Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Jébeena: Coffee as Ritual

by Luke Tsai
Tue, Jun 5, 2012 at 7:00 AM

On hot days (or rainy days, or under-caffeinated days) at the Grand Lake Farmers’ Market, savvy market regulars find respite underneath the tent where Ambessaw Assegued and his wife, Dagmawit Bekele, serve coffee in the traditional Ethiopian manner.

“Traditional” means those who associate their daily caffeine fix with the whir of commercial burr grinders or the hiss of steaming milk will find the process unusually quiet and low-tech. When I visited a few Saturdays ago, Bekele sat before a low table, tatami-style, and heated the coffee up over an open flame, using a jug-shaped clay pot known as a jébeena. After removing the pot from the heat, she waited for the grounds to settle before gently pouring the brewed coffee into small ceramic cups — those cute white demitasse cups that are ubiquitous in Paris. At no point was any kind of filter used.

Pouring unfiltered coffee from the jébeena.
  • Pouring unfiltered coffee from the jébeena.
These days, more and more people are taking their coffee seriously: the provenance of the beans, the precision of the roasting process, the barista mojo needed to achieve the perfect pour-over cup or leaf-topped espresso drink.

But what about the ritual of coffee? Watching Bekele work, I was reminded of nothing more than a traditional Japanese tea ceremony.

As it turns out, that wasn’t a coincidence. Assegued told me he first got interested in coffee four years ago through his work as a biologist in the field of habitat restoration. A friend tipped him off to an endemic coffee forest unique to the mountains of northwestern Ethiopia, in a region called Anfilo. Subsequently, Assegued founded a company — also named Anfilo — and began importing the coffee, all of it shade-grown and certified-organic, to the United States.

Then, just as his import business was faltering, Assegued and his wife attended a Japanese tea ceremony here in Oakland. He thought, “Wow, we have something very similar to this in Ethiopia.”

And so Assegued came up with the idea of bringing not just his coffee, but an entire coffee experience, to the farmers market — the everyday ceremony that a typical Ethiopian household might go through three or four times a day, and a brewing process that’s remained essentially unchanged for thousands of years. He and Bekele have been operating their little al fresco cafe since the fall.

Dagmawit Bekele and Ambessaw Assegued.
  • Dagmawit Bekele and Ambessaw Assegued.
There are some traditional elements they haven’t been able to incorporate. For example, Assegued explained that in Ethiopia it’s customary to refill the pot with fresh water so that you brew the grounds a total of three times — of course, the first pot is strongest and best, so that’s what he sells ($2 for a small cup). Moreover, in Ethiopia, each batch of coffee is typically hand-roasted in a traditional roasting pan right before grinding. Assegued has his beans roasted medium-dark by a commercial roaster (Oakland-based America’s Best Coffee), but he does hand-roasting demonstrations a few times each Saturday.

The coffee itself was rich and smooth — quite unique in terms of both intensity and mouthfeel, falling somewhere between espresso and drip coffee. I’m as much a fan of the new “third wave” coffee shops as anyone, but I found this to be a nice break from the ultra-light, high-acid coffees that are so in vogue these days.

Will the broader East Bay coffee drinking community feel the same way? Assegued thinks so: He already has plans to expand his business by opening a brick-and-mortar shop in Uptown Oakland. Jébeena Coffee will be located at 35 Grand Avenue — just a few doors down from Farley’s East and not far from Noble Cafe.

According to Assegued, the new cafe will be combine the coffee traditions of Europe and Africa. In addition to coffee, he’ll serve Western breads and pastries, and perhaps a handful of Ethiopian delicacies such as cheko, a barley product with a texture similar to chocolate. Assegued expects that the cafe will open later this month.

Got tips or suggestions? Email me at Luke (dot) Tsai (at) EastBayExpress (dot) com. Otherwise, keep in touch by following me on Twitter @theluketsai, or simply by posting a comment. I'll read ‘em all.

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