mom will say, don't let your name get noticed at coffee time" as a caution to watch your reputation.

The ritual moves slowly, as people warm to each other and join in the conversation. "Once you get in the spirit of it, you don't want to leave," Kanaa said.

On Sunday, the women answered questions and talked about the meaning of coffee rituals in their lives, their sometimes tragic family histories, and the difficulty that the farmer who grew the beans they were drinking has had exporting his coffee because of a new auction system in Ethiopia.

Yilma roasted the coffee to medium brown, which she said gives the best flavor. "In stores they have dark, dark coffee. I don't like that. I like it when it's brown."

She then ground the coffee and brewed it in a jebena, a traditional metal brewing pot. The rich, sweet brew was served in small glass cups without handles, and guests could add their own sugar or salt. In some parts of Ethiopia, coffee drinkers add butter or honey. They also snack on popcorn and a recipe using the red cherry fruit that holds the coffee seeds.

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Sunday's first group of visitors got through two rounds of coffee, the second intentionally weaker than the first, before it was time to let another group participate. In a complete ceremony, a third round would involve even weaker coffee and a blessing.

Gwyn Hinton, who had participated in Ethiopian coffee rituals before, said they always lead to engrossing stories and conversations until suddenly three hours have passed.

"Americans are like, I've got to go. And they're like, so what? It's been three hours. Let's sit here another hour," she said.

The owner of Seattle Coffee Crawl, Vicki Schuman, arrived late after a morning of leading a walking tour of downtown Seattle coffee shops.

"I wanted to see how they did it, and now that I've seen it, I want to go to Ethiopia," she said.

The Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture will host another Ethiopian coffee ceremony Sunday, June 7, from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Melissa Allison: 206-464-3312 or mallison@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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