When you order a berele of t’ej in an Ethiopian t’ej bet, it will look a little different than the crisp clear golden liquid you pour from a bottle of refined winery t’ej. That’s because homemade t’ej doesn’t go through a multi-step filtration process that stops fermentation and gets all of the residual yeast out of solution.
Ethiopians who make homebrew the traditional way decide by look and taste when it’s ready to drink. They pour it through a stainer to get rid of anything floating in the liquid, and then they serve it up. Needless to say, they don’t use pasteurized honey: Theirs is raw, and sometimes they’ll immerse large chunks of honeycomb – replete with the occasional dead (or soon to be dead) bee – into the mix of honey, water and gesho, the woody plant used to flavor the t’ej and cause fermentation.
They call this t’ej lega (young) or defres (unfiltered), and its color can vary, depending upon the type of honey used to make it. Goosh is yet another word that refers to unfiltered t’ej, and unfiltered t’alla as well.
I’ve always used pasteurized honey, amber in color, to make my t’ej. But a while back, on a visit to suburban Detroit, I picked up a two-pound jar of raw honey to use for a batch of t’ej. What follows is an annotated photo essay of my step-by-step process – from the mixing of the ingredients to the finished product. The text that accompanies these photos will give you a good of idea of what to expect if you make t’ej at home. You can click on all of the photos to enlarge them.
I have even more detailed instructions on my other website, All About T’ej, and I’ve created a video that shows how to make t’ej (it’s embedded at the end of this post). I also write about t’ej in my book, Mesob Across America: Ethiopian Food in the U.S.A.
The process begins by mixing one part of honey to three parts water and then adding the gesho. You can do this in any quantity. I mix my batches in a one-gallon jar (small kitchen), and for this batch, I used the two-pound container of creamy-looking raw honey that I got in Michigan (photo 1, above left). Two pounds of honey by weight is about 21 liquid ounces, but you don’t really need to know that: Just pour a container of honey into your jar, and fill the empty container with water three times, plus a little bit extra.
But getting the raw honey out of the container is a bit of a challenge: It doesn’t pour well, like the more fluid pasteurized honey does, so you have to scoop it out with a spoon. Once you get the honey and water into your container, stir it until it reaches a uniform color, then add no more than a quarter pound of gesho (photo 1, above right) for every two pounds of honey.
I usually add an inoculant when I make t’ej: that is, three or four ounces of t’ej from a batch that I just finished and that’s fully fermented (photo 2). Finished t’ej has lots of hungry active yeast, and when that yeast gets into the new honey-rich environment, it begins to feast on the sugar and multiply, thus launching the fermentation process – i.e., turning sugar to alcohol – more quickly and efficiently. If you don’t have any inoculant, then you’ll just have to let natural fermentation take place. That’s what they do in Ethiopia. Or you can add just a touch of yeast: I recommend Lalvin ICV D-47, a yeast of the species Saccharomyces cerevisiae, which also happens to be the dominant natural yeast in t’ej. For a two-pound jar of honey mixed with the water, you’ll need no more yeast than the size of a fingernail. You can use other brands of yeast, but make sure it’s the species Saccharomyces cerevisiae. You can get it on Amazon.com or at any good local brew shop.
My finished mixture of honey and water (photo 3, below left) is uniform in color and, surprisingly, a light amber, pretty much the way a newly mixed batch would look using pasteurized honey. This is the effect of vigorously mixing the honey with water and then adding the gesho, which darkens the liquid. The gesho stays near the surface, some of it poking up at the top. The fresh mixture is bubbly and foamy on top from my rigorous mixing.
Three days later, a whole new species of thick foamy bubbles has formed on top (photo 3, below center). These are the bubbles of fermentation, which has begun to take off – very vigorously, in fact, in this particular patch. So far, so good. It will look like this for about the next 10 days until I remove the gesho, although I do stir it once, after seven days. An Ethiopian friend once told me that a fermenting batch of t’ej “likes to be stirred,” and you can see that’s true: Right after a good stirring, the top of the t’ej is now lush with the white foam of fermentation (photo 3, below left).
I began another batch of t’ej with pasteurized honey on the same day as the batch with raw honey. I used the same inoculant source for both. The raw batch took a day longer to begin fermentation, but after three days, the raw batch was much foamier with bubbles than the pasteurized batch. I’m not sure why this happened, but it certainly makes the raw batch look interesting – and quite different than the pasteurized batch.
When both batches are 11 days old, I remove the gesho. The raw batch is fermenting so well that a thick layer of fermentation bubbles remains on top of the lightening liquid (photo 4, below left). The pasteurized batch I began on the same day had foam on the top before I removed the gesho, but with the gesho out, it’s not as foamy (photo 4, below right). Clearly, there’s a lot of fermentation activity going on in the raw batch.
A few days later, we’re at the half-way mark with the two batches. The raw batch still has lots of visible fermentation on top in the form of bubbles (photo 5, below left). The pasteurized batch continues to ferment well, and now a new layer of post-gesho bubbles has formed (photo 5, below right). But it’s still not as vehement at the raw batch, and it has a slightly sweeter taste – with lots of fermentation left to go for the next two weeks. When you look very closely at a jar of fermenting t’ej, you can see little bubbles streaming up from the bottom of the jar to the top. No compact digital camera can catch such fine detail, so you’ll have to trust me on that.
After four weeks, it’s time to stop fermenting your t’ej and to begin the process of bottling it. Rather than straining it right into the bottle from which I’ll serve it, I “rack” the wine by straining it into a pitcher, and I put the pitcher in the refrigerator for a day or two. This allows the yeast in solution to settle to the bottom before you pour the clearer liquid into a serving bottle. When I strained the raw batch (photo 6, below left), the disruption of the liquid caused it to take on the original light creamy color and texture of the raw honey from which it came (photo 1 above). It also retained the foamy white top that was present through the fermentation process. In fact, all through fermentation, every time I stirred this batch, it became thick and creamy. The pasteurized batch after straining (photo 6, below left) still looks amber, like the honey from which it came, and doesn’t have foam on top. To strain a finished batch of t’ej, put a piece of cheesecloth into a strainer atop the pitcher and slowly pour the liquid through the setup. This removes any particles floating in the liquid. Then, refrigerate the pitcher for about 48 hours.
Finally, it’s time to bottle your t’ej. You’ll need to save empty wine or liquor bottles. Using a funnel, pour the t’ej from the pitcher into the bottle. You’ll leave most of the sediment behind in the pitcher if you do this slowly enough, although the sediment won’t hurt you. You may even see a little more collecting in your wine bottle as it chills further (you can gently jiggle the bottle if you like to get it into solution). In their final forms, the two batches look identical (photo 7, below): The raw batch, having chilled and settled, is no longer creamy, and both batches looks like the kind of light amber commercial honey that you buy in supermarkets.
And how does each batch taste? The raw batch is definitely smoother – that is, the smokey flavor of the gesho isn’t as strong. It’s also just a little sweeter, but not overwhelmingly so. I let these batches go for four weeks, so their alcohol content is noticeable, probably around 10 percent alcohol, and they make an impression when you drink them.
I bottled these two batches on a Friday morning, and I saved a few ounces of each as inoculants for my next round of t’ej making. I refrigerated the inoculants for eight days – giving me time to drink some of the stuff I’d just bottled – and then began the new batches. Just one day after mixing the fresh honey, water and gesho (photo 8), both batches had begun to ferment, but the batch that used the inoculant from the raw honey t’ej was clearly much more active, with lots of white foamy fermentation bubbles collecting on top, just like the batch from which it came. Maybe now I should try it with chunks of honeycomb as well, like they do it in Ethiopia, although I don’t look forward to picking out the bees.
So there you have it: t’ej in the raw. Some day I’ll try making batches with honey from different pollen sources: clover honey vs. wildflower honey, for example. But somehow, I suspect the differences will be no greater than my raw vs. pasteurized experiment. When you mix honey, water and gesho and let it ferment for a month, you get a bottle of sweet, spicy, piquant alcoholic t’ej. What more could you want?
Finally, if you’d like to see the whole process in action, then you can watch my video, “Making T’ej.” I fermented the batch in the video a few years ago using pasteurized honey. I welcome comments from readers, and if you decide to make t’ej yourself, feel free to write if you need some help or tips. Just click my name below the video to contact me.
University of Pittsburgh