Beery Nepal – Traditional and Home Brews

I’ve come to expect interesting beer culture and tradition can be found wherever I travel, and Nepal did not disappoint. There is a rich tradition of fermented and distilled drinks to be explored. Chyang, Thwon, Tongba, Aila, and Rakshi all have interesting stories to discover and tastes to explore. Beyond being merely drinks, all have their various connections to cultural traditions that live on to connect current-day generations to their heritage. I was also able to experience some impressive modern home brews and brewers who are starting traditions of their own.


Sometimes described as rice beer, other times as rice wine, Chyang is a fermented rice drink that tends to come in at 5-12% alcohol content. A white-ish milky-looking drink, Chyang I tasted was sweet, tart, and slightly fizzy. Nothing malty or spicy about it. I was told that it is made by cooking up a bunch of rice, mixing a crumbled yeast and spice mixture into it, and then wrapping it up (in banana leaves if you got ’em) and letting it ferment for several days, adding some water back, then straining it into a jug or pitcher to serve it from. Clay or metal pitchers are used in restaurants but in homes, I think any repurposed plastic jug will do.

Chyang is more than a drink — it’s a thread woven into the fabric of local heritage. It is used in festive celebrations, toasts new beginnings, and sooths weary bodies after hard work. Recipes and know-how is passed down through generations. I had more than one person tell me that I just had to try their mother’s chyang.

Thwon is a similar beer that is made from buckwheat or millet instead of rice. Spices such as ginger and timur (for heat) are often added to chyang but I don’t think it is the same for these drinks. Thwon tends to be a bit lower in alcohol and has an earthy, sour flavor lacking the sweetness of chyang. It made curious about experimenting with a bit of hops.

Nepali Marcha (I also saw it written as Murcha) are the yeast cakes that are foundational to making these beers. Marcha cakes contain yeast and are said to also include spice and herb combinations unique to the maker. The general process involves cooking rice and sometimes other grains like taro root, mixing in wild herbs like Mandar & spices like ginger and turmeric, adding water and sugar for feed, fermenting for several days to propogate wild yeasts and bacterias, then drying the fermented mixture into small cakes. The recipes and methods can be passed down through families for generations. I was able to acquire some Marcha cakes that I brought home and I plan to experiment with making my own Nepali-inspired beers.

Marcha cakes drying in the sun along a hike

Chyang and thwon are served fresh rather than there being any aging component to the process. These beers are served at room temperature or slightly chilled, allowing the subtle flavors to come through. In restaurants, servers show off their considerable hand-eye coordination pouring from pitchers into small clay or metal cups from long distance. This serving method adds rustic charm. They go great with local snacks like roasted barley flour snacks (sattu), spiced lentils (dalmoth), fried snacks (pakodas), or with the ubiquitous momos. These pairings complement the flavors of the beers and add the social aspect of enjoying the drinks.

For my readers who are brewers, here is a short video giving a better description of the brewing process. Click on the “CC” button in the YouTube window for English language subtitles.


Tongba is another traditional drink originating in the mountains of eastern Nepal. It is a millet beer named after the bamboo container it is typically served in — a “tongba”. It is a low alcohol beer, typically 2-4%. I was told it was more of a cold-weather drink, but I was determined to hunt it down and give it a try even though the weather was nice.

Tongba is prepared by mashing the millet, adding yeast, and fermenting to produce a frothy liquid with a tangy aroma. The bamboo tongba is filled to the top with the fermented grain and served with a pot of hot water. The hot water is poured into the tongba up to the brim and you let it steep for a few minutes like you would with tea. A bamboo or metal straw long enough to reach the bottom is provided to drink the concoction. The straw is sealed at the bottom except for small perforations to draw liquid through while filtering out the grain.

This is a great drink to nurse. As you draw down the drink, you can continue to replenish the hot water indefinitely. The flavors and the alcohol are eventually depleted but last for multiple refills. The flavor of Tongba starts sweet and slightly yeasty, becoming more tart and sour as the refills continue.

A Sip of Heritage

Thwon plays a role in one of Nepal’s largest religious street festivals called Indra Jatra. Several times during the eight-day festival, thwon pours through a pipe coming from the mouth of a mask of an entity known as Swet Bhairava. Traditionally, only men participated in seeking a blessing through getting a sip of the thwon, but the ritual has been extended to women since 2015. The “ladies night” looks like quite a spectacle, reminiscent of some Mardi Gras scenes I have witnessed.

Rakshi and Aila

It’s a good thing that isn’t Rakshi or Aila flowing from the mask as the higher alcohol content might make things a lot riskier. At a typical 40%+ alcohol content, Rakshi packs a much bigger punch.

On a hike on the mountain North of Kathmandu, our friend Man spotted what we had been looking for — a ramshackle tin shack on a small patch of land with a column of smoke rising from a corner. A middle-aged woman invited us in to take pictures of her Rakshi-making set and sample her product. The air hung heavy with the tang of fermenting grains and the earthy aroma of wood smoke. The woman stoked the fire beneath the cauldron. Inside, a thick mash of millet simmered. Marcha would be added later to ferment the mash and morph it into a brew, ready for multiple distillations. I imagined that the woman was using knowledge and skills (and maybe equipment) passed down to her from her mother and generations before.

She poured a small cup of her Rakshi and I tasted it. Each sip was both fiery and smooth at the same time. The flavor was strong, pungent, and pleasantly smoky. This wouldn’t be my last encounter with Rakshi in Nepal, but it would be the most memorable.

Encounters with Native Brews

Some Modern Homebrews

On my first visit with Kusang Tamang at Brewpublic he told me about and invited me to a home brewer festival on an upcoming Saturday in Kathmandu (read about Kusang and Brewpublic). There is a group of home brewers in Nepal that is loosely connected through a Facebook page called Nepal Craft Beer Club. The legal status of home brewing in Nepal isn’t totally clear to me, although I never heard of anyone having trouble over making any of the traditional brews discussed earlier nor over more Western-style home beermaking. I met several of what I would call serious hobbyists and sampled some very nice homebrews. There is a nice sense of camaraderie and collaboration between the folks I met — I wish that there was such an interesting group of linked-up people where I live.

Hardcore beer snobs may not find what they are looking for in Nepal at the moment, but for more casual beer snobs like me, it is a fun place to explore. It isn’t the primary reason to go halfway across the world, but it provided a fun adjunct to the incredible settings, hikes, and other explorations there. I’ll be writing about all those things as I add more stories about adventures in Nepal.

Beer, hiking, and travel stories from Nepal

One response to “Beery Nepal – Traditional and Home Brews”

  1. Steve Avatar

    Glad you enjoyed your time there and we were able to ply you with a few brews!!

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