Tej (Amharic: ጠጀ?, pronounced [ˈtʼədʒ]; Tigrinya: ሜሰ?, mes, Oromo: daadhi) is a mead or honey wine that is brewed and consumed in Ethiopia and Eritrea. It is flavored with the powdered leaves and twigs of gesho (Rhamnus prinoides), a hops-like bittering agent that is a species of buckthorn. Tej is usually homemade, but throughout Ethiopia it is available in “tej houses” (tej betoch, singular tej bet (ጠጅ ቤት)).
The traditional vessel for drinking tej is a rounded vase-shaped container called aberele, which looks like a Florence flask. Tej has a deceptively sweet taste that masks its high alcohol content, which varies greatly according to the length of fermentation.Berz is a sweeter, less-alcoholic version of tej, and is aged for a shorter time.
All About Tej
The honey wine that Ethiopians have made for centuries
1. A Very Brief History of Ethiopia, the Land of Tej
THE ANCIENT CULTURES of the Middle East may have made contact with the civilizations of what we now call Ethiopia as early as 1,000 years B.C. Legend tells us that Makeda, the queen of the land of Saba (or, as we know it today, Sheba), visited the revered King Solomon on a diplomatic mission, during which, the legend says, they toasted each other with Makeda’s tej. She lavished him with gifts, the greatest one eventually being a son, named Menelik, whom she raised in Saba and sent home to meet his father when he reached manhood.
Then, in 1270 A.D., Yekuno Amlak, a wily monarch of Abyssinia – as the land was alternatively called in earlier times – drew upon the legend of Solomon and Makeda to declare himself to be the direct descendant of Menelik. This established the Solomonic Dynasty of Ethiopian emperors that ruled for 700 years and ended in 1974, with the fall of Emperor Hayle Selasse to Communist revolutionaries. The brutal Derg (“Committee”) ruled until 1991, when a long-time rebellion finally succeeded, thus creating a nascent democracy in Ethiopia.
We must now take the ancient story of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, devised in the time of Yekuno Amlak (who did exist), with a block of salt (which, incidentally, were called amole in Ethiopia and were used as currency well into the 19th Century). Despite Ethiopian lore disguised as history, there’s no proof that the land of Saba was located in the portion of eastern Africa that’s now Ethiopia. It may have been in Yemen, across the Red Sea, and the monarch whom the Ethiopians call Makeda was called Bilqis on the Arabian peninsula. There may even have been two Sabas, one on each side of the Red Sea, with neither one dominating the other. Scholars disagree, and the hard archaeological evidence is spotty at best.
The Bible has very little to say about Ethiopia that offers much help in clarifying its relationship with the ancient world. Two passages in the Old Testament – 1 Kings 10: 1-13, and 2 Chronicles 9:1-12 – tell a story of a Queen of Sheba who visited King Solomon on a diplomatic mission after hearing tales of his greatness. It doesn’t say she was from Ethiopia, nor do she and Solomon consummate their summit.
Then, somewhere between 1314 and 1322 A.D. (scholars believe), an anonymous author composed the Kebra Negast (“Glory of Kings”), a book that became the Ethiopian national story. This lengthy saga clearly intends to turn Yekuno Amlak’s newly declared “Solomonic Dynasty” into historical fact: It embellishes the brief biblical story of Solomon and Makeda and creates the child Menelik.
Yet this story remains the central mythology of the nation and is now recognized as the legend that helped to found and foster a culture and a civilization, which began definitively in the first century A.D. with the Aksumite Empire, in what is now northern Ethiopia and Eritrea, then slowly evolved into modern Ethiopia. For the next two millennia, empires and emperors waxed and waned, until a 19th Century surge of unification and conquest under the powerful Emperor Menelik II forged the modern nation.
2. By Any Other Name: The Language of Tej
THE HISTORY AND ORIGIN of the word “tej” – as with so many words in so many languages – is probably as clear as it will ever get. It’s the word, in Amharic, that Ethiopians have long called wine made from honey. Amharic, a Semitic language, has been the state language of Ethiopia for centuries, although it’s not the country’s most widely spoken first language. That honor goes to Oromo, a Cushitic language. The Amhara culture dominated the country long ago and imposed its language as official.
But several other Ethiopian languages – some Semitic, some not – use the word “tej” or something like it to mean “honey wine,” and Amharic itself seems to have borrowed the word from a root word in an Ethiopian Semitic mother tongue. [See the chart with the words for “honey wine” and “honey” in every Ethiopian language.] READ ALL ABOUT THE HISTORY OF TEJ BY THE AUTHOR HERE: