Gas Station Coffee in Yirgacheffe

When I arrived in Yirgacheffe, I started walking around to get my bearings, and I passed by a gas station. Thinking like an American, I assumed it would also sell water and some essentials, like soap and junk food. So on my way back to the hotel, I walked up to the gas station, and while I didn’t see any kind of convenience store attached, I did see what looked like a coffee service.

“Cool,” I thought, “there’s no supplies here, but how sweet would it be to have gas station coffee in Yirgacheffe?!” I resolved that I would come back to the station for a cup of coffee before I left town. But over the next few days, I passed by and noticed there was no coffee tray. Odd, but I chalked it up to bad timing. The next day was a holiday, after all, and maybe the other times were at the wrong hour of day. I remained on the lookout.

And so today, when I left the hotel to get some lunch, I spotted the tray for the first time in a while, and decided I should strike while the charcoal’s hot. Today would be the day I try gas station coffee. I approached and asked the magic words, “bunna alleh?” The woman looked at me and after a moment of hesitation told me to sit down. She put the jebena (coffee pot) back on the charcoal stove in the back and pulled up a chair for me. I slowly began to wonder if I had misinterpreted the coffee tray. Was this for customers and passers-by, or was this just for the folks working at the gas station? Well, I was getting coffee anyway, so I figured I would just enjoy my coffee.

The coffee took a long time to boil, but when it was ready, she offered me the cup with saucer and spoon, and as I began to hold it by the lip, she pulled up a plastic seat for me to place the coffee on. The cup looked bigger than normal coffee cups I’ve seen elsewhere, and I chalked this up to a universal rule of gas stations: more coffee. I didn’t see her put the sugar in, but she obviously had. And as I drank the cup, I noticed that the coffee was ground finer than usual, so that you could taste some of the grinds.

I finished my coffee and offered her a 5-birr note, but she refused. I realized that my language barrier had worked in my favor, as she figured it was easier to give me coffee for free than to explain that she doesn’t sell coffee. I awkwardly left, still unsure of how to say thanks. I guess I’ll bring them my unroasted green before I leave town.

The jebena is behind the camera in an unfinished building attached to the gas station. The coffee seems to follow a universal rule of gas station coffee: a larger volume of stronger coffee, from lower-quality grinds, designed to keep you awake. But it also broke one rule: this gas station coffee was free. Try finding that in the States!




Ordering Coffee in Ethiopia

Virtually everywhere in Ethiopia, you’ll see little trays like this one.



To order coffee, approach and ask for “andd bunna,” one coffee. If you’re not sure if they’re open for business, you can ask, “bunna alleh?” and the answer will almost always be yes.

The woman preparing the coffee—so far, always a woman—will move the kettle off the charcoal flame, pour some water into the jebena (the Ethiopian coffee pot you see on the left rear of the tray), which she will move back onto the flame, periodically pouring coffee out of the jebena to see if the coffee’s ready. I’m not quite sure what she is checking for, but my current guess is the temperature of the coffee and the color of the brew.

Some of the ashes from the flame will go into the ashtray that you see on the front left of the tray. I still haven’t learned what that ashtray is for, either. Current theories include heating up your coffee and for smoking customers to deposit their ashes.


There will also be condiments for the coffee. This always includes sugar (sukwa), and sometimes includes either salt (chew), or ten’adam, an herb that is apparently similar to Italian ruta. If you don’t specify, and the woman preparing the coffee doesn’t ask, you will get sugar in your coffee, most likely too much and, if they have it, ten’adam on the side. You can ask for no sugar by saying “yale sukwa,” or you can ask for a little by saying “tuhnnuhsh sukwa.”

Clockwise from upper left: with sugar, without (ten’adam on the side), with ten’adam, and with salt. The salt tastes good on the first sip, but is not so pleasant as you continue to drink. The ten’adam has a bitterness to it that somehow mitigates the bitterness in the coffee. Coffee on the roadside will cost 3 or 4 birr, about 15 to 20 cents. In a hotel, about 10 birr.

The coffee is typically not fresh, both in that it is usually ground well before it is brewed, and in that the same grounds are used for several cups of coffee. The grounds boil with water, as with Turkish coffee or kopi tubruk in Indonesia. As with these other methods, that typically means a coffee that is overextracted, tasting more bitter and “stronger,” even when less coffee is used.

Despite this, and despite all the other hurdles to making good coffee this way—the better beans are usually exported, and the remaining beans are roast and ground with old, manual methods that have little opportunity for consistency—I have on occasion had cups where you could taste some of the lemony notes that coffees from this region (Yirgacheffe) are known for, and even one cup where I felt I could detect a light body in a particularly strong cup, an attribute particularly prized by coffee geeks in the United States. It is more than a tad romantic to think that these attributes, though characteristic of Yirgacheffe coffees, are making it through to the coffee on the roadside, or even to think that coffee in Yirgacheffe comes from Yirgacheffe! But on the other hand, after coming all the way to Yirgacheffe to visit the most famous coffee origin in the world, I think I’m allowed to let a little romance interfere with my taste buds.