Food & DrinkFood Features

Ethiopian and Yemeni Coffee Shops Offer Traditional Options on Central Avenue

From authentic coffee rituals to cuisine and sweet treats

pasty from Haraz
Croissant, tiramisu and coffee from Haraz Coffee House (Photo courtesy of Haraz Coffee House)

Separated by just 70 miles despite being located on separate continents, Ethiopia and Yemen are known not only as the home of some of the most popular coffee beans in the world, they are considered the birthplace of all coffee.

Steeped in centuries-old traditions and influenced by unique climates, these two countries have continued to influence the way people cultivate, brew and serve coffee around the world.

Ethiopian and Yemeni coffees boast distinct flavor profiles that have captivated people since the bean was discovered in Ethiopia sometime around the 12th century. From the fruity, floral notes of Ethiopian coffee to the deep, earthy undertones of Yemeni brews, each sip savors the rich history and culture of its respective home country.

Along Charlotte’s Central Avenue corridor, considered one of the most diverse areas in the city, coffee connoisseurs can now find examples of both within just over a mile of one another.

Located at each end of Plaza Midwood — one technically in Elizabeth and the other in Country Club Heights — these two coffee shops provide an opportunity for Charlotte residents to experience coffee the way it’s been served for hundreds of years.

Traditional Turkish coffee shop Haraz Coffee House opened its first location in Dearborn, Michigan in April 2021 and has rapidly expanded since, opening locations in six states across the country. The newest location celebrated its grand opening on Central Avenue in Plaza Midwood in February.

Just down the street, Abugida Ethiopian Cafe & Restaurant has been serving authentic Ethiopian cuisines and carrying out Ethiopian coffee ceremonies for Charlotteans since 2016.

We visited both to learn more about the cultural significance of their respective coffees, chat with the owners and check out what menu items are worth checking out.

Comparing arabica and robusta beans

Most commercial coffee production is based on two plant species, Coffea arabica L. (arabica coffee) and C. canephora (robusta coffee). All species within the genus Coffea are of tropical African origin.

The natural population of C. arabica are restricted to the montane forests of southwestern Ethiopia. Documentation of the first domestication of arabica coffee in Ethiopia is uncertain, though legend credits the discovery to a goat herder named Kaldi who noticed that his goats would run and dance through the night after eating coffee beans.

The earliest written evidence of coffee cultivation in Yemen appeared in the 12th century.

Arabica coffee is cultivated at medium-to-high altitudes in equatorial regions or low to medium altitudes further from the equator, due to the average daily temperatures being colder. Cooler climates typically make for better cup qualities of arabica coffees, but if the weather is too cold, it can kill the plant entirely.

Robusta coffee requires warm and humid climates and are typically found in tropical lowlands and foothills.

The coffee ceremony experience

Coffee rituals are performed all around the world and are often a source of connection with those in the community.

traditional ethiopian coffee at abugida ethiopian cafe
Abugida Ethiopian Cafe (Photo by Nellie Shortreed)

In Ethiopia, a Habesha ceremony is performed three times a day. A cultural custom in Ethiopia and Eritrea, the Habesha coffee ceremony is a routine of serving coffee while gathering with relatives, neighbors and friends over a spread of loose grass and small yellow flowers. Traditionally, the ceremony is performed by the woman of the household and is considered to be a great honor.

To start, a person roasts the green coffee beans over an open flame in a pan, then grinds the roasted beans in a mortar and pestle. The coffee grounds are put into a vessel containing boiling water, which is left over an open flame for a few minutes until the water and grounds are well-mixed.

The grounds are then brewed three times and poured into handleless cups from a height of 1 foot without stopping until each cup is full. Some people add sugar, salt or butter to their coffee, depending on their preference, which can change based on what region they live in or originally come from.

The coffee is also accompanied by a small snack such as popcorn, peanuts or ambasha, a slightly sweet Ethiopian and Eritrean celebration bread.

The ceremony is usually performed three times a day, the third being a bestowment of blessing. A transformation of the spirit is said to take place throughout the day if all coffee ceremonies are held, leading to the completion of ‘Abol’ (first round), ‘Tona’ (second round) and ‘Baraka’ (third round).

In Turkey, coffee ceremonies, which originated in the 16th century, can be held in or out of the home. What makes Turkish coffee rituals unique is not where it is performed, rather how it is prepared. Turkish coffee typically has a strong, aromatic kick due to the use of unfiltered grounds. When prepared properly, a thick layer of foam rests on top.

The Turkish coffee ceremony involves grinding freshly roasted coffee beans into a fine powder. The grounds are then mixed with sugar and cold water in a cezves, a small pot typically made of brass or copper with a long handle and pouring lip, before being boiled.

The coffee is served unfiltered, the grounds adding body and a bolder flavor. Once it is finished, it is common practice to turn the cup over the saucer, allowing the remaining grinds to settle on it so the host/hostess may interpret their fortune, similar to the reading of tea leaves in other cultures.

Expanding options in the city

Haraz Coffee House owner Hamzah Nasser is a first-generation immigrant from Yemen who built his company as a way to honor his family’s heritage.

Haraz specializes in traditional Yemeni coffee and bites, using organic, sun-dried coffee beans from the Haraz Mountains in Yemen’s lower West Coast region. Haraz serves a variety of traditional Yemeni-inspired coffee, lattes and teas as well as Turkish coffee by the pot. The establishment also offers a variety of pastries such as tiramisu coffee cake, Istanbul cheesecake, Turkish mosaic cakes and stuffed round croissants.

“I never expected this much support from the Charlotte community, especially from the Plaza Midwood community,” said Saeed Saleh, who opened Haraz Coffee House’s first Charlotte location at 1204 Central Ave.

“I see people coming from Greensboro, I see people coming from as far as Raleigh just for a visit to try out a new, traditional type of coffee. It’s something unique to the city and it’s amazing to see how many different types of ethnicities, different types of nationalities coming to one place over a cup of coffee.”

The Haraz Adeni Chai from Haraz Coffee House. (Photo courtesy of Haraz Coffee House via Facebook)

About 1.4 miles east of Haraz Coffee House at 3007 Central Ave. is Abugida Ethiopian Cafe & Restaurant. The small, standalone establishment offers Ethiopian teas and coffee, including a coffee ceremony, with a variety of authentic Ethiopian dishes made from scratch, including vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free items.

Abugida’s coffee ceremony is more relaxed than the traditional Habesha ceremony, but still follows customary routing in honor of its cultural significance.

For example, Abugida’s ceremony is accompanied by burning incense. The smoke from the incense not only adds an aromatic experience but is said to carry bad spirits away. The coffee is accompanied by a dish of sugar to sweeten it up, if desired, and we recommend getting an order of sambusa (meat or lentil) if you’re feeling hungry.

“[You’re] supposed to sit down and enjoy your moment and have that coffee because that’s what we do back home,” said Yodite Mengesha, Abugida’s owner. “When we have coffee, people are sitting, having conversation. It could be for like three minutes, four minutes, but you just sit down and enjoy that moment.” 

Ethiopian coffee can be hard to find, but there are other options beyond Abugida in Charlotte, including Nile Ethiopian Restaurant & Grocery, Red Sea Grocery and Queen Sheba.

There are not many Yemeni coffee places in Charlotte, but Charlotte City Council recently approved the lease for a new establishment called Qamaria in the JW Clay parking deck in University City.

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