If you want to experience the true gritty nature of primitive ale, the people of Tibet presently make a grain beer that is consumed, like kaš, through a perforated straw. In the thin air and isolation of the Tibetan Plateau ancient practices have survived—including the production of chhaang.
When Buddhism arrived in the seventh century, western Tibet was occupied by descendants of the Zhang Zhung civilization. These people practiced a shamanistic religion called Bön. Shaman initiates lived in the wilderness and communed with spirits until achieving “divine madness.” The principal peaceful deity of Bönism is the mother goddess called, believe it or not, Yum. When your goddess is named Yum, and you’re looking for divine madness, might there be beer involved?
But Buddhism shuns alcohol, doesn’t it? In a word, sort of. Tibetan Buddhism relies on looking inward into the mind-body, anything that alters the mind-body in a negative way would be discouraged. But there are some teachings, like the Vajrayana tradition of Tibet, that allow “mindful drinking.” This is where one drinks a little, assesses how they feel, then decides whether or not to have a little more.
Despite the extraordinary altitude of the Tibetan Plateau, a form of highland barley called qingke proliferates. Millet and rice are also common in chhaang. The brew is consumed both casually and ceremonially, such as when hosting visitors to one’s home, or for the Tibetan New Year celebration of Losar, which has its roots in the earlier Bön traditions.
Here’s how chhaang is made. Grains are boiled in water until soft. They are laid out on a mat to cool. By some accounts, the brewer then disrobes and rolls over the grains to mash them somewhat. That’s right, you get naked, roll on the barley, and then add crumbled dry saké yeast that may also contain koji culture (Aspergillus oryzae). Talk about house character!
After this the grains are hung in cloth until they develop a “godly smell.” If this is godly, god must need a shower. Once ripened, the grain mass is put into an airtight container for a month, so the whole mash ferments. When you want some chhaang, you load a wooden tankard with the fermenting grains, pour hot water over the top and drink the resulting liquid through a perforated straw. Don’t worry about that stuff on top that looks like algae. Best advice for drinking chhaang: Try not to picture your host without clothes.