Soma is the most talked about and most mysterious of the Indian beverages. Even though the entire 9th Mandala in Rigveda (1700BC) is dedicated to Soma and it is elevated to the position of moon Goddess. Yet 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.
Grapes were introduced in India in the 12th Century by Afghan invasions. 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). All this coupled with the fact that the present-day Indian beverage industry is dominated by IMFL (western-style liquors like Whiskey, Vodka, Rum, and Gin) gives the impression that traditional brews did not exist. BUT THAT IS NOT TRUE!
Kamandalu, the iconic oblong water-pot used by aesthetics and monks across Hinduism and Jainism 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, the gourd shell is replaced with brass, which lacks the property of purifying water.
But as we can see from the chart on the next page, 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 and festivals are one of such occasions to indulge in the same. It also serves as elixir for troops during battles. All these require copious quantities to be produced at short notice, with portable equipment and limited ingredients. Abundance of fruits and multiple crops in a year, provided many opportunities for variety of brewing styles throughout the year. Unlike our European counterparts, Indians could drink fresh brew throughout the year. This is one of the reason why storage, ageing, packaging and long distance transportation technology was underdeveloped.
Ever wondered, why are so many girls named after ancient wines and liquor styles?
Ramayana and Mahabharata also have multiple references to wine drinking. Drinking scenes were depicted in sculptures and paintings of most ancient temples. Pakhala (fermented rice water) is served 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.
Recipes of Maireya looks similar to that of modern spirits. The distilled liquor was flavored using tree bark of Mesashringi and spiced or sweetened. Sudha was the wines made from the nectar of flowers and served in the celestial court of Indra. The technology might be lost but 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, wine from kadamba flowers, is another common women name in India but wines made from the bark were called Divya. Jathi is aromatic wine made 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 supposed to be a clear wine. Madhya (strong liquor), Shidhu (Indian sugarcane rum), and many more.
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 the various countryside. Mahua (Madhuca indica) is a unique white pearl-like flower, which grows on the tree. As per the traditions, it is never plucked but always allowed to fall on its own and collected from the ground. Vedas refer to it distill 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 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 palm trees being tapped. 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 it is called Padaneer. A similar brew made in Maharashtra from crushed sugarcane is called Toddy. The distilled version of Thadi is called 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 was always a social event linked 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. Since most beverages were freshly consumed, cask-aging technology was not much talked about in native books. 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) is 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) brewed 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.