Brewing in the Land of the Thunder Dragon: The Farmhouse Beer Culture of Buddhist Bhutan

Feature by | Sep 2017 | Issue #128
Aun Namgay cooks bagels from grain and leaves that carry the yeast and bacteria necessary for fermentation. | Photos by Martin Thibault

Silence. Then, birds chirping. A few prayer flags flutter in the wind. It’s nearly all you hear when crossing over into eastern Bhutan from India. It’s as striking as driving from a bustling megalopolis into the tranquility of a national park. Which, in a way, is what you are doing when entering this mountainous Buddhist kingdom by land. Indeed, more than 40 percent of the country’s entire area consists of protected nature reserves, from the tropical jungles in the south to the mighty summits of the Himalayas in the north. And this is the setting for one of the planet’s last Shangri-Las for farmhouse brewing.

Shangri-La is no mere metaphor. Bhutanese people, their beloved and benevolent monarchy, and their newly-appointed democratic government, all seem intent on making their land an oasis where all creatures can live peacefully, away from the chaos and cacophony of surrounding countries. Here, in a place with one of the most serene national anthems on the planet, about 70 percent of all vegetables are organic, and the few pesticides used will be eradicated in the next five years if the government has its way. No animal can be killed in Bhutan, either, so most cows, horses, and wild boars roam free, quietly grazing the countryside. Signs throughout the country even value the skills of the artisan as a means to achieving gross national happiness, a concept supposed to be more important than any gross national product.

The great majority of farmers—and there are hundreds of thousands here, since close to 80 percent of the population is involved in agriculture—are self-sufficient. They make their own dairy products and grow their own produce and cereal crops—red rice in particular. In the eastern third of the country, the typical farmhouse will also brew beers from maize. Elsewhere, wheat is king. So, Bang Chang and Sin Chang, the nation’s two types of farmhouse ale, are often made from 100 percent organic raw wheat cultivated by each household. In some cases, even the yeast culture itself is coaxed from these same fields.

Some of these farmers not only grow their cereal and brew from it, they also make their own yeast bagels from bits of dried bark, leaves, and powdered maize or wheat, which are cooked and solidified. Aun Namgay, a Scharchop woman from Radhi, a hamlet in the country’s sparsely populated east, explains that her newly baked cakes need to be coated in an older “mother” bagel for the fresh ones to be truly effective. The fungus that has appeared on the aged version seems to be responsible for the starch conversion, as the grains in this brewing nation aren’t malted. Meanwhile, research conducted by microbiologist Sylvain Beausoleil at Montreal’s Collège Ahuntsic shows that the leaves and dried bark bring Saccharomyces cerevisiae into the mix. Finally, the crops that make up the bulk of these organic bagels contribute acidifying bacteria. It’s a truly stunning use of one’s backyard in today’s hyper-sterilized world.

Brewing in an outdoor kitchen.

Sin Chang: The Purest Expression of Bhutanese Farmhouse Beer
Farms in the Bumthang Valley are as colorful and decorated as the many temples strewn about this region that is considered the country’s spiritual heartland. The ends of wooden beams, jutting out in a long-short-long sequence, are all painted with distinctive intricate patterns. Façades adorned with bright yellows, blues, and reds create a rainbow-like effect that even carries into some sitting areas and hallways, where other paintings—of tigers, farmhands, and royalty—may grace the walls. It’s a feast for the eyes.

Being served Sin Chang in such lively abodes only enhances the drinking experience. But some examples of Sin Chang could easily impress on their own merits. A single sip reveals a fruity (pear), floral (elderflower), and mildly acidic Wheatwine with a silky texture. The absence of carbonation may surprise at first, but those who have experienced unblended Lambic before won’t mind. In any case, the smooth tartness is swiftly tamed once a hosting farmer serves accompanying dishes such as ema datsi, a blend of homegrown chili peppers in a funky cheese sauce.

The quiet that follows each group sip tells all. No wonder it’s a brew usually reserved for religious ceremonies, village festivities, or important guests. Indeed, you can’t just walk into a farm’s yard and ask for Sin Chang. Arrangements must be made in advance and the occasion has to be deemed worthy. And once you see how they brew it, you understand why it is such a precious liquid.

Bhutanese farmers don’t brew according to Western methods. Understandably, their cooking and fermentation techniques stem from Asian cultures. In fact, Sin Chang follows a process very similar to that of other alcoholic beverages made on the continent. Whether it’s jiu niang, Chinese sweet rice wine, the Korean cousin known as dongdongju, or even the most rustic forms of Japanese sake, all of these recipes involve both cooking the source of fermentable sugars, and the presence of a rather mysterious fermentation starter.

Most Asian cultures make alcohol from rice, but the Bhutanese prefer to brew with wheat. So Sin Chang starts with a simple step: cooking raw wheat kernels over an open flame. When the wheat has become soft enough, having gorged on boiled water, it is then removed from the metal cauldron and spread onto a flat surface. This is where the magic begins. Known as jiuqu in China, nuruk in Korea, and koji in Japan, fermentation starters sold in the form of balls or biscuits harness the power to transform the cooked grain and its hidden sugars into alcohol.

The Bhutanese, like Namgay, make their own starter in the shape of bagels and call it pho, or phab. This dried culture is then turned to powder and meticulously spread over the cooked wheat, which is then mixed by hand to make sure the phab comes in contact with as many kernels as it can. The result is then collected and stored in a large palang, or vertical bin, and sealed with a lid. Note that no water is added to the mix at any point after cooking the cereal. The anaerobic fermentation then yields a pure liquid, slowly leaking from the wheat. This is Sin Chang. A still, fruity, and floral potion whose unique splash of acidity is reserved for special occasions, much like the Barleywines of the Anglophone world tend to be offered during the holiday season.

The pot and wicker basket used to serve Bang Chang.

Bang Chang: The Haziest of Farmhouse Brews
Red-robed monks can be seen bathing in the Jakar River, as a rope bridge clad in hundreds of multicolored prayer flags swings gently in the breeze. The Buddhist men’s temple lies a mile or so in the distance—a dirt path through fields will soon deliver them to it. On the way, they’ll walk by cannabis plants lining the fences. Smoking anything, whether it’s tobacco or marijuana, is illegal in Bhutan. And since people here simply don’t break the law, cannabis grows as though it were any other weed.

Behind the fences, wheat, barley, maize, and buckwheat are the staple crops outside of rice season, and serve as the main ingredients of both Sin Chang and Bang Chang. Apart from the capital region of Thimphu, and the international airport hub of Paro, every town, village, and settlement seems to be dominated by farmland. While the number of actual brewers has never been counted, most locals estimate that it is a staggering figure, likely many thousands in a country with a population well under 1 million. Theoretically, every other farm could serve you homemade Bang Chang.

The “bang” in Bang Chang refers to the steeping process undertaken when serving a glass of this rustic brew. Basically, the same grain and the same yeast, bacteria, and mold culture as Sin Chang are put to work to produce the desired alcohol. The key difference between Sin Chang and Bang Chang is that water will be added to the latter’s fermented grain just before it’s served. Generally speaking, the grain in question is wheat or maize depending on the region, although blends including millet or barley are found on some farms. This water can be warm or refreshingly cool, depending on the season and the guests’ desires. Grain and water are mixed in a big pot, and a wicker basket is dipped in. The server uses a long ladle to push the basket down into the pot, crushing part of the fermented grain underneath in the process. At this point, the cereal releases part of its fruity funk into the water. The crushing and steeping is then repeated until the host decides the brew has reached the right consistency.

The end result is a hazy beer lover’s dream: an opaque drink that develops many of the intricacies of Sin Chang, but with a cloudier, more protein-rich mouthfeel. This brew may not be as refined as the Sin Chang, but you can definitely drink more of it if the water-to-grain ratio is to your liking, as it tends to be lower in strength. A brewer will usually add water to the pot a maximum of three times, so that the beer he or she serves doesn’t become too diluted. New grain is needed once all the liquid from the three mixes has been drunk. Fortunately, these farmers have plenty of it to share. They typically keep offering Bang Chang until their guest refuses another glass.

The Cultural Significance of Brewing in Bhutan
As idyllic as Bhutan may sometimes sound, it isn’t a place that lacks for challenges. Two thirds of its national roads are a treacherous, one-lane, cliffside catastrophe hit nearly weekly by rockslides. Fires often claim wooden buildings, and earthquakes have been known to wreak havoc on entire villages. The country can seem as if it’s in a constant state of rebuilding. What’s more, a race for modernity could trample many aspects of the local culture.

Bang Chang and Sin Chang are falling out of favor on many farms. Druk, an industrial lager made by the Bhutan Brewery, is sold dirt cheap. Arra, a local distilled alcohol, gives farmers more bang for their ngultrum banknotes. Youth often view this Wheatwine as a relic from the past. Moreover, the government isn’t giving farmers licenses to sell their beer, yet is willing to support new craft breweries (there are three now in Bhutan). In the town of Jakar, a buckwheat farmers cooperative was recently told to stop selling the Bang Chang and Sin Chang they offered alongside their traditional pancakes.

But then you take in your surroundings again. The setting sun sends shafts of light onto immaculate fortresses overlooking emerald green valleys. Forest waterfalls wisp their way down another roadside cliff. Double rainbows appear over gigantic Buddha and Dakini statues made of gold. Children genuinely smile and wave at random strangers, never asking for gifts or trying to peddle wares.

You realize that farmhouse brewing can’t just disappear here. It’s an essential part of life for Bhutanese farmers. They brew for religious ceremonies, offering Bang Chang and Sin Chang to protective deities. They brew for village festivals, sharing their beer with monks and neighbors. They brew for esteemed visitors, from nearby villages or faraway countries. They brew for weddings, of course, but for births, too. In fact, the Bhutanese have a drink for young mothers called changkey, which is basically Sin Chang with eggs, rice, and butter added to create a nourishing—albeit slightly alcoholic—porridge. They also brew for archery competitions. The national sport requires skill and precision, but also calmness and courage, which Bang Chang and Sin Chang seem to impart.

Last but not least, there are dozens of expressions linked to these farmhouse brews in the Bhutanese national language, proving that the homemade Wheatwines have seeped into the fabric of this culture and might be a permanent part of it. For example, Duen Chang is the drink to welcome guests. To Chang is to be slowly sipped before a meal. Tsug Chang is the one you drink when beginning important work. Lam Chang is to be taken on a long journey. And Zheng Chang is a waker-upper. But as the 21st century maneuvers its way through the many peaks of the land of the thunder dragon, Tshe Chang is the phrase that seems most appropriate. Tshe Chang is the brew sipped on when wishing for long life.