How do you take your coffee? Ritualising the coffee break

In offices all around Melbourne there is a common thread that binds the law firm with the textile company and the marketing suite. At somewhere between 10 and 11am every morning a coffee break is had. Perhaps it is not an across-the board affair, some people choosing to remain seated at their desks, while others exiting the building with their cigarettes. Yet one thing is for certain, there is always a fair amount of caffeine involved. Some people take it instant, while others gather around the automatic coffee machine they almost worship. Others place a tea-bag like pod into a machine and press a button. And others simply join in the conversation looking on with their glass of herbal tea. Whatever shape it takes, coffee breaks are a given in Melbourne workplaces.

Imagine if you lived in a country where the working day consisted of somewhere between 18-22 hours long? Imagine if during those hours there was no way of communicating with friends or family, or even stopping to ask questions? Imagine if you worked so hard you never had time to yourself?

In a green place far away from most of our daily routines, high up in the mountains, is the land where coffee was supposedly born. Ethiopia, a country unfortunately known for many other horrific events and circumstances, is the place where some of the best coffee beans in the world originates. Not only due to its perfect climate and altitude, coffee and coffee beans are so engrained into the everyday lives of the people there it simply seems as if it is a natural part of daily life.

In the land where coffee was born the conditions are harsh. Nature is often cruel and life is often difficult. And women work between 18-22 hours a day. Women, the main breadwinners, do not get time for the gym or the day spa. They do not get leisurely lunch breaks or time for shopping sprees. Women barely get time for anything at all –except one imperative thing. You guessed it! Drinking coffee.

Drinking coffee is of such importance in Ethiopia that it is placed on the very top of the list of things to do in the tiny amount of time that is not spent either working or sleeping. In fact ,it is considered so important that time spent drinking coffee is the only time women are allowed to be seen in public without a man accompanying her. Coffee drinking actually has its only allocated time, place and structure. It is known as the coffee drinking ritual, where circles of women come together into someone’s home to talk, gather, relax and be free for a few precious moments of their day.

Coffee is prepared in a special way for the coffee drinking ritual, which sometimes occurs three times per day depending on the workload. It is a time when women are free of children and men. The coffee beans, originally green, are freshly roasted on a pan over a traditional charcoal brazier. Incense is lit in an oven close by to mark the coffee drinking ritual. The mixture of the aroma flowing from the coffee beans and the smoke from the incense creates a mystical aura and the true feeling of a ritual taking place.

Once the coffee beans are roasted and sufficiently brown, the oil is drained from them in a special process. Once the oil has been released the fresh coffee beans are ready to grind using a mortar and pestle. The ground coffee is then placed in a clay pot of boiling hot water and stirred repeatedly. The Mixture is then sieved until the liquid that remains is the right consistency. Coffee is then poured into beautiful china cups that have been placed on a wooden stool especially for the ritual. Sometimes sugar is added, sometimes salt is added and at other times the coffee is drunk straight but it is always dark brown and very strong. And there is no sign of frothed milk in sight.

Depending on the day it takes place, the coffee drinking ceremony can seme quite formal to the onlooker. The lady of the house is usually the one who serves the coffee to each of her female visitors, who are sometimes dressed in their formal white robes lined with colourful woven borders.

As such, the coffee drinking ceremony in Ethiopia has lasted for centuries, serving its original purpose as a bonding ritual, a treasured time for women to meet and put their other daily chores aside. And in reality, on our side of the world things are not terribly different –are they? If you were to ask a bunch of women what they loved to do in their spare time, most of them would answer catching up with friends or something to that effect. Quite often, catching up with friends involves coffee drinking or at least meetings in cafes.

Perhaps we do not need to roast our own coffee beans daily- well there simply is not enough time for that. Wouldn’t it be great though as something to do every once in a while though? We are also fortunate enough to have automatic grinders to grind our coffee beans, but the though of using a mortar and pestle does add a touch of romance to it! The women of Ethiopia may not see it that way however!

Coffee drinking and coffee brewing have come a very long way since the foothills of Ethiopia were the red bean was first discovered centuries ago. We now have automatic coffee machines and grinders and pre-roasted beans…but one thing has definitely remained: the daily coffee break. We take so much for granted, including the fact that women and men can stand together freely in the same coffee break area- or not; the fact that women do not need to partake in a designated ritual to enjoy coffee with a female friend; the fact that coffee can really be drunk any time of the day or night either in the company of others or in solitude.

So next time you are signalled for a coffee break at work, take some time out to think where the act really originated, how meaningful it still is to so many and most importantly how important it is to bond and communicate with those around you!

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