Tebeje Tarekegn, a 35-year-old resident of Addis Ababa, used to love drinking Tella, an Ethiopian traditional fermented alcohol beverage, with his high school friends back in their school days. But over the past few years, finding a place that offers good quality Tella has become difficult.
In January, Tebeje seemed to have found the ideal place to enjoy the Tella taste he always cherished. Sitting around with his friends in a small circle, he enjoyed the refreshing drink at Sello Craft Tella, a traditional bar located around Bole Medhanialem.
“I am surprised to see Tella served at a fancy place like this. It is amazingly brewed with good quality and I don’t really want to leave only with a glass,” he said, sipping from his favorite brew.
Since everything is made from organic ingredients, with no additives and chemicals, he says he loves the genuine natural taste.
“My friend knows that I prefer Tella to bottled beer. When he invited me here I didn’t hesitate to come,” said Tebeje, “But I didn’t expect to find such a crowd here.”
Due to rapid urbanization and lifestyle change in the cities, only older businesses used to serve Ethiopian traditional fermented beverages such as Tella and Tej.
In recent years, with the entrance of many international breweries, bottled beer consumption in the cities visibly increased. As the market became dominated by breweries, more people – including the rural population – gravitated towards Western-style beers and other fabricated liquors.
Meanwhile, in the capital Addis Ababa, the traditional brews which are served by newly opened bars seem to be enjoying a comeback among urban people.
A year ago Yohannes Aychewu decided to open a bar at the heart of Addis Ababa which was exclusively dedicated to serving Tella.
However, many of his friends and relatives were not happy about his decision as they were sure the business would not go the distance.
“Nowadays Tella houses are hard to find in the city. People who love drinking Tella need to wait for occasions like holidays and weddings just to satisfy their desires,” said Yohannes.
In the beginning, it was very challenging to attract customers. Now Yohannes says his customer base is gradually growing.
Years ago, people who would drink Tella served at Tella Bet, a small traditional bar that specializes exclusively in serving the beverage, were of lower income. However, Yohannes says now that most of his customers are young, well-educated, and employed.
When it comes to the price, many find it a bit expensive compared to bottled beers. “I understand the cost burdens of the business but I feared the expensive price would push the attracted customers back,'' one customer at Selo told Addis Zeybe.
At Sello a liter of Tella is sold for 130 Br. and they charge 55 Br. for a glass of Tella.
The basic brewing method of Tella remains the same but the tastes may vary. Sello provides Tella from many different raw materials, including barley, corn, wheat, millet, finger millet, and five other types. “Since the quality of the drink relies upon the cereals, we tried to use the finest cereals. All the ingredients used at Sello are prepared by its in-house brew makers”
Although the Tella business is starting to thrive, he says the preparation involves a long and arduous process. Since the quality of the drink relies upon the cereals, we tried to use the finest cereals. All the ingredients used at Sello are prepared by its in-house brew makers.
Yohannes, who was also engaged in the tourism business for more than a decade, has a plan to export the product to the international market and promote his country.
With the non-uniformity of ingredients and brewing techniques, Ethiopian traditional alcoholic drinks have been unable to move beyond local consumption. There is no effective way to modernize the preparation of the drinks and make them commercially available on a large scale when the brewing process remains unregulated.
The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates two to four percent alcohol content for normal Tella and up to five or six percent for the filtered one. Local Tella providers know nothing about the amount of alcohol that is concentrated in their products.
“Since we are preparing in the traditional way, there is no means to measure the alcoholic content,” said Yohannes. However, he says over the last month “we have been working on extending its shelf life, ensuring that our product will be kept at the maximum possible freshness until it is served.”
Aimed at improving the quality of traditional alcoholic drinks, the national standards body has started to standardize the methods of beverage fermentation processes of Tella, according to the Ethiopian Standards Agency. "Last year we have approved standards for the Tej and Araki traditional drinks, and a team of experts is proposing standards for the preparation, fermentation, packaging, and storing of Tella," said a Gemeda Alemu Food and Agricultural products standard preparation expert at the agency.
Although the Tella business remains promising, he says the preparation of good quality products involves a long and arduous process. “But I am happy about starting this business and I am planning to expand and open some more branches in the city,” said Yohannes.
Sello is not the only bar in the capital that offers the local booze. The recently opened Deshesho Restaurant, located around Megenagna, offers Tella and other traditional beverages including Tej and Areki which are sourced from Gojjam, Amhara Regional State.
“I didn’t expect that the product would be this much loved by urban people, every day friends in groups of three and four come and enjoy the craft Tella,” said Zinash Ayele, owner of the restaurant. Waitresses wearing traditional clothing are moving to the tables serving the Tella with a traditional bean called gibto, to customers, when we speak.
For Zinash, customer approval and positive feedback towards her products is encouraging. Since its opening, a month ago, she says lots of customers have been visiting her bar to enjoy Tella.
Zinash sources the semi-fermented stage of the Tella ingredient mix which is called difdif from Gojjam and refines it by adding some more ingredients and water. “The difdif can be stored and be kept up to a year without being expired,” she said.
At Deshesho a glass of Tella is sold for 29 Br. and a large group of customers can order it with a small pot and can drink it for around 160 Br.
Talking about her inspiration to start a Tella business in the middle of the city, she said, “It is not that we are only doing business, it is that we are appreciating the traditional culture and passing it on to the next generation.”