Tej: Ancient Honey Beer

Miriam Kresh
Petach Tikvah, Israel
February, 2003


My Tej-making adventure started with the WildWines list’s comments on mead-making and primitive booze in particular. We all thought that Tej was a form of mead, but I quickly found out it is not a mead; it’s more of a beer flavored with honey. Tej is ancient indeed; I would venture to guess that people have been drinking it made like this for 3000 or 4000 years. The following recipe is unchanged, with no modern ingredients. I did use a coffee grinder several times, and used a plastic bucket, plus siphon and carboy; apart from those concessions to modernity, the process was the same as it has been since ancient times.

Tallah (the basic beer) and Tej are usually made in winter, because in summer the must may go bad before it starts fermenting.

You notice that this recipe is veeery long; well, so it should be, for it’s a long process, requiring a new step every few days for two weeks or so. I suggest you read this through once and then read my notes again, step by step as you make the Tej, for the process requires ingredients and a method unlike any other. My feeling is that to achieve the authentic drink, you need to make it the authentic way. Attempting to save time by using pre-processed ingredients will not give you Tej, but something else.

A note on pronouncing the name: just Tej, no apostrophe. The j is a little harder, as in "gentle".

I have been lucky enough to come under the guidance of an Ethiopian family who have been mentoring me. My thanks to Esther Makonen, who gave of her time to teach me, and to her mother, Malka, who gave me a headstart on the recipe by providing the Bikil.


1/2 kg. Bikil: unhusked barley which has been sprouted, dried, and ground
Gesho, 1 level disposable plastic cup full
1 1/2 kilo semolina
500 grams wheat grains (Sindi)
1-2 cups honey

Prepare the Bikil: sprout 1/2 kg. barley in its husk. This may take a week or more, depending on the season and the ambient temperature. Take care that the sprouts don’t go moldy, for that would spoil the Tej and possibly make it toxic.

Then grind up the sprouted barley in a coffee grinder or strong blender. Air-dry it and put aside. I did ask Esther if the Bikil shouldn’t be roasted before grinding, as in beer malt. She adamantly said not to. See step 9, where the wheat is moistened, then dry-roasted; I think that’s where this process happens.

Let’s say you’re starting the batch on a Friday afternoon.

1. On Friday, mix Gesho with 1 liter water. Allow to steep, tightly covered, till Sunday. (2 days.)

2. On Saturday night, mix semolina with enough water to make a loose dough. Semolina soaks up a lot of water; make sure that the dough is quite loose and sticky, not like conventional bread dough. Cover with cling film or put the bowl into a plastic bag, tie, and leave out overnight.

3. On Sunday morning or afternoon, dry-fry or bake cakes from the semolina dough. Take a large frying pan and drop in enough dough to cover the bottom. The dough will be sort of sloppy and flexible, more like pizza dough than bread dough. This will make 5 large, heavy semolina cakes. Cook each cake on both sides till covered in dark brown spots and the cake seems cooked through. Set aside and allow to cool thoroughly. This will take hours, as the cakes are very thick and will continue cooking the dough while hot. Plan on doing the next steps in the evening. And note: allow each cake plenty of time to cook. I think each side took about 20 minutes on a medium flame. Esther would not remove turn them over or remove them from the frying pan till they were very, very brown and well baked.

4. Put Gesho water into a clean bucket. Add 1 1/2 liters water to the Gesho in the bucket.

5. Break the cakes up into pieces about 2 inches big, and add them to the Gesho water Note: figure on about 1/2 hour to do this. The cakes are heavy and hard to rip up. Or take a knife and chop it all up.

6. Add about 3/4 of the Bikel. Stir with something strong, like a rolling pin, and allow all to dissolve and ferment for 2 1/2 days. The semolina cakes should be mostly disintegrated by that time. Cover the bucket well; the odor of the fermenting Gesho and semolina cakes will quickly become strong.

Stir once daily.

7. On Tuesday, you will have a something resembling spinach soup with coarse cornmeal floating around in it. This is as it should be; do not be put off. Strain out the big pieces of un-dissolved semolina cake – there will be some. Esther had me wash my hands and just dig into the bucket, bringing up the big pieces to throw out, and squashing any little ones as well as I could. If this makes you feel squeamish, an alternative would be to get a sieve and lift out the big pieces, squashing the little with a wooden spoon maybe.

By this time, you will see fermentation and get a head full of alcoholic odor from the dark green, grainy brew. I tasted the brew at this point; it is reminiscent of beer. Not unpleasant, but somewhat thin. I can see where honey would make a difference.

8. Wash the wheat grains. According to Esther, the wheat makes the drink more alcoholic.

9. Dry-fry the wheat, still moist, till dark brown. You need to stand over the grain in the frying pan, stirring constantly. As it dries and toasts, it turns quite dark and a smell something like popcorn rises from the pan. Esther smiled nostalgically and said,

"This is the smell of Ethiopia!"

10. Grind the toasted wheat coarsely – a coffee grinder works well.

11. Add the ground wheat to the Gesho water, plus remaining Bikil.

12. Stir and cover the bucket tightly. Allow to ferment another 2-3 days.

13. On Friday or Saturday, add water to the contents of the bucket. How much? Look at the contents of the bucket and judge how much is in there. It should be about 3 liters, but you really have to just look at it to tell. Add the same amount of water as the contents of the bucket. This is not going to be exact; I think that in Ethiopian kitchens this is done almost intuitively and that it won’t make a major difference if there is 1/2 liter or so difference. If you add too much water, you’ll get lower alcohol by volume, is all.

Leave 1 1/2 days.

At this point, what you have is "Tallah", the essence upon which Tej is based. The honey is for added fermentation and for flavor. The drink isn’t called Tej till the honey is added and fermented.

14. There will be a ton of sediment at the bottom of the bucket. It will look unappealing, like a thick pea soup. That’s just the way it is. Now strain the Tallah; use as fine a sieve as you have. This is a long and tedious process because of the great quantity of fine and coarse sediment. Allow the Tallah to settle for the rest of the day.

15. Siphon off the clear liquid and put into a clean bucket. You can drink the Tallah now if you wish, leaving some to make Tej with.

15. Add honey to taste: I added 3 cups and it was on the sour side, although not unpleasantly so. Esther was concerned that I use good quality honey; her mother uses honey with the honeycomb still in it, as they did in Ethiopia. She says that some people prefer their Tej much sweeter, although her family doesn’t.

16. Cover the bucket again, or put the Tej into a demijohn with an airlock. Either way, leave it 2-3 days (till Monday or Tuesday). I did rack the Tej into a carboy; it bubbled away fiercely for a day, then settled down. The sediment of course sank to the bottom.

The Tej is finally ready to drink. Its taste is unique, somewhat like Western beer but more sour, with the Gesho and semolina cake tastes coming through. If I make Tej again, I will add 4 cups of honey to the Tallah. The color is a cloudy yellow, like pineapple juice. My vinometer says that it has 16% ABV; I can say that Tej packs a nice little punch, for half a glass is enough for me as I sit tasting and typing, with plans to get some other things done pretty soon. I think it should be served chilled. A little warning: if kept more than a day in the fridge, the Tej will turn green. Harmless, but startling. Ethiopian grandmothers make Tej especially for events like weddings or other family gatherings; that is, to be drunk young and not stored for the future.

Esther was present when I bottled the Tej, and tasted it. She nodded in approval and said that it was authentic. Well! After all that effort, I should hope so. Will I make Tej again? Honestly, I don’t know. It’s tasty, but not so delicious to my palate that I would be willing to do all that again. Still it has been a fine adventure. If I just close my eyes while sipping my Tej, I feel as if wafted away to Ethiopia, birthplace of the Queen of Sheba, like her dark, beautiful, and legendary.

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