Alcoholic Rice Beverages

  • Ahuja UmaEmail author
  • Ahuja S. C.
Living reference work entry


Rice Husk Wild Rice Rice Wine Tribal People Glutinous Rice 
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There are many “aqua vitae” – beverages made from millets, grapes, dates, palm, sugarcane, potato, and cereals including rice. Traditional foods provide a basic diet while alcoholic beverages supplement enhanced nutrition and palatability. People also drink alcoholic beverages to forget the aches of their daily toils. An abundant supply of rice in South East Asia has produced a variety of spirits, wine, and beers. Wong-tsiu and chaoxing of China, saman of Malaysia, chhang of Tibet, and sake of Japan are some of the favorites.

In some religions, alcohol is a taboo. However, rice alcoholic beverages (RAB), like rice itself, have attained the status of sacred items in many Asian countries including the tribes of the central, East, Himalayan belt, and North Eastern states of India. RAB constitute an integral part of dietary culture due to the climatic conditions and have strong ritual importance among the ethnic people. In contrast to tribal people, peasant Hindus do not employ rice beer (or fermented grains in general) in rituals. This perhaps reflects an aesthetic aversion to the rotting and decay connotations of fermentation (Hancett, 1988).

RAB are home products in the tribal belt of India and are offered as a welcome drink in all households. Nagas do not know any other drink except rice beer; milk is used only in urban areas. Young and old, rich and poor, and men, women, and children relish it equally (Singh, 1995). In Europe Austrian beer and tapuy in the Philippines are products of rice brewing (Anonymous 1993). During pre-partition days, half of Indian rice exported was brewed into alcoholic drinks in Europe and the USA (Watt, 1901). At present about 7 % of rice production in the USA is used along with barley to make beer lighter and tastier for Americans (White, 1994). In the world of trade, broken rice used for brewing is called “brewers’ rice.” According to British records, the Ho tribe of Bihar were so fond of rice beer that they spent most of the year’s rice storage preparing rice beer (Ahuja, Thakrar, Ahuja et al., 2001).

We have no written records of the initiation of the rice beverage drinking tradition, but there is no doubt among the people about its divine origin (Das, 1972). The Bodos of Assam credit Lord Mahadeva, the Karbi/Mikir to Chang Charpau (god of creation), the Mundas of Orissa to Singbonga, and the supreme God and the Konds of Orissa to Nirantalli – Supreme Mother Earth – for teaching the art of brewing. Most tribes consider the rice beer of divine origin; the Bhuiyan of Orissa credit their hero Boram Burha (Ahuja et al., 2001).

Like the rice beer, the starter tablet is also considered as divine. The Kabris believe that God told Kabri women in her dream to make starter tablet using fecal matter of the Vokongching bird. The Adi and Mising people (Assam) consider that the starter tablet was created by the spilled milk of the fairy Miti Omum and was made into cakes by Engo Takar using plants grown on spilled milk and named it E’pop (Pegu et al., 2013).

In India fermenting drinks from rice is an age-old art. As early as 2000 BC, the Indus Valley civilization seems to have practiced alcoholic fermentation and distillation. In the later Vedic period, grain-derived products were masara, kilala, kashaya, prasanna, and svetasura. Masara may have been a pre-Aryan drink made from barley and later rice. Prasanna was fermented rice flour flavored with spices, bark, and fruits. In svetasura clarity was achieved by adding sugar to prasanna. Drinking was frowned upon in gveda and in the Sūtras. Kshatriyas were not permitted with grain-based liquors. The classic Indian medical authorities took a balanced view of drinking. Moderation was counseled as alcohol increases the mental principle pitta while decreasing both the physical and vitality principles kapha and vata (Achaya, 1998). Āyurvedic texts describe preparation of sura from fermenting rice flour which was hard to digest and caused constipation, increased fat, urine, and kapha and was used to treat gaseous abdominal swelling, dropsy, and reduced strength. Varuni sura was made by punarava and rice was easily digestible and cured flatulence (Sekar, 2007). Bhagwat Puran refers to distillation of liquor from wild rice. Aryans made sura from wild rice, flowers, and barley (Kumar, 1988).

Megasthenes, accompanying Alexander on his crusade to India, wrote in his memoirs (ca. 50 AD) that Indians avoided intoxicating drinks. However, for religious ceremonies, drinking of rice beer was permitted. The favorite drink Madhuka referred to in Kautilya’s Arthaśāstra was made of ten ingredients with fermented rice (Ahuja et al., 2001).


Rice in different forms is used as basic material for preparing beverages (beer, wine, or liquor) as paddy, boiled, raw, or germinated rice. Chinese and Japanese prepare drinks from ground rice powder; Filipinos prefer fried rice, while at other places boiled rice is used as the basic ingredient. Kodavas of Coorg in Karnataka use germinated rice for the preparation of a strong whisky called Kachana Kallu which is consumed lavishly during Huttari, the rice harvesting festival (Pai, 1994; Ponnappa, 1988). Tribal people in Silvassa, Maharashtra, prepare rice wine by using pounded paddy and potatoes. The paddy is pounded with the husk, placed in an earthen pot with a small quality of yeast, and allowed to ferment for 6 days. It is then distilled over a slow fire into a crystal clear, potent drink.

Various tribes prepare rice beer at home by fermenting boiled rice soaked in water using a starter tablet (Jeyaram et al., 2008; Tamang et al., 2007) known by different names in various Indian states (Table 1). Regional specialization and the uniqueness of the process have been developed to such a fine level to give taste and color specific to each tribe (Deori et al. 2007; Saikia et al. 2007). The main point of modification is the herbs used in the starter tablets serving as a microbial culture for fermentation. The starter tablet is prepared by mixing rice flour with roots, leaves, bark, or seeds of the selected plants. The quality of the starter culture is said to be dependent on the variety of plant parts used and also on the maintenance of proper sanitary conditions. Every tribe has its distinct herbs used in their starter tablet (Table 1). The Deori tribe of Assam formerly used about 100 plants which have been reduced to 30–40. In Manipur there are two kinds of starter tablets. Normally a chuwan (starter) is a circular shape with an umbilical type of dimple in the center, but in male chuwan, there are three umbilical dimples instead of one.
Table 1

Plants used in starter tablets of Alcoholic rice Bevarages by Tribes of India


Rice beer/distillate

Starter tablet

Tablet constituents



Ranu dabai

Elephantopus scaber roots, Argyreia bella stem, Casearia graveolens bark, Symplocos racemosa




Ranu dabai

Coccinia grandis, Clerodendrum viscosum, Vernonia cinerea, Plumbago zeylanica, Wattakaka volubilis

Bihar, Bengal

Gonds, central India


Ranu dabai

Argyreia bella, Buchanania lanzan, Casearia graveolens, Cassine glauca (Kumar & Rao, 2007)

25 plants

Dimasa Naga,



Glycyrrhiza glabra, Acacia pennata

Jeme Naga

Dekuijao, nduijao


Glycyrrhiza glabra






Perok kushi

Jasminum sambac, Zanthoxylum hamiltonianum, Lygodium flexuosum, Acanthus

leucostachys, Cyclosorus exlensa, Alstonia scholaris, Alpinia malaccensis, Costus speciosus

Adi Arunachal

Opo, ennog


Clerodendrum viscosum, Veronica sp.

Galo Arunachal


Apong kusure

Clerodendrum viscosum, Debregeasia longifolia, Diplazium esculentum, Pilea sp., Urtica hirata, Solanum kurzii (Bora et al., 2013)



Apop pitha

Scoparia dulcis, Cyclosorus, Costus speciosus, Adhatoda zeylanica, Zanthoxylum hamiltonianum, Naravelia zeylanica, Melothrea heterophyla



Atingba, yu


Albizia myriophylla, Tectona grandis L.f., Ficus hispida, Alocasia indica





Jack fruit leaves, Thakotor, Tokhiseleng


Pineapple leaves, red chili


Jou bishi


Xanthium strumarium, Scoparia dulcis, Clerodendrum viscosum




Bakhor, phap

Ananas comosus, Artocarpus heterophyllus, Calotropis gigantea, Capsicum frutescens


Ao, Nagaland



Germinated rice powder


HorAlang/hor arak


Croton joufra, Artocarpus heterophyllus, Phlogacanthus thyrsiflorus, Solanum viarum, Acacia pennata


Koloh pani

Vekur pitha

Oldenlandia corymbosa, Lygodium sp.


Hydrocotyle sibthorpioides, Centella asiatica, Cissampelos pareira, Piper nigrum


Sadhiar, kiad


Khaw-iang/hawiang-iang leaves


Tribals Lahaul- Spiti HP



Saccharomyces fermentati

The preference for rice variety used for fermentation differs from community to community. The Khasis of Meghalaya generally use a red variety kho-so (Samati and Begum 2007), the Nagas use maize, Mundas of Chhattisgarh and Bihar use karaini or gora rice, Dimasis use biron, and the Rabhas of Assam prefer sali aus and boro rice. When boro rice is used, the beer obtained is reddish brown in color and has a shelf life of 6–12 months (Deka & Sarma, 2010).

The Adi and Nishis of Arunachal Pradesh prepare white apong and blackish ennog, respectively, from white and black rice (added with rice husks), and after fermentation, it is stored in bamboo vessels lined with ekkam (Phryium capitulum L) and oko (Zingiberaceae family) leaves, respectively (Tiwari & Mahanda, 2007). In Lahaul and Spiti, Himachal Pradesh lugari and chhang are prepared, respectively, from uncooked and cooked rice. Lugari is consumed only as a fermented product while chhang is used both as fermented and distilled (Kanwar et al., 2011).

Glutinous rice is preferred to non-glutinous rice, owing to the taste and alcohol content of the product. The Miris of Assam prepare whitish noggin apong from boiled and poro apon from glutinous rice to which ash of partially burned paddy husk and straw is added (Gogoi et al., 2013). The Bodos also prepare two types of beer called maibra jou from glutinous bishi and matha jou bishi from non-glutinous rice (Das et al., 2012).

In addition to the type and form of rice used, the Mundas of Orissa and central India add some plants to increase intoxication or to decrease the period of fermentation while preparing handia (Kumar & Rao, 2007). They use Elephantopus scaber L. roots, Argyreia bella stems, and the bark of Casearia graveolens and Symplocos racemosa. The Kols of Madhya Pradesh use Madhuca longifolia flowers, rhizomes of Imperata cylindrica, and Cissampelos pareira with fruits of Syzygium cumini in fermenting rice beer (Mittre, 1991). The Apatani tribe of Arunachal Pradesh add ash extract of Eleusino coracana and Saurauia roxburghii to broth, the Ahoms of Assam add seeds of Datura, and the Adivasi of Assam add leaves of Nicotiana tabacum and Polygonum hydropiper. The Kabris and Deoris of Assam and Meities of Manipur add different types of fern leaves to give a strong aroma to rice beer. Half-burnt rice husk ash is added by the Adi, Kabris, and Miris (Chakrabarty et al., 2009; Gogoi et al., 2013; Tanti et al., 2010).

Some tribes distill the fermented product to obtain a strongly alcoholic distillate which has more shelf life (Table 1). The fermented and distilled products are of different ceremonial significance. The Kabris of Assam use the fermented hor alank in worship and marriages, while they use the distilled one during social occasions and death ceremony (Teron, 2006). The Rabhas of Assam believe that fortica has a curative effect on psychiatric patients (Deka & Sarma, 2010).

Among the various drinks from rice like beer, wine, and whisky, it is rice beer that is more popular among tribal people. In fact rice beer is called the “national” intoxicating drink of the tribes. Rice beverages are used in various ceremonies in various Asian countries. Rice beer is widely used in rites of passage and agricultural festivals. In all events in life from births to funerals, sowing to harvesting crops, friendship to revenge, argument to settlement, abduction, and murder, and happiness to sorrow, rice beer is indispensable (Saikia et al. 2007). In the East and Northeast, rice beer is part of every household and is offered and served to guests like tea (Das, 1972; Pegu et al., 2013). The Kabris of Assam, during the marriage ceremony, fill a gourd shell with hor lank and give it to the bride’s father (Teron, 2006). Rice beer is used as money when it is paid as a court fee and bride price by a Lakher of Nagaland and as compensation for adultery in Orissa. In marriages, the number of handia to be given to the bride’s side is decided well in advance. They offer rice beer to all spirits.

The social, religious, cultural, and personal life of the Mising people of Assam offers a panoramic view of the use of rice beer, apong. In social life, it is consumed as refreshing drink by both men and women after a day’s hard work. It is served as a welcome drink to guests. It is customary to use apong during marriage, birth, and death events, rituals, festivals, and on the assembly of village chiefs. In the Miris of Assam, discussions on marriage proposals are initiated by offering noggin apong from the boy’s to the girl’s father and it is served only on the agreement of the proposal. No ritual is considered complete without offering apong to the concerned deity. The po:ro apong is indispensable during traditional harvesting festivals and in funeral ceremonies (Pegu et al., 2013). The ritual use of apong has its origin with the legend of the origin of Epob (starter cakes). Po:ro apong is indispensable during traditional harvesting festivals Ali-a:ye Ligang and Po:rag and in funeral ceremonies and also in Urom apin, Dodgang, and Dobur ui rituals. Both noggin and Po:ro Apong are used during Tani siko (ritual for deceased persons; Pegu et al., 2013).

Rice beer is relished equally by men, women, and children during social and agricultural ceremonies and festivals, and its use is a must in social ceremonies and rites (Ahuja et al., 2001). The Oraons and Mundas of Orissa make rice beer after sowing and at transplanting in hopes of a bumper harvest (Crooke, 1896; Kumar, 1988). They thresh the crop after Khariharn Puja with sacrifice of fowl and oblations of rice beer (Roy, 1928). The Deuris of Assam use sujhen, rice beer, in their household pujas and in elaborate rituals at the riverside to please the water deity, Jalki Dangoriya (Das, 1972). In Silvassa (Maharashtra), tribal people use rice wine in Vasant Utsav. The belief is that unless one is knocked out and fully drunk, he or she would not get the blessing of the Goddess Mahavidya (Pai, 1994). Rice wine is considered to be a favorite drink of deities such as Kameshwari in Assam, Kamakhya in South, and Durga in Bengal. Offerings of animal sacrifice and rice wine are a must (Bhattacharyya, 1978; Das, 1972; Das & Mahapatra, 1979).

Chhang is offered to deities and also exchanged as an important gift during weddings and other auspicious ceremonies by tribes of the Himalayan region. Chhang is an indispensable hospitality beverage among tribal people of Lahaul valley and is considered to provide protection against cold during winter months (Savitri & Bhalla, 2007).

RAB have their medicinal value too. The Bodos and the Rabhas use it for stomachache, urinary problems, insomnia, body ache, inflammation, diarrhea, expelling worms, and cholera (Deka & Sarma, 2010). The Maria tribes of Bastar take handia as a light tranquilizer. It is also given to treat fever, dysentery, diarrhea, and gynecological complaints (Kumar & Rao, 2007). The Gond tribe of Surguja district use ranu tablets in treating cholera (Ahuja et al., 2001). The people of Manipur use yu as a medicine, relaxant, and in the poor health condition of women due to irregular menstrual flow, infertility factors, obesity, loss of appetite, and low nourishment of foods (Singh & Singh, 2006). Yu is also used for treating fever, body ache, and common cold and is smeared over the face and body parts as a beauty care product.

The residue after extraction of yu is given for fast and healthy growth of pigs. The Kabris use horalank to add aroma and flavor and to increase the shelf life of dried fish. Highly concentrated hor acho is used in dysentery and pharyngitis. The Mising believe that having two or three glasses (about 500 ml) of po:ro apong a day can prevent formation of kidney stones (Pegu et al., 2013). The Rabhas give rice beer to bulls to promote body strength and to cure swelling legs (Deka & Sarma, 2010).

Taboos and Safety Rite

The Santhals always keep one or a few dry chillies and a piece of charcoal, while the Rabhas place charcoal and Ricinus communis leaves on the raw materials and on products at different steps in order to keep all the evil forces away which may deteriorate the quality of rice beer (Deka & Sarma, 2010). The Miris and Deuris keep citrus fruits away from the vicinity during preparation of Epob and apong, because they are said to make apong acidic or sour (Pegu et al., 2013). The Kabris believe consumption of hor before offering to God is a taboo. Preparation of thap (fermenter tablet) by women of the clan Bey and clan Hanjang is considered taboo by Kabris (Teron, 2006). Normally Miri women prepare apong, but during the ritual dobur puja, men extract apong because participation of women is a social taboo. In Manipur it is believed that a drop of sweat fallen into the production of beer will spoil the whole mass (Singh & Singh, 2006). During funeral ceremonies, the handia is not made in the deceased’s house and relatives bring it. In Tripura women should not menstruate at time of preparation of chuwan. She is also barred during a postnatal period of one month.

Originally rice beer was used as an antidote to fatigue and also as a prophylactic against sun stroke, snake bite, and other problems which tribal people usually faced during their work in the fields. Since it was produced at home, it was not eligible for excise duty, so the British discouraged home-brewed drinks which led to a higher consumption of distilled liquors, disturbing the social order (Ray, 1993). The medicinal herbal mix which imparts such prophylactic properties to rice beer is not widely known now, and with the migration of young people to cities the knowledge is confined to a few elders.


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© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.College of AgricultureCCS Haryana Agricultural UniversityKaithalIndia