ABOUT A YEAR AGO, at a liquor store in Toronto, Roman Endelbu made a startling discovery: She found a bottle of t’ej, the ancient honey wine that’s beloved in her native Ethiopia.

For any other Ethiopian living in Canada’s largest city, this would merely be interesting. But for Roman, who owns Zembaba restaurant, it meant that “when people ask me for something from Ethiopia, now I can offer it.” So she bought seven or eight cases, fearing the supply would run dry.

T’ej is bountiful at Ethiopian restaurants in the United States, where numerous wineries produce it. But now that one of the world’s oldest honey wines has become one of Toronto’s newest potables, only a few restaurants have it – or even know they can get it.

Gondar Tej,
once made in Canada
(click to enlarge)

Some years ago, London Winery of Canada made Gondar Tej, which looked golden in its bottle, but which added caramel coloring for effect – something American wineries that make t’ej don’t do, and surely something never done in Ethiopia. Vincor bought London Winery in 1996, and some time after that, the new owner stopped making Gondar Tej. That appears to be the last time anyone made a brand of t’ej in Canada.

The brand that Roman found, Enat Tej, isn’t actually “from Ethiopia.” It’s made in California and based on the recipe of the winemaker’s Ethiopian mother-in-law. At least two restaurants also sell Regal Tej, a creation of Easley Winery in Indiana.

Traditional t’ej is a blend of honey, water and the woody branches of the gesho, an Ethiopian buckthorn that plays the role of a hops. Although archaeologists have only traced t’ej back 2,000 years, Ethiopian lore says it’s a millennium older and goes back to the time when Makeda, the queen of Sheba, presented t’ej to King Solomon, a royal summit that produced Menelik, a legendary Ethiopian ancestor.

Ask the city’s restaurant owners why they don’t serve t’ej and you’ll hear variations of the same reasons: We can’t get it, there is none, it’s illegal. They’re right about one thing. The regulations of the LCBO (Liquor Control Board of Ontario) don’t permit them to sell homemade t’ej without first getting a manufacturer’s license, which involves paperwork and regulation. To taste that natural vintage, you’ll need to get invited to someone’s house or wedding, where t’ej often adds to the conviviality of the celebration. Or you could take a trip to Ottawa, where Blue Nile restaurant, which has an LCBO license to sell alcohol, also sells its own homemade t’ej and even has it on its menu.

Regal Tej

But you won’t find anything like that in Toronto, so that leaves the option of winery t’ej, and many restaurant owners don’t seem to know about Enat and Regal – or don’t see a business opportunity if they do.

Getting any brand of imported alcohol presents the challenge of navigating the LCBO’s chain of permits and paperwork, and a little business savvy can insure a supply and even create a demand.

There are even two imported Ethiopian beers now available in Toronto – as long as the supply lasts.

Harar, a lager, and Hakim Stout come directly from Ethiopia because of Melaku Aynalem, a Toronto cab driver who got a license to be the agent who imports the two beers for sale by the LCBO.

He imported 1,000 cases a year ago, and he’s preparing to import more. It’s just in time: A number of restaurants around town say they’re sold out. Melaku said Canadians, more than Ethiopians, tend to buy the two beers, a phenomenon also observed by Ethiopian restaurant owners in the United States.

But Melaku didn’t know t’ej was available in Toronto and hadn’t thought of trying to import it. “I don’t know why there is none,” he said, before he knew there was. “I know how strict LCBO is.”

Mark Easley, who makes Regal Tej, said he understands why some people don’t want to deal with the LCBO process. “Every time,” he said, “we look at ourselves and say, ‘Is this worth it?’” But in a competitive business, he welcomes a niche market for his t’ej. He began exporting his wine to Canada after a Toronto-area restaurant owner who wanted to sell t’ej requested a sample. He now sells directly to the LCBO – which distributes all alcohol in the province – rather than using an agent like Melaku.

Herb Houston, whose makes Enat Tej, said getting a license to open his winery in California in 1999 was more onerous than LCBO procedures. “If you can read and write,” he said of Ontario’s requirements, “you can complete the paperwork.”

Plenty of other alcohol suppliers seem to agree. The LCBO’s Specialty Services ordered more than 13,000 unique products last fiscal year from 2,500 different suppliers, according to spokesperson Julie Rosenberg. U.S. wine imports to Canada grew by more than 30 percent in 2010, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reports.

And yet, Edme Kassey, at Queen of Sheba restaurant, was surprised to hear that t’ej was available. Hadas Ali, owner of Lucy Restaurant, said “nobody asks me about t’ej,” so she sees no incentive to stock it. Meron Wondirad of Fasiledes had heard it was available but hasn’t sought it out. Enat Gulelat of Ethiopiques also heard the LCBO offered t’ej, and “if I can get it,” Gulelat said, “I know I can sell it here.” She checked the LCBO’s website and didn’t find a listing.

Hirut Dagnachew offers Enat Tej at her eponymous restaurant, and on one night in June, she said, diners at three different tables asked for a taste and then ordered glasses. She knows she has to “do more to push it” because it’s not on her menu, and there’s no sign in the window advertising it.

Banchi Kinde serves Enat Tej at Rendez-Vous, the restaurant she’s owned for 11 years. “Lots of non-Ethiopian customers asked what our traditional drink is,” she said, so when she had a chance to order some, she did it right away.

Wass Ethiopian Restaurant

At Sheba, where they serve Regal Tej, Belane Zenawi said non-Ethiopians enjoy t’ej because it’s something new, and Ethiopians like it “because it reminds them of what they had back home, so they reminisce about the old days.”

The t’ej at Sheba is $6.99 a glass, and other wines are $5.99, because t’ej is more expensive to get. But customers go for it, Belane said,
“because it’s just a dollar more, and they want to try something authentic.”

Some of the city’s Ethiopians are purists. At Dukem, owner Michael Kidus said he won’t serve refined winery t’ej because it’s so different from homebrew and “not really t’ej.” At African Palace, owner Mary Gebrekidan also frowns upon it because “t’ej is supposed to be fresh.”

Nunu, an upscale Ethiopian fusion restaurant, doesn’t sell t’ej, but its Classic Cocktail menu offers Nunu’s Tej Cocktail, the owner’s “ode to Ethiopian honey wine,” the menu says. It’s caramelized honey and pear purée, cinnamon, nutmeg, gesho, lime and rum, and it costs $10. They can’t use homemade t’ej in the drink because that would be illegal, but Nunu makes t’ej and will sometimes share it for free with customers just to give them a taste.

The restaurant also sells Ketsela Giorgis, a craft beer on tap made by Amsterdam Brewery in Toronto. It’s a stout made from the recipe that Nunu Ketsela’s mother used when she ran a big establishment in Nazareth, Ethiopia, that made t’ej and t’alla.

The ambitious Wassie Mulugeta, owner of Wass Ethiopian Restaurant in Hamilton, sees the whole matter as a business opportunity. He sampled several brands before choosing Regal Tej, although he said he makes little profit because of high taxes and import costs. He’s now trying to find a Canadian winery willing to make t’ej.

So far he’s had no luck, and he has a theory about why.

“Canadians don’t like to change,” Wassie says. “The Americans, they see the money, they go for it.”

Harry Kloman
University of Pittsburgh