AS A CHILD GROWING UP IN ETHIOPIA, Wilhelmine Stordiau could only watch her elders enjoy the pleasure of fermented Ethiopian beverages like t’ej, t’alla, katikala and areqe.

That all changed for the mischievous 15-year-old and her Ethiopian friend on a Saturday afternoon in the mid-1960s.

It happened in Addis Ababa at an annual fair conducted by the many foreign embassies in Ethiopia as a fundraiser for the Ethiopian Red Cross. The escapade began with liberal quantities of Belgian beer and French champagne and ended with some vodka.

But in between, there was a wonderful meal of injera and wot prepared by her friend’s mother, made even better by a first clandestine taste of t’ej. Stordiau doesn’t recall who gave it to them, but she knows it wasn’t her friend’s mother, who would not have approved

“The t’ej went to our heads but we did not stop,” Stordiau recalls. “We drank as if there were no tomorrow. The t’ej was good. No, it was perfect. And we were able to smuggle a bottle out.”

The adventure led them to seek respite (and rest) in the tent of Emperor Haile Selassie, where the tipsy teens at first would not leave when the ambassador asked them to. They eventually made their way home and got a very good night of sleep.

A lot has changed for Stordiau since her this intoxicating episode in her Addis girlhood, and now, some four decades later, she’s a veritable one-woman industry of Ethiopian potables – in Frankfurt, Germany.

Stordiau owns and operates Begena, a company that makes t’ej and katikala, and that will soon add birz and hopefully even t’alla to its growing product line.

Stordiau’s ancestors – Belgians, Austrians and Armenians from Turkey – moved to Ethiopia at different times in the late 19th and early 20th century, and she was born there. She has an Ethiopian great-grandmother, which makes her one-eighth Ethiopian, and one of her great-grandfathers, a businessman, introduced the Singer sewing machine to Ethiopia. She grew up in Addis Ababa, went to a Franco-Ethiopian lycée there, and became fluent in Amharic, French and Armenian.

Gojo Tej

Then, in February 1975, after four generations in Ethiopia, her immediate family moved back to Europe to get away from the brutality of Ethiopia’s new communist dictatorship. She eventually learned German, married a German man, settled in Frankfurt, raised a family, and worked in business and industry, never losing touch with her Ethiopian ancestry and her love for the culture.

So Stordiau created Begena Tedj, a crisp Ethiopian honey wine, and the first European t’ej made for wide commercial distribution. Like any new entrepreneur, she had to hustle, traveling Europe and meeting Ethiopians in their restaurants, trying to persuade them to sell her t’ej. Many of them already made homebrew, so sometimes it wasn’t an easy sell.

But Stordiau persisted, and it worked: She now distributes Begena Tedj to dozens of restaurants in Germany, Belgium, Switzerland and the Netherlands. She added the “d” to the word “to give it a personal touch, and also to help ferenj [foreigners] to pronounce it correctly.”

Stordiau bottled her first small batch of Begena Tedj in 2009 after two years of testing recipes, adapted from her grandmother’s recipe back home, until she found one that satisfied her. She pondered many names for her product and finally settled on Begena, the most prized string instrument in native Ethiopian music – just like t’ej is the most prized drink.

“I wanted a t’ej that would show Europe that Ethiopia was not a country of just hunger,” she says, “but also a place of culture that had high-quality products for the world. The aim is to show Ethiopia as a rich land, even though it has problems and poverty.”

She also hoped to teach people about Ethiopia, and to do that, she created a series of cards to place on tables at restaurants. The cards told stories of Ethiopian culture and included a little bit of promotion for her wine.

“I thought that restaurant customers would read the cards and take away some Ethiopian culture,” she says. “But the restaurants didn’t put the cards out because they were getting stolen. So I changed them a little bit, and now 80 percent of them are marketing for Begena and the rest for Ethiopia.”

Begena Katikala

Her desire to help Ethiopia has led her to create Wedefit – the Amharic word for “future” – a foundation that channels some of Begena’s profits into a program to help women in Addis Ababa.

“One question I always get is whether I use honey from Ethiopia, and my answer is no,” she says. “I only import goods from Ethiopia that will not harm Ethiopians. Honey is needed there, and we have enough of it here.”

Stordiau decided to begin expanding her company and its product line in 2011. First came Gojo Tej, named for a traditional Ethiopian thatched-roof hut. Where Begena Tedj goes through the rigorous filtration process of winery wines, Gojo is less processed – what Ethiopians call defres (unfiltered) or lega (young). It’s darker in color, and closer to the homemade variety you get in an Ethiopian t’ej bet – just like Emama used to make.

Next came katikala, a drink sometimes called the Ethiopian vodka – although that hardly describes it. Katikala, made from fermented grains like wheat, maize, finger millet or even teff, can be 40 to 50 percent alcohol. Pungent and ultra-dry, you can sip katikala after a meal, use it in cooking, or even mix it with some bitters or with your t’ej for a little extra kick.

And just how much of a kick does katikala pack? Stordiau remembers the time when she and her family went on their annual camping trip in the Ethiopian countryside with three or four other families, each one traveling in its own car. Three of the cars arrived on schedule at Adami Tulu, their agreed-upon stopping point, but one car didn’t show up. Just as the worried others prepared to double back and look for it, the family arrived. They had run out of gas and couldn’t find a station. Then, they came upon a truck driver.

“As the truck was diesel and the car used benzene,” Stordiau recalls, “ the truck driver couldn’t help. But he said that he had used katikala in such cases, and that he had a few liters in his truck that he could sell. They bought the katikala at a horrible price and reached Adami Tulu.”

Not exactly the best recommendation for an after-dinner aperitif. Back in those days in Ethiopia, only poor country people drank katikala. But Stordiau’s crisp potable is as good as refined katikala from 21st Century Ethiopia, where even upscale city folks now enjoy it. Before she began to sell it, she says, patrons could only occasionally find black market imports from Ethiopia.

“The production of katikala consumes a lot of wood,” she says, “and if the katikala producers in Ethiopia have to produce for the foreign market, you can imagine what this means.”

In fact, deforestation is nearing the crisis point in Ethiopia, and so is the pollution that comes from burning the wood used in Ethiopian countryside cooking. Several agencies around the world have dedicated themselves to creating more affordable modern and efficient stoves that Ethiopians and people in other developing countries can use to stop the decimation of their dwindling natural resources.

Begena Katikala in production (click to enlarge)

Stordiau hopes to add two more products to her empire: birz, a honey drink that’s akin to t’ej, but not fermented; and t’alla, the traditional Ethiopian homemade beer, made by mixing barley, wheat berries, gesho and water, and allowing it to ferment into a thick foamy brew.

Begena Tedj comes in two varieties, premium and dry, each one a transparent pale yellow like the wine people are accustomed to buying and drinking. She produces it about 125 miles from her home in Frankfurt at a meadery that uses natural spring water. The recipe is simple: honey, water and gesho, the African buckthorn species whose woody stems and branches have provoked fermentation in t’ej and flavored it for millennia.

There’s just one type of Gojo Tej, and its label features the name in Amharic, the state language of Ethiopia, as well as the word mies, which is the name for honey wine in Tigrinya, the language of northern Ethiopia and Eritrea. Gojo Tej is darker because it’s not filtered like meadery t’ej, and it tastes more like the best quality of homemade t’ej that you get in Ethiopia.

She makes her katikala at a brewery about 30 miles from Frankfurt using wheat, water and gesho, and she sells it in handy 250 milliliter bottles, as well as in tiny samplers with just 20 milliliters – still enough to give you a buzz if you drink it all yourself. The liquor goes especially well with raw meat, an Ethiopian favorite – and one of Stordiau’s as well, even after so many years away from the place where she was born and raised.

Stordiau has put her birz on hold for now so she can concentrate on marketing Gojo Tej and katikala. She’s creating birz, in part, because when she attends Ethiopian festivals in Europe, “some of the Ethiopian Muslims say that I should not forget them.” (Like many Muslims around the world, they don’t drink alcohol.) And besides, she says, perhaps hedging her business bet, “the consumption of alcohol, because of driving, is getting low.”

A brewing batch of t'alla

And as for the t’alla, a much more temperamental brew, that’s still in development. Stordiau’s first small batch, which she tested at home, came out sour, something that can happen to t’alla.

Stordiau will add more products in her line in the near future: for example, awaze, a simmer sauce used in making spicy Ethiopian dishes. It’s a simple mixture of berbere, an Ethiopian red pepper blend, with water and oil, although some cooks use t’ej or even katikala in their blends. Stordiau says she’ll use t’ej for now and will sell the awaze at the festivals she attends to launch the product.

Stordiau’s family had a series of traditions relating to alcohol when they lived in Ethiopia. A child’s first contact usually came at baptism, when the godmother or godfather would dip a finger in champagne and touch the child’s lip with it. By age 5 or so, the children would be permitted to dunk their own little fingers into the glass of a family member and taste it. Some years later, they took a sip from someone’s glass. Then came a small glass of your own at dinner. By 16 or so, it was time for the good stuff, but always under the vigilant guidance of relatives.

This is how Stordiau grew up, except for those errant episodes when she didn’t follow the rules. Fortunately for European palates, her taste for Ethiopia’s ancient potables emigrated with her to Frankfurt.

Harry Kloman
University of Pittsburgh