Tej – the mead from the origins of mankind

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Ethiopian beekeeping and Tej

Tej – mead in the Rift Valley Basin.

Ethiopia – few countries have such a documented history as this African country on the east coast of the continent.
It is said humankind has its origin in the rift valley, an area that is littered with archeological finds from as far back as the origin of man.
It does feel somewhat natural then, to pose the idea that perhaps this was also where our forefathers – and mothers, first came across a bubbling substance of honey and water.
Sweet as it was, and nutritious – it was drunk… and the rest is history.

Queen SheebaTej and Ethiopia – a history joined

When it comes to Ethiopia, we are really talking biblical history. The country finds its roots back to the age of King Solomon, the Queen of Sheeba, and the bible legends.
Back then, we see a much different climate, one that very much aided in beekeeping. This gives us the idea that better climate = better nature = more bees.
A good and stable environment means a better environment for bees.
Now, here’s the thing; bible legends speak of Ethiopia, and – it tells us of mead!
Yep, Our beloved beverage is mentioned in bible legends…

Once upon a time, the Queen of Sheeba made a visit to King Solomon. Guess what they toasted in ? .. Mead – or Tej.
Makeeda, the Queen of Sheeba had brought his wonderful beverage with her.
Such was the quality and flavor, that the queen herself had brewers to make the finest of mead – especially for her.

Ethiopia itself was most probably formed sometime in the early 1200’s. The kingdom of Aksum is believed to be the center of what later expanded to become today’s Ethiopia. The rulers of Aksum also knew about Tej – and enjoyed it vastly.
Historic annals are good sources of information; we find in these several mentions of Tej, and how this was regarded with great reverence in the Ethiopian societies.

Mead – or Wine?Ehtiopian Bee hive

The somewhat fun part about Tej, as the mead’s name, is .. well…  “wine” in Amharic / Ethiopian language.  As Tej is a drink enjoyed by anyone, it was a limited drink to produce. Honey was regarded as a high-class resource, and the alcohol brew naturally became an extension of that limitation.
Did this stop the villagers to brew mead if they could get away with it? Naturally not – who wouldn’t make mead – if the opportunity presented itself?
Luckily – in today’s Ethiopia this limitation is lifted and we find this lovely beverage everywhere. Possibly not such a surprise today, as no other nation on the planet produce as much honey today, as Ethiopia does.  Over six million wild beehives are known to exist, and in addition to this come all the apiaries across the country.

While Tej is mead, mead is not Tej

All mead is fermented honey, but not all mead is tej.
The marked difference is the fermentation agent, Gesho. This is a plant, the shiny-leaf Buckthorn, which lends its bacteria to the brew.The leaves of this tree is usually pounded and added to the brew, then left to ferment. It is these bacteria that functions a the fermentation agent, the yeast if you may, and it is the Gesho that give Tej its unique bitter after flavor.

Producing Tej, the natural way

As the honey, water, and  Gesho is all mixed, fermentation generally takes about two weeks. Remember – this is a process quite tailored to the environment and temperature range found in Ethiopia. Its quite likely normal yeast strains would struggle in the heat often found in this African, near-equatorial country.
After two weeks of fermentation, the brew is considered near to finished.
What is interesting here is the bacterias function in the process. Two, three days after the start, its expected to see fuzz and fur on the brew surface. Here, bacterial infection is the very point of the brewing process, something which the regular meadist is normally appalled by. Let’s face it – infected mead isn’t what we associate with the successful mead. But with Tej – you cant have success without the Gesho infection.

Now, this first fermentation takes a good one or two weeks, then the Gesho then should be removed. During this time the mead will develop its characteristically yellow color.
A Tej of good quality should be a fine yellow color, sweet tasting, and bubbly. It will not be clear as with modern mead. This is due to the effect the bacteria and yeast have on the brew. Relax – its normal.
Alcohol levels would range anywhere from under 3% to over 20%; yep – Tej can be a kicker!!

Berele - vessel for drinking Tej

Let’s get drinking!

Today the Ethiopian mead is a staple drink found everywhere. Any cafe with respect for themselves will have a form of Tej available, served in long containers caller Berele. Well- naturally you can also have it in normal wine glasses, but originally, the Berele was the drinking vessel of choice. This was for a very real reason… culturally course, but- a long slim neck, gave less area for insects to swarm and drown in ( or so popular belief/misbelief goes ). Another popular legend is that the use of the Berele came from the idea that a thick bottom and a long neck made it more difficult to drink all at once, and therefore would keep you from getting too drunk, too fast.
Whatever the real reason for the Berele as a drinking vessel, we have to say it has a certain charm – drinking mead from something looking like it came from the lab…
Nerd-gasm information: with the extreme amount of hives in Ethiopia,  the multitude of brewing manners and the uncountable recipes – it is said you can drink all your life – and never find one Tej identical to another. That’s a belief we would love to believe.

Tej goes global

Ethiopian honey is a global phenomenon, and naturally, Tej is now being exported across the world. Wherever you find the influx of Ethiopian immigrants you are sure to find someone bringing Tej with them.  A lot of countries also import Tej for commercial distribution. A famous brand for Ethiopians is the “Nigest Honey Wine” – we wanted to find a link to it, unfortunately, that proved to be a difficult task. Safe to say  Ehiopian honey wine isn’t hard to find no matter its name ….Even as far as into Russia, we find imports of this lovely beverage.
Commercial wineries are also producing this, based on original recipes and Gesho. Among more famous brands we find well-known wineries such as Brotherhood Winery, who produces Sheba Tej. Even in Scandinavia we find meaderies who produce the Ethiopian mead; HoneyComb Sweden.

Drinking Tej with friendsAn Alcohol with health benefits? What will the authorities say?

Now – we have to be fair and post our disclaimer: drink responsibly. That being said, it’s quite interesting how the Ethiopians see their beloved Tej as beneficial to their health.
Ask any local and you will be given plenty of reasons why the honey wine is healthy:

  • It cures colds and coughs ( must be the honey 🙂 )
  • Antibiotic  effects
  • The Gesho aids to a healthy stomach
  • The bacterias in the brew help fight off any infection ( bacterial mercenaries ?)
  • Helps overall well being ( dude – if I drink honey every day I’d be pretty happy too 🙂 )
  • Want to be a fertile man ? drink tej … ( alcohol and sexual vigor? I think there might be some inconsistencies here…)

Whatever the effects of this drink is, one thing is for sure. Ethiopian honey wine, golden drink, TEJ – is awesome!

 

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Høvdingen
Høvdingen
Høvdingen - Norwegian for Chieftain, is the nickname of the main author on Viking-mjod.no This is a guy who despite having a full job at a normal company, dedicate all his free time to the pursuit of Viking knowledge, especially the use of natural ingredients in food and drinks. This is not to say that this guy is an expert on the subject - just very very interested ... Mead is one of the main interests, but the poor guy, this Chieftain - he has for some odd reason more an interest in the flavors, and less in the effect the alcohol has. Therefore- most of the mead he makes throughout the year - and that could be quite a lot - ends up with his VERY happy friends... ( and no .. there's no waiting list to be new mead-tasters ....)