WHAT WOULD A WEBSITE about Ethiopian food be without a page on t’ej, the ancient Ethiopian honey wine? In fact, I created another site, All About T’ej, several years ago, and that site has more information than you could ever imagine wanting to know about t’ej.
Still, this is a blog about Ethiopian food, and it deserves to have a t’ej page. So I’ve created the following list of commercial brands of t’ej, along with a little bit of history about the making of t’ej for commercial sale. I’ll try to keep this list up to date, and I welcome additions from readers and winemakers. Below the list, I’ll include a few facts about t’ej, and at the end of this page, you can watch a video in which I’ll teach you how to make t’ej in your home.
My other site, All About T’ej, features detailed, step-by-step instructions for making t’ej in your home, although I have done a post on this blog that shows you how to make t’ej. Or you can watch my eight-minute video, Making Tej, which more than 11,000 people have visited. (It’s also at the bottom of this page.) My big t’ej site includes a chart with the words for “honey” and “honey wine” in all of Ethiopia’s nearly 90 different languages. I call my own homebrew Ferenj Tej, named for the Amharic word meaning “foreigner.”
I know of at least two brands of winery t’ej made now in Ethiopia: Nigest (“Queen”) Honey Wine, which is made by the big Awash Winery in Addis Ababa, and which you can find at a few restaurants in the U.S. as well; and Tizeta (“Memory”) Tej, which I’ve personally never seen in America. But almost nobody there buys winery t’ej if they can help it: They prefer to get unfiltered homebrew at a t’ej bet – Amharic for “t’ej house” – which liberally litter the landscape across Ethiopia. Most of the time, you have to drink the t’ej at the t’ej bet, but some places do bottle and label it for takeout.
One of the earliest brands of commercial t’ej, Agew Medir, appeared in Ethiopia in the 1940s and was made by Zewde Kidanewold, whose son and daughter, Charlie and Romanework Zewde, own Finfiné , an Ethiopian restaurant in Berkeley, Calif. Back in its day, the label (at right) didn’t have the name of the t’ej written on it, but Zewde’s business, where he made it, had a sign outside that said Agew Medir, so people knew what to call the t’ej. It was the only named and bottled t’ej of its time, and word of mouth was sufficient to advertise it.
The word medir means “earth,” and the term agew medir refers generally to the most exceptional t’ej, so calling your brand Agew Medir implies that it’s the best you can buy. The Agew (or Agaw) are a tribe in Ethiopia’s northern Tigrinya-speaking region, the birthplace of t’ej some 2,000 years ago, and also considered to be the source of the finest honey in Ethiopia.
Then, in the 1960s, there was Saba Tej, a commercial brand produced by Mesfin Selashe and served for a while on Ethiopian Airlines. Mesfin, a famous Ethiopian ras (regional leader or governor), was one of his country’s richest men, very close to the emperor, and he was executed in 1974, soon after the Derg took over. His son Daniel Mesfin would later write Exotic Ethiopian Cooking, an excellent cookbook and guide to the cuisine.
Fasil Aradom brought t’ej to the Americas in the early 1980s when he began to make it at London Winery in London, Ontario. Fasil’s t’ej was very strong (14 percent alcohol) and, upon first sip, almost tasted like a shot of whiskey. He produced it for a few years, but illness forced him to stop work.
Soon, Seifu Lessanework, who now owns Blue Nile restaurant in suburban Detroit, contacted the London winery to produce Gondar Tej, with the same handsome beveled bottle that Fasil used. The winery made it for a few years, but eventually, Seifu created his own brand and began to make it at a winery in upstate New York, which he continues to do today.
When Fasil was able to restore his health, he began making t’ej with a winery in Indiana, selling it to restaurants he contacted who were glad to have their cultural drink to serve. At least one restaurant – Meskerem in New York – arranged to have the t’ej bottled with a special label that said Meskerem Tej.
More wineries in America began making t’ej for sale in restaurants and markets in the 1990s, and I know of several commercial brands in Europe. You won’t find most of these wines in stores: Your best bet is in big cities, especially ones with large Ethiopian populations. Many restaurants in the U.S. and around the world serve their own homebrew, often in violation of local liquor laws. Authorities tend to let it slide.
By the way, you may notice that I sometimes write t’ej and other times tej. The “t” at the beginning of the word is an explosive consonant, spoken with a slight burst of air, which the apostrophe represents. When I first created All About Tej, I decided to keep it simple and write t’ej. I made the same choice in naming Ferenj Tej. For this blog, I chose to be more “authentic” and write t’ej. In English, either is OK. But if you ever hear an Ethiopian say t’ej, listen for the explosive consonant that starts the word, which you can see here written in Amharic.
♦ Axum Tej. Araya Yibrehu, one of the deans of Ethiopian food in America, co-owned Sheba, the first Ethiopian restaurant in New York City, which he opened in 1979. He began making t’ej in the 1990s, and Axum Tej is his signature variety. His company, Heritage Wines, also makes Saba Tej and Makeda’s Sparkling Tej. You’ll fine Araya’s wines mostly on the east coast because they’re made in a winery in upstate New York.
♦ Time Traveler Tej. Robertson and Associates Winery of Parker, Colo., launched this honey wine in January 2014. The winemaker, Cris Robertson, is a beekeeper turned mead-maker turned t’ej-maker, and he uses gesho to flavor his wine, which he makes from orange blossom and wildflower honey. The company ships to numerous states, and just a few months after its launch, Time Traveler Tej won a gold medal at the Los Angeles International Wine Competition.
♦ Big Tree. A group of doctoral graduates from University of California at Davis came together in 2011 to create Queen Sheba Winery, and they now sell three kinds of t’ej on their website: Green Dry, made with honey from clover; Orange Dry, made with honey from orange blossoms; and Gold Dry, made with wildflower honey. The creators of this t’ej did their doctoral work in the biological sciences as they relate to research and industry.
♦ Bee d’Vine. Ayele Solomon’s honey wine doesn’t call itself t’ej, but it’s still very Ethiopian. The wine’s label subtly incorporates elements of ancient Ethiopian culture as a nod to t’ej, and Ayele himself was born in Ethiopia. His family moved to the U.S. when he was a child. The company has also created a charity to help Ethiopian beekeepers convert from inefficient old-style hives – which hang precariously from trees – to modern hives that produce seven to 10 times more honey. For every case of wine sold, Bee d’Vine will contribute $4 to the charity. Bee d’Vine sells its wine nationwide through its website. The wine comes in two varieties: brut (dry) and demi-sec (semi-sweet).
To teach people about honey wine, Ayele has written an illustrated book, The Celebrated Story of Honey Wine, that’s free for download at the company’s website. You can also order a printed copy of the book, which pays homage to t’ej, as well as honey wine in general, tracing its history back for thousands of years.
♦ Lost Tribes Tej, made by Lost Tribes Brew of New York. The company worked with an Ethiopian Jew living in Israel to create its recipe, and a portion of the sales of the t’ej goes to help the Beta Israel (“House of Israel”), which is what Ethiopian Jews call themselves. Because the company has both a wholesale and retail license, it offers free home delivery to people in New York City who buy a case or more of the wine.
♦ Yamatt Tej. Menkir Tamrat is an innovative scientist and businessman who began making this t’ej a few years ago as a sideline. He sells in the Bay Area of California, where he lives.
♦ Begena Tedj. Europe’s premier t’ej is the creation of Wilhelmine Stordiau, who was born and raised in Ethiopia before returning to her ancestral Europe (she has an Ethiopian great-grandmother). She makes three varieties: dry and premium, which she sells as Begena Tedj, and the unfiltered and more traditional Gojo Tej.
♦ Agazen Tej. The name is the Amharic word for the animal we know as the mountain nyala, a native Ethiopian species that’s kin to the kudu. Steve Grazaitis, the owner of Laddsburg Mountain Winery in northcentral Pennsylvania, created Azagen, along with meads from two other cultures, because of his desire to explore the wines of other cultures.
♦ Enat Tej. “Enat” is the Amharic word for “mother,” and the maker of this slightly sweeter t’ej created it based on his Ethiopian mother-in-law’s recipe. It’s made in California but available in restaurants across the country.
♦ Seifu’s Tej. Blue Nile in Ann Arbor, Mich., is one of the nation’s oldest Ethiopian restaurants, and its owner, Seifu Lessanework, had this t’ej made for sale at his restaurant. Now the winery that makes it sells it to restaurants around the country, but mostly on the east coast.
♦ Sheba Tej. Brotherhood Winery in upstate New York is one of the oldest in the United States, and it sell its t’ej around the east coast and Midwest.
♦ The Queen’s Honeywine. This wine is made by Nigisti Abraha, an Ethiopian-born woman who lives in Denver. Her name, “Nigisti,” means “queen” in Amharic, hence the name of the wine. She takes orders online at her web site.
♦ Regal Tej and Meskerem Tej. Made by Easley Winery of Indianapolis, Ind., this is Fasil’s t’ej, each essentially the same wine marketed under different names. The second wine is named for Meskerem Ethiopian restaurant in New York City. Some relatives of the New York owners also have a branch of the restaurant in Charlotte, N.C..
♦ Tej. This nameless “golden dry” product comes from Honeycomb Sweden in the town of Örebro, and it’s sold at several restaurants and shops around Stockholm. The website has a link to buy the t’ej online, but I doubt they’ll ship to the U.S., and my emails to the company have gone unanswered.
♦ Tankara T’ej. If you want to try this t’ej, you’ll have to make it yourself. It’s the product of a home winemaking kit sold by Brewer’s Apprentice, a company that sells home brewing supplies. For $82, you get everything you need to make five gallons (about two cases) of t’ej. You can download the company’s recipe as a PDF. Tankara is the name of an Ethiopian mountain about 200 miles west of Addis Ababa, and local people use the word to mean “strength” or “vitality.”
♦ The word t’ej, which to us means honey wine, is essentially the Amharic word for wine. If you want to speak of grape wine in Ethiopia, you say wayn t’ej, where wayn is the word for grape. But if you just want a glass of “wine,” you ask for t’ej. As for the word itself, linguists trace it back some 3,000 years or more to a theoretical root word, d’agay, which (long story) slowly evolved into t’ej.
♦ The earliest written record of t’ej in Ethiopia was found on a tablet by Dutch archaeologist A.J. Drewes in the early 1960s. He dates the writing to the middle of the third century A.D., which makes t’ej around 2,000 years old (at least). The ancient Greek historian Strabo (63 B.C. – 24 A.D.) wrote about Troglodytes living in ancient Ethiopia. “Most of the people drink a brew of buckthorn,” he reported, “but the tyrants drink a mixture of honey and water, the honey being pressed out of some kind of flower.”
Strabo doesn’t specifically say that the Ethiopians fermented this drink. But gesho, the fermenting agent of t’ej, is a species of buckthorn, so fermentation may well have taken place. This may be the earliest suggestion of Ethiopians fermenting honey water with gesho.
♦ Traditional Ethiopian t’ej ferments naturally, without the use of added yeast, and it’s flavored with a plant called gesho (Rhamnus prinoides), a native Ethiopian species of buckthorn. Most Ethiopians use gesho inchet – that is, the woody sticks and branches of the plant. Sometimes they’ll use gesho kitel, the plant’s dried leaves. There’s also gesho duket, which are the leaves turned into a fine powder, but that’s mostly used to make t’alla, the traditional raw Ethiopian beer.
♦ Because making t’ej is a simple, natural process, not much can go wrong. Scientists have found numerous species of yeast in t’ej, but the dominant one is Saccharomyces cerevisiae. Any wine can turn “bretty” if the unwelcomed yeast Brettanomyces bruxellensis finds its way into the mix. Even professional winemakers have to watch out for Bret. You might also find biofilm forming on top of your t’ej: These are micro-organisms in the air that dive into the sugar-rich mixture and begin gobbling up the nitrogen, thus choking off t’ej yeasts. There’s an easy fix for both of these: Just add the tiniest bit of D-47 commercial yeast, and that’ll overpower the biofilm and the Bret. D-47 is the species Saccharomyces cerevisiae, so you’re really just giving the natural yeast a boost from some kin who have been to the gym.
♦ When you buy crisp clear t’ej from a winery, it’s been thoroughly filtered and refined. But in an Ethiopian t’ej bet, the wine is raw and unrefined. Ethiopians call this defres (unfiltered) or lega (young). The word goosh refers to unfiltered t’ej or t’alla.
♦ Ethiopians drink t’ej from a vessel called a berele (see photo). It has a round bottom and long neck with a hole at the top. This is very practical: In hot Ethiopia, insects swarm to the sweet aroma of t’ej, and a berele allows you to put your thumb over the mouth of the vessel when you’re not drinking. This handily keep the insects out.
♦ Finally, when you drink your t’ej, be sure to make the Ethiopian toast: Letenachin. It means “to our health.”
University of Pittsburgh
Watch my video, “Making T’ej“