It’s time to talk about what’s going on in the magical mountain kingdom of Bhutan.
Bhutan has craft beer. In fact, Bhutan has very good craft beer, both traditional beer and modern American-style craft beer, and yes, it’s surprising because no one thinks of Bhutan when they think of beer.
The depth of Bhutan’s indigenous brewing culture should remind us to shed our Eurocentric views and to move beyond the narrow categorization of what we consider “craft beer.” Beer is not a uniquely European thing. The origins of beer are in fact in Asia, but not as most people believe in Mesopotamia/West Asia but in China.
Ancient Chinese brewing traditions are still practiced throughout Asia, which is why in Bhutan, millet, an ancient regional staple grain, as well as rice and buckwheat, is fermented into beer. Wheat, barley, and corn are also used, depending on what grows well in the village.
The real magic in the Bhutanese beer is the yeast, which is made from plant materials coupled with a starter culture (“mother yeast”), which has mysterious and ancient origins.
Traditional beer in Bhutan is not for daily drinking. For daily drinking, the Bhutanese people drink macrobrewed lagers, mainly malt liquors reminiscent of their Indian counterparts. These are terrible but they are cheap and easier to come by than the traditional brews.
On special occasions like archery tournaments and Buddhist festivals, the traditional beers are served. They are all technically homebrew because the beer is not legally allowed to be sold. It must be gifted.
The precepts of the Eightfold Path do seem to preclude intoxication, but they do not deny people the right to drink on occasion or in moderation. Buddhism is also a philosophy of the Middle Path.
There are two types of traditional beer in Bhutan: bang chang, and sin chang. The difference between sin chang and bang chang is not the ingredients used, but in the process.
Both bang chang and sin chang start the same way:
- Take whatever grain/buckwheat/corn is available. Cook it in boiling water.
- Sprinkle the special yeast on top of the cooked grains.
- Cover with plastic or a blanket of leaves.
- Wait as long as it takes for it to ferment, usually after several days.
After fermentation, the brewer makes sin chang and bang chang.
Sin chang is the initial yield of the fermented grains, which actually produce their own liquids during the process of fermentation.
The sin chang can and often is distilled into “ara,” (arak).
Bang Chang is a second press of the fermented grains. You have to add water (warm or room temperature) to the grains and then mush it all up and press it, straining it through a special scoop. It’s a weaker and cloudier brew than sin chang, and often contains sediment.
Modern Craft Beer
There are currently 3 modern craft breweries in Bhutan:
- Red Panda
- Ser Bhum
Red Panda was the first modern craft brewery in Bhutan. It was started by Swiss expatriates, who then left the brewery in Bhutanese hands. Their flagship wheat beer/weissbier is the only one they brew. Although it’s not flawless, there are worse weissbiers in Germany.
Ser Bhum was my favourite of all the craft beers in Bhutan. They only make a few beers right now, a stout, amber, and IPA, the latter of which was unfortunately unavailable at the time. However, the stout and amber were both excellent. The stout was particularly good, a textbook perfect dry Irish stout.
Namgay has tremendous potential. They are making a variety of beers with local ingredients and creative vision. Their IPA is very good. As with Ser Bhum, the brewery is Bhutanese-owned with Indian brewing talent.
Gender and Beer
Bhutan is a patriarchal society with strict gender roles. Women are not allowed into the inner sanctums of temples but they are fully in charge all the brewing arts, as well as weaving. Men can help a little but the women do all the work, even lifting the heavy pots filled with the cooked grains (which they do barehanded, without any oven mitt).
All traditional brewers are in fact elder/postmenopausal women who pass on the knowledge to future generations of women in the family.
On the other hand, all the modern craft brewers in Bhutan are young men.
Pretty much the same pattern has played out in European brewing cultures, where women/alewives were in charge of the brewery in the olden days versus now where women are strongly outnumbered by men.
How Does it Taste?
I’m not just saying this to be polite. Bang chang and sin chang, they both taste great, so good that we never turned down an offer for more; and we usually got a few bottles to go so that we could drink it again later.
The taste varied depending on the ingredients and the brewer, but some of the predominant flavors included fruity acidity and mushroomy earthiness. There were no off-flavors, surprisingly–no diacetyl, thankfully–and even though there is a “farmhouse funk,” it did not come in the form of pediococcus or other familiar bacteria. Bang chang is occasionally on the gritty side texturally because it is pressed. Neither bang chang nor sin chang have much in the way of carbonation.
Although yeast is pitched, wild yeast is making its way into the brew. Between the funk and the low carbonation, there is some similarity between bang chang/sin chang and lambic.
Bhutanese farmhouse beer is not commercially available by law, so it will never become the “new lambic.” And Bhutan is a difficult and expensive country to visit, making it off the radar for most beer drinkers. But anyone who happens to be going to Bhutan anyway will be sure to enrich their overall experience by asking their guide to help them explore or acquire bang chang and/or sin chang.
Love and Barley loves the barley in Bhutan.