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Ask an Ethiopian-American what beer he prefers and he’ll probably tell you Guinness or Heineken. It’s not that you can’t get Ethiopian beer in the United States: Most restaurants that sell alcohol offer beer and even wine from “back home.” It’s just that familiarity has bred a modest contempt.
Nega Selassie, the co-owner of NTS Enterprises, guesses that Americans down nine out of 10 bottles of Ethiopian brew sold in U.S restaurants, and Nega thinks he knows why Ethiopians shun beer from the homeland. “They feel proud to drink foreign beer,” he says. “It’s the mentality.”
NTS pioneered the import and distribution of Ethiopian food and alcohol in the early 1980s from its warehouses in Oakland, Calif. Nega has a lot more competition now from other Ethiopian entrepreneurs in the U.S., but NTS still exists and does a hearty business. In the early days, Nega and his business partner, Tekle Girmay, would ship their goods from Oakland, fly across the U.S. to cities like New York and Washington, D.C., unload the shipments and deliver them. As the business grew, they could hire people to do the work at the other end.
A variety of Ethiopian beers make their way to the U.S. along with several wines. The beers are good solid lagers or stouts, but certainly nothing unique or especially representative of Ethiopian culture. For that, you need to drink t’ej or t’alla. The wines are another story: They tend to be rather sweet, and I’ve yet to taste a fine wine from Ethiopia. But then I’m no connoisseur, so I could be thoroughly wrong about that.
Liquor laws vary from state to state, and some states make it difficult and expensive to “import” beer and wine from distributors whose businesses operate out of other states. Most of the Ethiopian beer and wine in the U.S. comes from just a few distributors, with headquarters located in California, Chicago and the Washington, D.C., area. So unless a distributor ponies up for, say, a liquor license in Nevada, you won’t find his product in Nevada’s Ethiopian restaurants (not that you could drag yourself away from the craps table long enough to enjoy an Ethiopian meal anyway).
Until recently, most Ethiopian beer was made at breweries owned by the government. But a few years ago, the government sold one brewery to a French company, and in 2011, a Dutch company bought another. So it seems that the Ethiopian government is now more or less out of the beer business, encouraging free enterprise just as the Ethiopian beer market begins to grow.
Here’s a rundown of beers made in Ethiopia, along with what some drinkers from around the world had to say on the website ratebeer.com. You’ll find most of these beers at Ethiopian restaurants that serve alcohol and that have access to distribution. A wine list follows.
♦ St. George. Named for the patron saint of Ethiopia, and now owned by the French BGI group, this is one of several lager beers made by Kombolcha Brewery, located in the town of Kombolcha, about 260 miles from Addis Ababa. The website of Lalibela U.K., a British company that distributes Ethiopian beer in Europe, says that “St.George is a lively beer bursting with warm flavors and aromas.” On ratebeer.com, a British drinker writes, “Golden beer with a strongish frothy head. The aroma is gently malty, and the flavor is nicely dry with a hint of yeast. Overall a reasonable lager.” And from Canada: “Crisp gold. Thin partial white head. Thin light grain scent. Sweet flavor, slightly rough and grainy flavor. You could get used to it in the sun but. . .”
♦ Castel. Another lager from Kombalcha – and thus another product of BGI – it’s “known as Queen of Beers,” says the website of Lalibela U.K., and it “perfectly balances fresh and fragrant flavors in light, sparkling lager that is recognized across Africa and Europe for its excellence.” On ratebeer.com, the reviews vary. One reviewer from British Columbia writes: “Golden-straw color with lots of sparkle. Grainy, slightly industrial nose with aged herbal hoppiness. Malty start, finishes slightly tart. Quite sweet throughout, with some very light herbal hop flavor but no bitterness.” But from Sweden, we get this: “Clear golden, small head. Fruity, somewhat sweet and light bodied. The mouth feel is slightly raw and harsh. Grassy finish with some bitterness. Very average beer with not much character, but at least no very evident real flaws.”
♦ Bati. Yet another lager from Kombalcha and BGI, with mixed reviews. From Maryland: “Pours a small, off-white head, clear, golden color. Thin palate, typical lager taste. Nothing really compelling about this beer other than it’s from Ethiopia.” And from France: “A golden beer with a thin white head. The aroma has notes of malt and straw. The flavor is sweet malty with primary notes of straw, leading to a lightly bitter finish.”
♦ Harar. This beer, popular in America, comes from a brewery in Harar, an ancient city with a Moslem flavor. A Canadian drinker writes, “Pale golden pour with a touch of haziness. Nose is a little bit grassy with a clean, pale malt character. The beer is actually pretty clean, with a faint bitterness on the back of the palate. Pretty decent pale lager.” A drinker in D.C. notes this: “Pours hazy yellow, white head. Aroma is ketchup and corn syrup. Flavor is malty and grainy, not as bad as the stout.” In early 2011, the Ethiopian government, which owned the brewery that makes Harar, sold the company to the Dutch brewers who make Heineken.
♦ Hakim Stout. Also from the Harar brewery, this dark beer is what the British might call a “peculiar,” according to a Canadian friend of mine. In fact, a British writer says, “Dark brown color, not much head. Mild malty aroma. Sweet malty flavor. Quite smooth. Pleasant mild-tasting stout.” And from Norway: “Pours hazy amber with an off-white head. Aroma has notes of roasted malt and smoke. Taste is medium sweet and light bitter. Body is medium, texture is oily, carbonation is soft.”
♦ Meta. This lager comes from a brewery in Sebeta, Ethiopia, not far from Addis Ababa. “Strong corn aroma,” writes a fellow from Scotland. “Pale golden yellow color with a big head. Corn and rice flavor. Sweet aftertaste. My favorite widely available Ethiopian beer.” But from Israel: “Pours honey color with a medium head, aroma of honey, fermented honey, rotten plums and some roasted malt, flavor of Grandma olden closet with a bizarre barley, fresh bread and alcohol, light bodied. Blaah.” And from Japan: “Surprisingly sweet, tastes a little like honey. Easy to drink, and has a nice hoppy bitterness on the finish that balances out the initial sweetness.”
♦ Bedele. This very popular Ethiopian beer is made by Bedele Brewery of Addis Ababa and also comes in a variety called Bedele Special. From Australia: “Very pale, cloudy yellow with a small white head. Not a bad palate, with much more going on than I’m used to in a pale lager. Flavor is more malty sweetness with a little sourness at the end. Not at all bad.” And from a German who tasted Bedele in the Sudan: “Pours a pale yellow with short head. Aroma has some heavy spices in it that are hard to place, but pleasant. Taste is unlike the aroma and has a slight cardboard taste. Palate ends with some sourness.” Like Harar beer, this company, too, was sold by the Ethiopian government in 2011 to the Dutch company that makes Heineken.
♦ Asmara. This is the only Eritrean beer you’ll find in the U.S. It comes from Asmara, the capital of Eritrea. From a California drinker: “The aroma is light and sweet but pleasant, mostly light dough with honey and a hint of flowers. The taste is also light but quite pleasant. It’s a bit sweet with no bitterness, a clean flavor of apple with dough and honey and a hint of mineral, plus a lightly noticeable, but pleasant alcoholic warming quality. It’s smooth and drinkable.” And from Germany: “The bottle looks good, the beer in the glass also, but not much foam. Aroma sourish and a bit sweet. Tastes washy, a bit malty, finish a little bit drier. Very drinkable and good lager.”
Now here’s a look at some of the wines imported from Ethiopia and sometimes sold at Ethiopian restaurants in the U.S. These are harder to find than the beers, and most are made by the government-owned Awash Winery, founded in Addis Ababa in 1943.
♦ Gouder. Perhaps the best of the red wines, it’s dry and has a spicy taste and aroma. The variety we drink in the U.S. is called Gouder Export, so presumably, it’s smoother than the Gouder you’ll drink in Ethiopia.
♦ Dukam. Another red, not quite as dry as Gouder. “Natural wine from the heart of Africa,” says the bottle.
♦ Axumite. “Sweet read wine,” the bottle proclaims (warns?). Perhaps this is better as a dessert wine.
♦ Awash Cristal. This is a white wine, the drier of the two imports you’ll find in Ethiopian restaurants. “Crisp dry pale white golden in color,” says the bottle, intended for export, “with a pronounced characteristic aroma, armonious [sic] taste. This is made from early grapes and produced with particular methods. Goes well with pork, veal, fish, shellfish etc. or just as an aperitif.”
♦ Kemila. Another white wine, but sweeter than Crystal (or “medium dry,” as the bottle says). This, too, is “produced with particular methods.” The bottle recommends that it’s “superb as an appetizer and is excellent with all types of fish.”
♦ Nigest Honey Wine. This is the only t’ej imported from Ethiopia – others you find in U.S. restaurants are made here – and it’s a little stronger in flavor than the domestic varieties. But if you want the real deal, give it a try if you can find it.
That’s the buzz on Ethiopian wine and beer in the U.S. Drop me a line if you’ve tried one and have a thought to share.
University of Pittsburgh
Watch these two videos about the winemaking industry in Ethiopia, followed by a musical look at beer and wine in Ethiopia.