Traditional Beverages in Northeast
Traditional Beverages of Northeast. Photo courtesy: NELive

If BJP led governments in Northeast are looking at rejuvenation of rural economies as a priority, one of the area they should surely look at is promotion of traditional alcoholic beverages in the region. In this, they could take a clue from what China has done in its remote Sinkiang region.  The Muslim dominant Sinkiang (where Uighur Muslims constitute 45% of the population against the 39% Han Chinese) has always led in China’s grape production but only recently did it attract investments in wine industry. And now Sinkiang wine is said to be top notch, marketed across the world through e-commerce outlets.

A latest report from Sinkiang reads: “Good momentum is kept up in the development and production of milk wine, fermented mares milk, kendir tea, grape seed oil, pear pectin, food and drinking with Uygur medicinal materials as raw materials.”  The Sinkiang branch of the Shanghai Hengfan Import and Export Co tried to develop some special grape wine for 20 years. “At last we made it successfully, what’s more in good quantity and at fair price,” says its website.

Assam’s BJP government had promised to promote traditional alcoholic beverages of various communities as licensed items and make them available in legitimate shops immediately after coming to power. Finance minister Himanta Biswa Sarma while presenting the budget in the Assembly had said the government had proposed to conduct research on the traditional brews of different communities to ensure their standardisation, hygiene and proper bottling in attractive package.

“Such products will be promoted as licensed items to be sold in permitted shops and establishments. These products can beat feni of Goa, heritage wine of Rajasthan, vodka of Russia and many other brands,”Sarma had claimed.

The finance minister had a valid point. Whether the many varieties of rice wine in Assam and Northeast can “beat” vodka or Feni remains to be seen, but they can surely provide great value for money to tipplers across the country and outside. Most drinks originated as local brew and then began to adorn tables across the globe when they were branded and marketed professionally.

Assam and the rest of Northeast India have numerous communities and most of them have traditional alcoholic beverages. Despite their heavy demand they have not been promoted by the government so far. Of late, these beverages have become a part of traditional food festivals but they need much more branding and marketing to be made nationally acceptable.

Himanta Biswa Sarma’s promise to build an economy which is “deeply entrenched into the ethnicity of the state” sounded sensible, because these traditional beverages have “healthy and high medicinal values”. He also had a point when he said: “This initiative will help putting a stiff competition to the country liquor which is more injurious than local brews. Our government will consider the proposals for licensing the sale of local brews. It will be a good source of increasing income of traditional families and also conserve the heritage.”

But it might not be a good idea to merely invite a few big brewing companies to the state and allow them to produce these traditional brews. If the government is really looking at boosting local economies which Sarma alluded to, it might be a good idea to allow the communities brew their own liquor and the government provide the bottling and marketing. Since government corporations rarely excel in branding and marketing, it might be a good idea to allow the communities to produce the traditional liquor and some private companies to check on quality, bottle it and brand and market it. I am looking at Assam’s many rice wines or Tripura’s langi marketed by Grover served in top 5 star hotels across India like the Chinese serve various varieties of their Mao Tai.

Chief executive Member of Rabha Hasong Autonomous Council Tankeswar Rabha has said that production of local brews should be left to the communities. “Each community uses their traditional alcoholic beverages in religious purposes also. If the community can produce the beverages only then their original flavours will be retained and the community will benefit.”

All Assam Tribal Sangha general secretary Aditya Kakhlary welcomed the move but said the government should keep an eye on quality. “The step will be helpful for uplift of poor people of the indigenous communities. But the government should keep an eye on quality control,” he said. Until now, selling traditional alcoholic beverages is illegal in Assam. The excise department conducts regular raid in markets and homes to stop selling them.

But alongside promotion of local rice wines and other brews, the state governments should also seek to attract investments by top breweries to produce drinks like Ginger Ale.  That health drink can be manufactured somewhere in a plant in Southern Assam or Tripura (which has surplus power) and can absorb the substantial local ginger production of Mizoram, southern Assam and North Tripura. In the 1970s, there was an effort to develop jackfruit wine in Tripura. That could be checked out again,

Northeast India will have a wide variety to offer in local brews. It would need some research and quality control efforts along with branding and marketing to make the most of the potential. But this is one area where some effort can do much for boosting rural economies.  The country could indeed look east to get tipsy.

Subir Bhaumik

Subir Bhaumik is a Kolkata-based senior journalist. He can be reached at:

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