The smell of incense and the rich aroma of roasting java beans filled the air inside Arlington's Central Public Library Sunday as members of the Ethiopian community demonstrated a traditional coffee ceremony.
The ceremony is a daily part of life in Ethiopia, where coffee originated. The fresh beans are roasted in a metal pot until brown, then finely ground and brewed with boiling water in a clay decanter.
Once it is ready, the coffee is served in small cups and sipped over conversation with neighbors and friends. According to Pamiru Begefa of Mercato Coffee, the ceremony is an important social occasion in many villages.
"This is a very important moment in the Ethiopian way of life. For family members and people in the neighborhoods to sit together and talk about who did what, who is whom and what is going on."
Ethiopia harvests more than 200,000 tons of coffee each year from fields in its mountainous regions. Two thirds of that is consumed by Ethiopians themselves.
COFFEE WAS SERVED Saturday with a loaf baked bread, sliced by an Ethiopian elder who recited a blessing in Amaric, along with traditional Ethiopian dishes provided by local restaurants.
In an Ethiopian village, Begefa said, the elders will brew the coffee and gather people to the table by sending the youngest child out to announce when it is ready to be served.
"In Ethiopia, coffee is not something you just go and grab, or something you get and go out on the highway and drink as you drive to work," Begefa said. "It's for people to get together and talk about the community, about politics, about life."
Before serving the coffee, Begefa's daughter, Rebecca Pamiru, read a centuries old story from Ethiopia detailing the supposed genesis of modern java. Legend has it that a goat herder discovered the first known coffee plant after losing his flock in the mountains. He found the goats eating the leaves of strange plant and moving about wildly at the base of its trunk. The next day, he returned with his flock to the mountain and the goats immediately ran for the same tree. The boy decided to sample the tree's leaves and berries. The caffeine rush stimulated his senses and the rest is history. The drink quickly spread to Yemen, where it was used for medicinal purposes, and was later disseminated to parts of the Middle East by the Ottoman Empire.
COFFEE GROWERS in Ethiopia and many other nations, according to Begefa, now face a crisis. The deregulation of coffee's price on the world market has made it harder for farmers to sell their beans for a reasonable price, he said. To help remedy the plight of these growers, the U.S. government announced last month that it will rejoin the International Coffee Organization, from which it withdrew in 1973.
Arlington is home to more than 1,600 Ethiopians, making them the largest contingent of African immigrants in the county.
The coffee ceremony is part of an on-going library program designed to highlight the many different cultures in Arlington. After the ceremony, the audience of more than 100 visitors got a chance to taste Ethiopian coffee as it is brewed every day in villages.
"It's semi strong, not bitter," said Marilyn Avery. "It's good. It's a coffee I would buy."
Taking her first sip, Rene Hair said "A lot of coffee is bitter, this is not. It's strong, smooth. It's really very good. You don't need to add sugar to it or anything else."
County Board Chairwoman Barbara Favola described the ceremony as "seeing a snap-shot of another culture" and applauded the Ethiopian community's leadership for being socially engaged.
"The Ethiopian community has been very effective in helping newly arrived immigrants to integrate here in America," she said.
Dr. Tsheye Teferra, head of the Ethiopian Community Development Council, was also on hand. The ECDC is an organization devoted to helping African immigrants throughout the DC Metro area.
"It's a good idea, as a kind of bridge to bring our community and others together. It's the kind of thing we should do more often," he said.