Fermentation of Beverages is a 5,000 years old tradition in India. Soma is the most talked about and most mysterious of the Indian beverages. The entire 9th Mandala in Rigveda (1700BC) is dedicated to Soma and it is elevated to the position of moon Goddess. In spite of this, nobody has been able to decipher the recipe, to date. From mushrooms to leafless shrubs, to flowers to cannabis, contenders are many but there is no conclusive evidence. Most experts believe that it was nonalcoholic psychedelic herbal juice extract. Hallucinogenic mystic brews are illegal, so let’s move our focus to recent history.
Afghan invaders introduced grapes in India in the 12th century. British merchant ships first introduced hopped beers in 1716 (IPA). Lack of safe drinking water ushered the fermentation revolution in most of the medieval world but India had potable water technology (perennial rivers and lotus stem cleansing). In addition to it, IMFL (western-style liquors like Whiskey, Vodka, Rum, and Gin) dominates the present-day Indian beverage industry. All these give the impression that traditional brews did not exist. BUT THAT IS NOT TRUE!
Kamandalu is the iconic oblong water-pot used by aesthetics and monks across Hinduism and Jainism. It is another example of water purification using Lacto-fermentation. The gourd (ripe pumpkin shell) harbors good bacteria, which cleanses the water. This is the reason why it is still an icon of simplicity, purity, and holy water. However, there has been a replacement of gourd shell with brass. Brass lacks the property of purifying water.
Indians across ages and cultures have been fermenting. The tradition of buttermilk (Majjige, Matha, Chach, and Takram), Lacto-fermented rice, and Kanji (fermented carrot juice) exists even today. Apart from that, we had a tradition of Kanjika (sour fermented gruel), Dhanyamla (amla gruel), Raga (generic name to sour fruits), Sadhava (thickened juices), and many more.
Drinks are usually an important part of every celebration. Festivals are one such occasion to indulge in the same. It also serves as an elixir for troops during battles. All these require the production of copious quantities at short notice, with portable equipment and limited ingredients. The abundance of fruits and multiple crops, throughout the year, provided many opportunities for a variety of brewing styles. Unlike our European counterparts, Indians could drink fresh brew throughout the year. This is one of the reasons why storage, aging, packaging, and long distance transportation technology didn’t develop much.
Ever wondered, why are so many girls named after ancient wines and liquor styles?
Ramayana and Mahabharata also have multiple references to wine drinking. Many sculptures and paintings of most ancient temples depict drinking scenes. People serve Pakhala (fermented rice water) to the deity at Jaganathpuri temple even today. Ancient Indian scriptures never vilified females consuming liquor. Some would instead state that the liquor enhances the charm of the woman by heightening her amorous disposition and rosiness of her complexion. Madhu (mead or honey wine) is a popular name for girls in India even today. Wines made from fermented flowers and aromatic grasses were called Parisutra. Fruit wines were called Kalika or Avadatika. Madira was usually referred to as high-quality wines and was given the same status as Madhu (meads). Sanskrit literature even refers to Kapisayani (white grape wine made from imported raisins) and Harahuraka (black raisins wines) which indicate a strong trade tie with the Middle East.
The recipes of Maireya looks similar to that of modern spirits. Tree bark of Mesashringi provided flavor to distilled liquor. Sudha was the wine made from the nectar of flowers and served in the celestial court of Indra. Sudha continues to be a common Indian name for girls. Shidhu talks about the use of red dhataki flowers to provide astringency and red tannins to the brews. Kadambari is another common woman name in India. It is a wine from kadamba flowers. The bark gives the wine called Divya. Jathi is an aromatic wine that comes from jasmine flowers.
Some other wines found in ancient sources include Avadakita (exotic wine) and Thallaka (palm toddy). Some exotic fruit wines worth mentioning are Jambu-asava (jamun wine), Shahakarasava, and Mahasava (mango wines), Kaula (ber wine). Sambharika refers to the root beer or spicy alcoholic drinks. Medhaka refers to liquor made from clouds, which probably refers to the process of distillation and condensation. While Svetasua is a kind of clear wine. Madhya (strong liquor), Shidhu (Indian sugarcane rum), are other such wines.
Some Traditional Alcohol that you can still buy
Various parts of India still preserve their own traditions of alcoholic beverages. Honey, Mahua flowers, Jaggery, and palm sap based traditional beverages can still be found in countryside. Mahua (Madhuca indica) is a unique white pearl-like flower, which grows on the tree. As per the traditions, we never pluck it but always allow it to fall on its own. We then collect it from the ground. Vedas refer to it as Varuni and it is still popular in east and central India as Handiya.
A huge proportion of the tribal population in Chhattisgarh and Madhya-Pradesh even now make their living by picking and processing these mahua flowers for various distilleries.
Similarly, Ribba village in Himachal, Shillong in Meghalaya, Coorg in Karnataka, and Goa have been trying to revive the craft beverage, tourist wines, and our traditions. However, lack of awareness, proper branding, and promotion is limiting their appeal in mainstream beverages.
Not only native ingredients were unique but also India’s processing style was ingenious. Farm to fork integrated factory and continuous brewing systems are modern terms for century’s old Indian crafts. Throughout the coastline, we can see the tapping of palm trees. Much like the maple syrup farming in Canada, you will find the earthen pots attached to trees to collect the fresh sap. The microbes in the terracotta pots ferment this sap to make a sweet-sour beverage called Thatti Kallu or Thadi depending on the region. In Tamil Nadu people call it Padaneer. A similar brew from Maharashtra is Toddy. It has crushed sugarcane. The distilled version of Thadi is Saarayam (Arrack). Sweet sorghum or the sap of the millet grass is also fermented in Andhra Pradesh, which is also consumed fresh.
General working-class Indians often abstained from drinking alcohol on a regular basis. Drinking is always a social event. We link it to festivities, celebrations, and victory. This is because our religion and heritage put a lot of emphasis on balance and moderation. Rigveda often vilified Sura (Strong liquor made from barley or rice flour). Indians are still, as a matter of fact, very secretive about their drinking habits and try to consume behind closed doors. Uncontrolled drunkenness is a taboo that can ruin families. This is one of the reasons why home brewing is still not very popular in India yet.
The diversity in the ingredients and styles suggests that there were craft brews catering to each stratum, occasion, and personality. Native books don’t talk much about cask-aging technology. This is because most beverages were freshly consumed. Like the Roman amphora, our homeland had ornate Surahi to serve liquor. Archeological digs have found heaps of single-use terracotta cups around ancient Madhushalas (bars).
Hops are not indigenous to our subcontinent but this did not stop us from making beers. Vedic beers would be very similar to the first Mesopotamian fermented porridges. We have multiple references to Masara (barley gruel), Prasanna (rice gruel), and Kilala (sweetened gruel). Some of these brews are still available. Tongba (millet gruel beer), brewed in Nepal, is very popular with the tourists. A trip to the northeast is incomplete without tasting Apong (rice beer) in Assam, Zutho (Indian Sake) by Angami Naga tribes, and Xaj (herbal rice wine) of Ahoms. Because of the rudimentary process and lack of branding indigenous rice wines (like Handia from Jharkhand, Ludi from Himachal, and Kesar Kasturi from Rajasthan) are getting extinct. While the world is moving towards artisanal craft brews, it is an agony to see Indians are leaning towards only branded IMFLs.