Sheba Tej: America’s Favorite Ethiopian Honey Wine

Above: Sheba Tej Tasting Session at Tsiona Gallery in Harlem, New York

By Tseday Alehegn

In the hamlet of Washingtonville, New York, lies the scenic campus
of Brotherhood Winery, a national historic landmark and America’s oldest
winery, established in 1837. According to the Washingtonville Village
Historian, Edward J. McLaughlin III, the original owner John Jacques “had
planted a vineyard in the rear yard of his lumber business store, shipping
the harvest of grapes to the Isles of Manhattan for 15 cents a pound.”
When the price of grapes fell, Jacques experimented with pressing the fruit
into juice and started producing wine. Subsisting on the sale of sacramental
wine during the prohibition years, Brotherhood Winery continued its
winemaking legacy.

Today Brotherhood Winery is a popular site for tourists, producing a wide assortment of award-wining wines, including Chardonnay, Johannisberg Riesling, Seyval Blanc, Chelois, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Pinot Noir. Under the supervision of Cesar Baeza, an internationally-renowned Chilean winemaster and new owner of Brotherhood Winery, a new dessert wine called Sheba Tej made from pure organic honey is now part of the premium wine list. Although the honey wine may be newly introduced to the Hudson Valley, Ethiopians have known it for centuries as “Tej”.

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Brotherhood Winery, a national historic landmark and America’s oldest winery, established in 1837

Tej, or honey wine, is one of the world’s earliest fermented drinks, mentioned in ancient texts and scriptures, and consumed before the time of Christ. Traditionally, in Ethiopia, Tej was prepared primarily by women. In his book A Social History of Ethiopia, Historian Richard Pankhurst writes, “None except nobility and the highest chiefs and warriors were privileged to drink Tej.”

The honey wine’s popularity, all the same, surpassed the environs of the royal courts to be enjoyed by all sectors of ancient and modern Ethiopian society. Tej became a favorite during feasts and celebrations, notably weddings. The unique wine recipe contains no sulfites nor grapes, just pure honey. Legend even has it that Tej was one of the many gifts carried by Makeda, the Queen of Sheba, to Jerusalem’s King Solomon.

Honey wine was also known as mead and enjoyed in other parts of the ancient world. According to S. W. Andrews’ accounts of mead and meadmaking, in classical Greek mythology, the ‘Nectar of the Gods’ was a honey concoction known as Melitites; and the term “honeymoon” refers to the old tradition of newly weds drinking wine and feasting on honey cakes for one lunar month after their marriage, in the hopes that their actions would make their union more fertile.

America’s oldest winery began producing one of the world’s oldest wines after an African American entrepreneur, Ernest McCaleb, met and initiated a joint collaboration with Brotherhood Winery. McCaleb is founder and CEO of Sheba, Inc., a company focusing on the production and distribution of organic Ethiopian honey wine. Prior to founding Sheba, Inc., McCaleb had spent significant time conducting and financing highly successful import/export businesses in Ghana, Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Senegal, Cameroon, Gabon and Sierra Leone. His corporate offices were located on Wall Street in New York City and Western Avenue in Lagos, Nigeria, and his import/export financing company generated over $250 million in sales of cement, rice, sugar,and other commodities to governments and major businesses in West Africa.

A chance meeting with an Ethiopian in Paris gave rise to his eventual introduction to Ethiopian honey wine. Having a great passion for Africa, its diversity, traditions, and history, McCaleb continued on his entrepreneurial quest and established Sheba in 2003 with the sole purpose of producing authentic honey wine according to ancient Ethiopian traditions. To that end, he arranged for three generations of Ethiopian women — a mother, her daughter and granddaughter — to travel from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia to New York’s Brotherhood Winery to demonstrate how Tej is prepared. Winemaster Baeza studied how this first batch of Sheba Tej was made. The careful end product was a naturally fermented, organic drink with a pleasing golden yellow hue — an ancient, spicy, semi-dry, full-bodied wine. The aroma of honey and wild flower permeated the air, and the Tej was joyously tasted by Baeza and the employees of Brotherhood Winery in conjunction with a hearty meal of Injera and Wot prepared by the three Ethiopian women.

Since then, Sheba Tej, produced at Brotherhood Winery has won awards at international honey wine festivals, and is distributed in many stores across the U.S. and the Caribbean. “Since I’ve begun doing this,” McCaleb says, “I’ve learned more about this rich history, and as I give tasting sessions I have become even more inspired. This is beyond the commercial success. It’s about pride and heritage, which those women taught us when they came to Brotherhood Winery.”

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Above: Ernest McCaleb, Founder & CEO of Sheba, Inc.

The nutritional benefits and health promoting agents in honey itself are to be marveled. Honey, when stored properly, can remain edible for centuries, having almost no expiration date. According to a recent study conducted by Gross Market Research for the National Honey Board, four out of five households in America use honey in various capacities — as a sweetener, source of carbohydrate, anti-oxidant, skin cleanser, and even as an antiseptic to heal burns and wounds. Pure honey contains several important vitamins, including Thiamin, Riboflavin, Niacin, Folate, Vitamin B-6, and Vitamin C. Numerous essential minerals, such as Calcium, Iron, Zinc, Potassium, Phosphorus, Magnesium, Selenium, Copper, and Manganese, are also contained in honey. Honey continues to be used to alleviate symptoms of allergies, anemia and several chronic diseases, including asthma and high blood pressure.

Sheba Tej — prepared from pure, organic honey and preserved without the use of sulfites — retains the nutritional qualities of honey while at the same time making for an excellent wine with meals, or alone as an aperitif.

By producing and introducing Sheba Tej to the world, McCaleb and Brotherhood Winery are not only sharing in Ethiopia’s rich heritage but also fusing together the oldest tradition of winemaking in America with the ancient culture of preparing honey wine in Ethiopia. Their efforts have strengthened American and Ethiopian ties and, in the process, brought the famous ‘Nectar of the Gods’ to your dining table.

So uncork a bottle of Sheba Tej, pour generously into your cups, raise them, and proclaim the traditional Ethiopian toast, “Le tenachin!” To our health!

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About the Author:
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Tseday Alehegn is the Editor-in-Chief of Tadias Magazine. Tseday is a graduate of Stanford University (both B.A. & M.A.). In addition to her responsibilities at Tadias, she is also a Doctoral student at Columbia University.
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If you would like to be considered as a potential distributor of Sheba Tej in your state, or would like to carry Sheba Tej in your restaurant, call 646.920.3211.

20 Responses to “Sheba Tej: America’s Favorite Ethiopian Honey Wine”


  1. 1 DQ May 9th, 2007 at 8:24 pm

    Great article. I liked the historical aspects of the article. Although I’ve visited Ethiopia a few times, I never tried Tej until I went to an Ethiopian restaurant in NY. Now I wish I had tried it sooner, it’s wonderful. Now the big question, can you recommend any distributors in either NY or DC?

    Thanks,
    DQ

  2. 2 Bev Jones Jun 30th, 2007 at 5:19 am

    Where can I purchase a bottle of the honey wine? I had it at MAKEDA’s restaurant in New Brunswick, New Jersey last night.

  3. 3 Dorothy Vincent Jul 5th, 2007 at 5:13 pm

    you can buy it at this website….i lovvvvvvvvvveee that wine….it is the best and the number one in my books…

    http://nywinecork.com/mm5/merchant.mvc?Screen=PROD&Store_Code=NYWC&Product_Code=039295004301&Category_Code=Mead

  4. 4 Cecil Charles Jul 13th, 2007 at 3:17 pm

    Where can I buy a good bottle of Tej

  5. 5 piere leon Jul 24th, 2007 at 7:41 pm

    own a gallery in down town atlanta,and would love to have a wine tasting of the honey wine in the the gallery.
    can somebody get back to me please.
    Here’s my info:
    tel:404-551-3402
    e-mail adress
    emergencegalleryatlanta@yahoo.com
    thanks

  6. 6 Sanju Patel Jul 26th, 2007 at 3:22 pm

    I live in Dallas, Texas. Where can I purchase honey wine?

  7. 7 betty Oct 12th, 2007 at 10:29 am

    We drank the homemade Tej in Lalibela, Ethiopia at the local “bar”. It was THE best!

  8. 8 BOBBI HUMPHREY Dec 11th, 2007 at 7:55 pm

    Rest in Peace, my dear Ernie. You sweetened the times with your smile, and your Honey wine. Always,Bobbi Humphrey

  9. 9 Joseph Jamene Dec 14th, 2007 at 4:21 am

    Dearest Tseday Alehegn.It is great to read the story of Sheba Tej a place many people loved and would continue to love.Your stories are well composed,selected and researched as well as marked for higher degree of test to life style.

  10. 10 Magpie HoneyWine Feb 4th, 2008 at 4:27 pm

    Magpie Farms has a great Mead, or Honeywine. It is all-natural, with NO SULPHITES, no sugar, no corn syrup. Only real honey. Winner of 5 medals. Available in pure Honey Mead, Elderberry Mead, Red Raspberry Mead, Boysenberry Mead, Black Raspberry Mead, Blueberry Mead and Strawberry Mead. Check it out at Magpiemead.com. Enjoy!

  11. 11 jaumack Apr 6th, 2008 at 8:00 pm

    I have had this wine in Asmara when we lived there and at the Queen of Sheeba in NY. Can you tell me where I can purchase it in New Jersey. (Central New Jersey)?
    TIA,
    JOAN

  12. 12 Vance Bocas Aug 28th, 2008 at 11:57 am

    Is there really no place an individual can purchase this fabulous wine online? It’s retailing at the Queen of Sheba restaurant in Miami, Florida for $36 and the Nile restaurant in Orlando, Florida (they wouldn’t give me the price over the phone), but I fell in the love with this wine the moment my wife introduced me to it and I can’t find it to purchase it in West Palm Beach, Florida. Any suggestions? I tried the link in one of the previous replies but that no longer works.

  13. 13 liben Aug 28th, 2008 at 1:01 pm
  14. 14 Fiseha Shenkute Oct 9th, 2008 at 8:29 am

    Dear Tseday,

    I am living in Addis Ababa. I’ve a new “brand” which is similar to Tej. But the ingredients are different. It is made from pure honey & water plus a type of yeast known as “BOCKA” which ferments the drink.

    The drink “bocka” has some features.
    - When you drink bocka you will get hungry. So that it is an appetizer.
    - It has no “GESHO”
    -It has testful and very good flavour.

    I would like to export it if anyone is interested on it.

    For more information please contact me at mobile number 251-91-1418064 or e-mail: fisehashenk@yahoo.com

    Addis Ababa
    With regards,

  15. 15 Isabel Nov 29th, 2008 at 9:42 pm

    To Vance Bocas: I live in Miami and here you can find Sheba Tej at Whole Foods for $16.00 bottle.
    I tasted it today & felt in love at once. Great wine…thank you Ethiopia and thank you Ernest McCaleb for bringing it to us.

  16. 16 Shaun Feb 4th, 2009 at 1:31 am

    Found this site where (you can buy Sheba Tej) for anyone interested: http://www.vintagecellar.com

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