Unbowed by my experiences with yak butter tea, a flavour which, while not as bad as you’d think, definitely falls under the rubric of “acquired” (I’ll write it up for you at some point, I promise), I decided to brave another Tibetan winter warmer: hot beer, or tongba.
Well, tongba is what they call it in much of Nepal and parts of India. It’s also known as chhaang.
Now, hot beer is not unknown in Western cultures. Ale was traditionally mulled and spiced just like wine still is for centuries, and some of the earliest mixed drinks, flips, were based on hot beer.
But tongba hot beer is different — much closer to African traditional beers than to European or Asian brews.
My hot beer arrived at table in a rather splendid bamboo cup, carved from a mature plant, with each node lovingly gilded, set atop a blue plastic saucer and garnished with a yellow plastic straw.
The contents, bizarrely, looked almost solid, a welter of dark grains, until the waiter filled the cup to the brim with hot water, and the hot beer emerged as a yellowish, cloudy swirl of fluid.
The taste is sour, very yeasty, like a beer that’s only partially fermented, and yet strangely warming. Tongba is supposed to be low in alcohol, but it felt at least as strong as a white wine: I was frankly relieved when the millet grains reappeared at the base of the cup.
But, just like the bottomless thali you get in Indian restaurants across Asia, the tongba is effectively a bottomless cup.
Drink down to the grains, and they’ll fill you up with hot water again and again, until both alcohol and flavour are exhausted.
According to our waiter, you can make tongba all year round, at every elevation — handy for the Himalayas.
And, because the fermentation happens in the grains and the water is added later, it’s a lot more portable than your typical beer – important when everything you eat and drink has to be carried along narrow trails at altitude.
So, eminently practical for the climate of high-altitude Nepal and Tibet.
And, all things being equal, and the weather being chilly, I’d probably drink it again.