Amharic for “honey wine,” tej is an Ethiopian drink that kings, queens, and other royals have enjoyed for thousands of years. Negus Winery and Meadery, at 5509 Vine Street, Alexandria, Virginia, serves that same golden beverage, which Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, were served in Ethiopia while visiting Emperor Haile Selassie I in 1965.
Addis Ababa native and Springfield, Virginia-based Gize Negussie makes, bottles, and distributes the royal drink from his facility. The winery and meadery is a tiny operation with just seven people, including Negussie and his wife, Hermela Neguse. Opened in October, the tasting room features semi-sweet and semi-dry honey wine in served in either wine glasses or a large Ethiopian glass drinking vessel called a berele.
“There is no headache the next day; it’s mellow,” Negussie says. “It’s going to kind of give you a relaxation.”
Tej is an ancient, fermented spirit mostly made from raw honey, water, and wild yeast. Negussie calls it “a close cousin of mead,” and learned how to make it from his mother, Tekuam Hailu. She produces it at home in Ethiopia by hand, and serves it at weddings, during Ethiopian Christmas and Easter, and at other family gatherings. Branding his version Mama’s Honey Wine, Negussie brews it to taste like the beverage he remembers. The raw wildflower honey is sourced from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, because it comes closest to how traditional Ethiopian wine tastes. (His mother tasted and decided on the honey.)
The tasting room also offers red, white, and rosé grape wines, which are grown and produced in Purcellville, Virginia, and bottled for Negus Wines under its Melody brand. There are injera chips from Tsiona Foods in Rockville, Maryland, available and customers can also bring or order food from Ethiopian restaurants or Ethiopian-American fusion food trucks parked near the business. The 2,000-square-foot facility, which Negussie bills as the only tasting room in the United States serving honey wine, seats 60 people indoors and 42 outside.
Negussie ferments Mama’s Honey Wine in four Italian-made, stainless steel tanks for three to four months, then spends another two to three months aging it. After that, he filters and packages the final product, but tasting-room customers can also sample it from the aging tank, the strongest way to taste the honey.
Honey wine dates back to around 950 B.C. when Ethiopia’s Queen of Sheba brought it as a gift when she visited the Israelite King Solomon. They toasted each other with the tej she brought. “It used to be only a king or royal drink,” Negussie says.
Fittingly, royalty is a prominent theme at Negus Winery and Meadery. Negus means king or royal in Amharic, and the company logo features a lion sporting a crown. Negussie has also displayed several photographs of Haile Selassie I, who ruled Ethiopia from 1930 until 1974.
One of them shows the emperor with Queen Elizabeth II from her eight-day, official state visit to Ethiopia in 1965, her first such trip to East Africa since ascending to the throne in 1952. A menu from the state banquet shows that one of the courses included tej paired with doro wat and egg pearls.
Buckingham Palace did not respond to repeated emails about whether the Queen actually consumed the honey wine.
Fans of the now-shuttered Mélange location in Washington’s Mt. Vernon Square will recognize the furniture inside the tasting room. Negussie got the wooden tables, chairs, along with the traditional Ethiopian benches with blue cushions from Mélange’s Ethiopian-born owner and chef Elias Taddesse after Taddesse reopened the burger joint in Shaw as a carryout and delivery spot. Taddesse sold Negussie’s beer at Mélange.
Already, nearly 30 stores and Ethiopian restaurants stock his wine across the region, including Dukem in D.C., Sheba Ethiopian Restaurant in Maryland, and Balagger Ethiopian Restaurant and Bar in Virginia.
Before he made a name for himself slinging beverages, Negussie emigrated to the United States by way of Boston in 2011. He settled in San Francisco three years later to help manage his family’s limousine company, and frequently drove customers to hundreds of wineries, especially in Napa Valley and Sonoma County. Seeing that there weren’t any honey wineries there inspired him to get into the beverage business.
In 2018, he relocated to the D.C. area, because it has the largest concentration of Ethiopians outside of Africa. Negussie started out producing lager and teff beers from Manassas through his Negus Brewing Company — the teff beer used the same grain found in injera. But after the COVID-19 pandemic shutdowns hit in 2020, Negussie terminated production, forcing him to dump 100,000 bottles of expiring beer.
“It just was bad, it hurt me very hard and during that time, I thought that was the end of my beverage business,” he says. “I told my mom one time, ‘Hey, I don’t want to quit, but I want to take a different journey.’”
With her encouragement, Negussie returned to his honey-wine heritage in 2021, determined to make something with a shelf life longer than six months so he wouldn’t find himself in that situation again.
Looking ahead, Negussie hopes to grow a vineyard, launch a honey making operation with his own bees, and revive the beer portion of his business. Currently, Negussie ships his tej across the United States.
“It’s a great country,” Negussie said. “There is no limit to the dream that you are wishing, and I’ll never take it for granted.”