Brewing a Himalayan Tongba and Sorghum Chai Ale

By: Kevin Cullen: Archaeologist at DISCOVERY WORLD  Milwaukee, WI, USA

Ale Through The Ages Logo

The 29th Ale Through The Ages brewing session held in February 2013 at Discovery World, focused on the fermented beverages of the Himalayan Mountains.  Despite a poignantly timed snow storm that caused a postponement, we still had a nice turn out when we brewed two varieties of rare ales; a traditional Himalayan Tongba and a regionally-inspired Sorghum Chai Ale.

Himalayan Tongba Label

Tongba (also known as Chaang) is a millet-based fermented beverage indigenous the cultures of Eastern Nepal, Sikkim and Tibet.  Specifically, the Limbu people (roughly translates as “the bearer of bows and arrows”), brew and consume the fermented millet Tongba on a regular basis. There are several varieties of millet grains cultivated globally, due to its drought resistant properties. Finger millet (called Marwa in Nepali) is an annual plant of the grass family widely grown as a cereal crop in the Himalayan mountains of Nepal and India. Millet originated in East Asia and made its way from China to the Black Sea region of Europe around 7,000 years ago. Interestingly, it was once more commonly consumed than rice.

Women Drinking Tongba

Traditionally, the millet for Tongba is  fermented with a local yeast called murcha, which is a mixture of wild yeast and bacteria.  Murcha was impossible to find here in the United States, so Koji yeast was used instead to convert the millet starch into fermentable sugars.  Koji is used in sake production, which is a mycelium mold that converts sugars via an amylolysis enzymatic reaction.

Himalayan Tongba Ale Recipe_AttA_Feb2013

After two weeks sitting in sealed buckets, this fermented millet (jaand) was then put into 12 oz. bottles and capped.  It is ready to drink in a couple of weeks, at which time hot water is added to the Tongba and consumed with a straw while hot.   The result is a mildly alcoholic fermented beverage that has a pleasant aroma and a sour bread flavor profile. Much like tea, the Tongba can take several steeps of hot water before loosing its flavor and alcohol content.   This recipe is derived from first-hand experience, from when I first enjoyed Tongba while trekking in the Himalayas of eastern Nepal in December of 2000.

Himalayan Tongba imbibing in the Thirst Lab

The second batch of ale we brewed for this session was a Sorghum Chai Ale. The recipe was inspired by the ingredients native to the Himalayan mountain landscape of India, Nepal and into the Tibetan Plateau.  Brewed with Sorghum, Millet, Honey, Darjeeling Tea and Cardamom, this unique gluten-free ale is sure to conjure images of sherpa’s on mountain peaks, as you quaff this one-of-a-kind ale. 

Sorghum Chai Ale Label

Two yeast strains were used to ferment two 5 gallon carboys. One was a Sake yeast and the other was wild yeast obtained from first flush Darjeeling tea leaves.  The Sake yeast worked very efficiently to ferment the ale, however the wild yeast took several weeks longer to come to terminal gravity.  At 5.5 % ABV, the resulting ales were deliciously cider-like with hints of black tea and cardamom. Each yeast exhibited unique flavor profiles as a result of their provenance. Try your hand at brewing these unique ales at home and let us know how they turn out. As they say in Nepalese शुभ कामना Subhakamana , Cheers!

Sorghum Chai Ale Recipe



One Response to Brewing a Himalayan Tongba and Sorghum Chai Ale

  1. Kevin,
    My comment on the use of terminology Tongba & Chhang.
    Tongba is not chhang. Tongba is indegenous liquor of limboo people in eastern hills of Nepal. Chhang is liquor originated among Tamang of mid hills of Nepal- hinterlands of Kathmandu valley. To use alternatively and interchangeably- would be injustice to Tongba.

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