Kodo Ko Jaanr: Sikkim’s Sustainable Millet Beer

If there’s one thing that can unite the world in a peaceful, loving future, it’s probably going to be alcohol. Every culture, every country, and every region has its own version of brewed or distilled drinks that they call their own. In ancient Egypt, China, and Mesopotamia, everyone had a form of alcoholic beverage to celebrate and in our Indian states, the story is no different.  

In the Himachal Regions, the staple alcohol is the potent Kodo ko jaanr. Brewed from the dried seeds of finger millet, Kodo is the local name for the beer in Sikkim but every region has its own native name for a millet-based brew. It’s known as chyyang to the Sherpas and Gurkhas while the Gurungs refer to it as naarr paa. The suffix ‘Jaanr’ is an umbrella term meaning alcohol in Nepali. 

Though the millet-based Kodo might be one of the most popular there are other versions made from wheat (gahoon ko jaanr), buckwheat (faapar kojaanr), barley (jao ko jaanr), corn (makai ko jaanr), and even from cassava (simaltarul ko jaanr), there’s no end to the possibilities when it comes to home brewing.

Kodo ko jaanr can later be distilled further into a drink called raksi with a potent ABV content of 45%. This is treated like a local version of whisky and can be found as a part of every major events from religious ceremonies to social gatherings.

While we may not be familiar with millet beers in our day-to-day, the process is very similar to that of any rice beer. The cooked millet seed is thoroughly dried in the sun before being sprinkled with a starter mix to kickstart the fermentation. The whole mixture is then packed into a bamboo basket called a toogba and lined with fresh banana leaves or ferns before the whole thing is encased in a sack. In the darkness, it begins its long march to becoming alcohol and for two to three days, the toongba is left alone as the starches begin converting to sugars. After that, it is then moved over to an airtight basket, also made from bamboo and left for another three or four days until the fermentation process is complete. 

When the time comes to finally drink the brew, it’s poured from the bamboo container into a separate vessel where warm water is added to the mixture. In this way, it’s quite similar to chaang – a barley beer favoured in Ladakh. The final mix is usually a milky white colour and is sipped through a bamboo straw that’s designed with a small hole at the bottom of that straw to let out particles and keep the gritty leftovers out of your mouth while drinking. The beauty of Kodo is that its a drink that keeps giving, and water can be added to the mixture two or three times before it becomes too weak to drink. When it finally does give up, the by-products of the process are used as animal fodder for a truly sustainable life cycle.

Like so many localised brews if India, Kodo ko jaanr holds a story and weight of its own in the tapestry of alcoholic beverages. Though it may not be getting an international introduction any time soon, it will continue to weave its own magic in the culture, lives and hearts of the people of Sikkim and anyone who is fortunate enough to experience their story.