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What Is a Jebena?

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  • Written By: Dan Harkins
  • Edited By: Kaci Lane Hindman
  • Last Modified Date: 12 November 2016
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A coffee ceremony is a centuries-old tradition in several African and Middle Eastern countries, from Ethiopia to Palestine. A central prop in many of these rites of harvest and community-building is the jebena, a wide-bottomed clay kettle with two spouts — one for pouring and the other facing skyward to facilitate the full brewing process. Often decorated with tribal symbols, these vessels are used to bring people together to celebrate the unique coffee beans they have brought into being.

Various types of coffee can be used in the jebena, though it is often the local blend, since rejoicing that bounty is a major point of the ceremony. These celebrations are common to many communities in Ethiopia, Sudan and Eritrea, featuring dozens of coffees each. In Ethiopia, where coffee is the most profitable commodity, the most popular beans are Yirgacheffe, Harrar and Keffa — all named after the proud regions from which they came.

Customs vary, with some of the ceremonies lasting for hours. In Ethiopia, it begins with washed beans being poured into a long-handled pan and roasted over a fire, occasionally removing the pan from the flames to waft its aroma under the noses of other participants. After the aroma has filled all lungs, the beans are ground and placed into the jebena with water, to take the pan's place over the fire. After brewing, the coffee is poured through a filter into another container, then poured without the grounds back into the jebena.

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To preserve the flavor of the beans, participants in Ethiopian jebena ceremonies usually do not prefer milk or cream in their coffee. Sugar, often in generous scoops, is a customary addition, but usually after the coffee has been poured into squat cups called cini. In several cultures, having just one serving would not be keeping with tradition, either. If fact, it is usually considered poor form to participate in a coffee ceremony without consuming three helpings, each with its own official name and symbolic meaning.

Some cultures burn incense to complement the aromatic effects of the coffee, while others let the coffee speak for itself. The ceremony is not a private affair; the jebena frequently comes out of the closet when visitors call. When served, it is usually accompanying snacks like cookies or peanuts. Many historians believe that northern Africa is the birthplace not only of civilization, but also of the coffee bean, which is another point of pride for those still performing coffee ceremonies in 2011.

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