Food & Drink

World Eats: Ethiopian coffee traditions celebrated in East Sacramento

Makeda Berhane, left, and her sister, Sabrina Berhane, owners of Teferet Coffee in East Sacramento, perform a traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony outside their shop off H Street earlier this month.
Makeda Berhane, left, and her sister, Sabrina Berhane, owners of Teferet Coffee in East Sacramento, perform a traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony outside their shop off H Street earlier this month.

In a city where coffee can be an obsession of an edgy cult in conflict over the merits of light or medium roasts, there’s a coffee house where double drifts of twisting plumes spiral to the nose, one carrying the aroma of coffee, the other bearing the breath of frankincense.

Clearly, we are not at Dunkin’ Donuts. Instead, we are standing on true ceremony. At the year-old Tiferet Coffee House in East Sacramento, owned by sisters Sabrina and Makeda Berhane, coffee is family, history, culture and love.

On a recent Saturday morning, as part of Specialty Coffee Week Sacramento, the sisters treated the neighborhood to a shortened version of the way coffee is made where coffee was born – the aptly named Kaffa province of Ethiopia. Their father, Kassa Berhane, a Greek Orthodox, was born in Ethiopia. Their mother, Carmen Colón, is a Jewish Puerto Rican. Sabrina and Makeda agree it’s always unexpected when they tell people they’re from Modesto.

Gowned in Ethiopian fabric and bejeweled with ancestral rings, Sabrina, 39, and Makeda, 37, brought out the family’s coffee regalia for the ceremony. Set outside on a rug were a jebena (clay coffee urn), a coiled cone-shaped basket for the finished beans, and lots of habesha dabo (an Ethiopian bread seasoned with the spice mixture berbere). The design on small cups tells the traditional story of Queen Sheba’s journey from Ethiopia to visit King Solomon.

The serving of coffee in Ethiopian households is ceremonial to the extent that traditionally it should occur three times a day – lunch, midday and evening. “We call it a ceremony, but we do it daily,” Sabrina said. “You roast the beans, you burn the incense, it takes about an hour. And it’s done like that every time. Usually it’s a young woman who does it, generally the maid or the cook.”

To start Tiferet’s ceremony, a few cups of pale-green, dry, unroasted Ethiopian Sidamo beans were added to a skillet resting on a two-burner propane camp stove. In the old days, the beans would roast over a wood fire. As the beans cracked like popcorn, the chaff loosened and flitted fairylike into the air.

Sabrina crouched near the skillet. She flipped and swirled the beans. After about 10 minutes, when the beans were evenly dark and ready to grind, the aroma had deepened unmistakably to that of very strong coffee mixed with the sexy scent of frankincense that burned on bits of glowing charcoal.

The aroma and smoke drew an early morning crowd. Though now divorced, parents Kassa and Carmen were in attendance along with Kassa’s wife, Emki, who made the dabo. Sabrina said this is how an Ethiopian coffee ceremony should be, full of people. “It’s a gathering, a way to enjoy each other’s company.”

Sabrina withdrew the pan from the heat. As dictated by ceremony, she walked the smoking beans through the onlookers for all to inhale the aroma, which smelled faintly sweet. “It’s more nose than eye,” she said.

She ground the beans in a hand-cranked coffee grinder as finely as possible. Water was heated in the jebena, set over hot coals. Sabrina added the coffee to hot water, letting it cook for about 10 minutes. The jebena’s shape allows the coffee to pour clear from its angled spout while trapping the coffee grounds in the urn’s rounded bottom.

The coffee was thicker than a typical brew. Bitterness was barely detectable. Sabrina described ceremonial coffee as “bold, dark and chewy.”

When the Berhane sisters opened Tiferet, they had no experience operating a coffee house, just a love of coffee and a close bond. Makeda worked in finance in Washington, D.C. Sabrina is a Sacramento Realtor. When the McKinley-area property became available, Sabrina took a chance. “I had this idea that if we could get this going, Makeda could quit her job and come home.”

They researched the coffee industry. They hired a barista and went to cuppings (coffee tastings). They painted the interior of the shop in the colors of coffee – the dark brown of black coffee, the ivory of a latte. Then they outfitted the tiny space with four tables and a small couch. Upstairs is Sabrina’s real estate office.

In less than a year, Tiferet had become a neighborhood anchor. “I think this coffee house kind of embodies us,” Sabrina said.

Makeda finished her thought: “We’re hospitable by nature. We like people. We like to feed them.”

Most beans in the shop are South American. Ethiopian Sidamo is sold by the pound. “Ethiopian beans are very expensive,” Sabrina said. She relies on her roaster to accept or reject beans of inconsistent quality.

The sisters decided the coffee at Tiferet also would be bold.

“We don’t do light roasts,” said Makeda. Tiferet uses beans from local company Flor de Volcan and its one-man roaster, Thomas Shutts. “It’s dark, bold and chocolate-berry. It reminded us of the coffee we drank growing up.”

Tiferet is a Hebrew word that means glory or gratitude. “We didn’t choose (the name) for religious reasons,” said Sabrina. “We chose it because it’s a beautiful word.”

Tiferet Coffee House

3020 H St., Sacramento

(916) 321-9321

Hours: 6:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily