An Ethiopian Honey Wine Specialist Opens an Alexandria Tasting Room

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Negus Winery and Meadery owner Gize Negussie uses his mom’s recipe for tej.

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Gize Negussie opened his tej tasting room to the public in October. Photograph by Habtamu Seyum.

Honey wine was among the first alcoholic beverages human beings ever consumed. Mead has long been popular in parts of Europe, but in the DC area’s Ethiopian community, the largest outside of the country itself, the fermented honey drink of choice is tej.

Gize Negussie, who began producing tej for local Ethiopian restaurants in 2020, opened a honey wine tasting room in Alexandria in October. With Negus Winery and Meadery, he hopes to win over new fans of the sunny golden elixir that has had a loyal following in Ethiopia for thousands of years.

“If you offer Ethiopians grape wine and honey wine, they’ll pick the honey wine,” Negussie says. “When we gather, when we celebrate, honey wine is always on the table.”

Negussie learned how to make tej from his mother, who fermented it at home like many Ethiopians. The process is as simple as booze-making gets. He fills four enormous steel tanks with a solution of honey from Lancaster, Pennsylvania and water, and lets it ferment for several months with a proprietary blend of yeast. Then he removes the yeast to stop fermentation, and the tej moves to another tank for a three-month aging period. Traditionally, tej makers often use the leaves and stems of the gesho shrub for flavor, but US regulators don’t allow the plant. Negussie’s special yeast mimics some of the plant’s bitter flavor. 

The results are as likely to interest fans of dry cider and natural wine as they are to please mead aficionados. Negus’s semi-sweet tej has all the floral, syrupy flavor of fresh honey, while the semi-dry bottling has more of the funk and savoriness of beer. 

You can try the bottled version of Negussie’s tej, sold as Mama’s Honey Wine, at some of DC’s best Ethiopian restaurants: Elfegne, Chercher, and Das, among others. That product is filtered to ensure a long shelf life, but trying the unfiltered tej straight from the barrel at the Negus tasting room is the best way to taste the full honey flavor. 

Negussie’s tej is sold in many of DC’s Ethiopian restaurants. Photograph by Misikir Kebede.

Negus is not the first American producer of Ethiopian-style honey wine—there are tej makers in New York and California. But Negussie believes that the new tasting room, where he offers flights of both tej and Virginia red and white wines, along with snacks like injera crisps, is the only tej tasting room in the US. If so, Northern Virginia would be a fitting place for it: the state is home to around 30,000 Ethiopian immigrants.

Negussie had lived for several years in the Bay Area, where he ran a limo business. He developed an interest in wineries while driving customers to Napa and Sonoma wine country, and hatched a plan to move to the DC area and enter the booze business. He initially brewed teff beer, but when the pandemic hit, the beer’s short shelf life became an issue. In the end, he returned to his mother’s recipe for tej, with only minor modifications. 

For now, Negus’s location is not exactly the stuff of destination wineries: an industrial street lined with auto wrecking yards, sandwiched between the Van Dorn Street Metro station and the Beltway. But those two transportation options make it easy to get there—and to take the Blue Line home if you get carried away with the honey wine.

5509 Vine St., Alexandria

Ike Allen

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