Every Sunday at 2 p.m., a small, sleepy cafe in a secluded Denver neighborhood hosts one of the most cultural and unique experiences happening in our city. Whittier Cafe, owned by Ethiopian local Millete Birhanemaskel, invites people from all walks of life to gather for a weekly Ethiopian coffee ceremony. Ethiopians and non-Ethiopians alike sit on a cozy patio to chat while the smell of roasting coffee beans wafts from a small stove in the corner. On a small stage sits Yifta Hagos, a friend of Birhanemaskel who frequently conducts this traditional ceremony. Birhanemaskel’s goal is simple: to create a chance for Denver’s Ethiopian community as well as locals to come share in the culture surrounding Ethiopian coffee. 3o3 Magazine took the opportunity to experience this tradition, and would like to highly encourage you to experience it for yourself.
Read on to get five reasons why you should venture out of your coffee comfort zone and check out Whittier Cafe for this very special event:
1. It’s free!
At Whittier Cafe, they ask only for an optional small donation of $1 per cup ($3 for all three rounds of coffee) for those partaking in the ceremony. Birhanemaskel wanted to open up a place to teach people about the culture of coffee, and she says she didn’t want to demand that people pay for it. She likes the idea of an open ceremony where Ethiopians can gather for a sense of home and everyone else can come experience Ethiopian culture.
If you’re a big coffee fanatic, this a good way to get to know the history behind your favorite drink. Because according to “A History of Coffee” by Reginald F. Smith, Coffea arabica, the wild coffee plant, is indigenous to Ethiopia and was first discovered there in the year 850 A.D.. Later, other species of coffee were discovered in various countries in Africa. The discovery legend tells a tale of when a goat herder named Kaldi noticed his goats did not want to sleep after eating these small beans. Kaldi took the beans to an abbot who made a drink from them and discovered he stayed alert for many hours of prayer. The reputation of the energizing beans spread first throughout Ethiopia, then to the Arabian Peninsula, and eventually to Europe and the rest of the world. (Fun fact: Kaladi Coffee Roasters here in Denver is named after this tale).
This is, of course, a legend, but in all likelihood the first coffee trees were discovered in Ethiopia, and many of the people who originally brewed coffee, did so with open fires and clay pots. Birhanemaskel wanted to share this traditional culture with people in Denver, so she created a space where people can come and watch this ceremony unfold.
According to Birhanemaskel and other Ethiopian cultural sources, coffee ceremonies are a daily event in Ethiopian homes, which is no small feat considering they last around two hours. This ritual is also held when special guests are visiting, and they represent a certain rite of passage for Ethiopian children who start participating in the ceremonies around age 10.
The experience at Whittier is meant to provide a glimpse into this ritual and even offers private ceremonies for families that have adopted Ethiopian children.
“There are so many Africans in Denver, but there’s not really a space to share the culture,” she explained. “People think about Africa, and they think about negative things like poverty, so I was really intentional about teaching people something beautiful about Africa.” She has plans to landscape the patio with tall grass and banana trees to create a pleasant and traditionally African, specifically Ethiopian, atmosphere for people to experience.
4. It’s the only Ethiopian coffee shop in Denver.
“By naming it after the neighborhood, it was my way of saying, ‘Yes this is your coffee shop; this is Whittier’s coffee shop'”- Millete Birhanemaskel, owner of Whittier Cafe
While there are a couple Ethiopian restaurants (such as Africana Cafe) that will do a small coffee ceremony for its customers, Whittier Cafe is the only Ethiopian coffee shop in Denver, and the only place where you can enjoy this ceremony every week. This is a cafe centered around giving back to the people. Birhanemaskel named the coffee shop Whittier Cafe because she loved how her regular customers considered the place to be their own coffee shop.
“By naming it after the neighborhood, it was my way of saying, ‘Yes this is your coffee shop; this is Whittier’s coffee shop,'” said Birhanemaskel. The coffee shop really is a neighborhood product as local artists, carpenters, and landscapers have worked to make it what it is: a comfortable spot for people looking to connect with one another.
5. It’s a skill you can learn and share with others.
On June 20 and June 21, Whittier Cafe will celebrate its first anniversary by hosting a fun event to commemorate the milestone. On the first day, Birhanemaskel will lead guests in a class teaching the steps and the important elements of the coffee ceremony. On the second day, guests will learn how to make a traditional Ethiopian chai tea. The cafe sells jebenas and the small coffee cups from the ceremony if people are interested in carrying on this tradition on their own. If you don’t want to learn the ceremony yourself, you can just stop by to enjoy music, coffee and the fun community at this celebration. Information about this event is will be posted on Whittier’s Facebook page, and its website (scheduled to be up later this week).
What you should know before going….
The whole ceremony lasts about two hours, but it is open to people coming and going as they please. There are three rounds of coffee which get less strong each time so you can decide which level of caffeine you’re looking for. The coffee is similar to espresso, served in a small cup with a substantial amount of sugar, so be prepared for quite a buzz. The strong flavor is very smooth and offset by its sweetness, making it a very pleasant drink. There is popcorn available, but only a small handful per guest so expect more of a snack than a meal.
Most importantly, this is a casual ceremony, around which people will sit around quietly chatting or doing work on their laptops, like most cafe experiences. The atmosphere is not intimidating, making it a great opportunity to stop by and meet new people or read a book while Hagos and Birhanemaskel make you some delicious traditional coffee.
All photography by Glenn Ross.