TIBETAN DRINKS: BUTTER TEA, MILK TEA AND CHANG

TIBETAN DRINKS AND DRUGS

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Making chang
Famous Tibetan beverages includes the chang (traditional highland barley beer or wine), buttered tea, sweet tea, milk tea, fresh yak milk and sour milk. The Lhasa beer made from pure underground water has taken on the brand “Medicine King Hill”. Across Tibet, many places produce mineral waters containing different trace elements. The highland barley wine is fermented directly from highland barley and tastes sweet and sour with low amount of alcohol. Similar with the rice wine in Central China, the Tibetan highland barley wine tastes quite different from the highland barley wine made in Qinghai and Gansu. [Source: Chloe Xin, Tibetravel.org tibettravel.org ]

Tibetans love tea so much that the Chinese and the British thought they could subdue the Tibetans by manipulating their tea supply. The Tibetans considered Chinese and British tea to be horrid stuff.

The alcoholic drink favored by some Tibetans is qingke, a potent barley beer, wine or spirit. Qingke is an "acquired" taste that many travelers can't swallow without a grimace. An alternative is Tibetan barley beer, known as chang. Quality varies but mostly you can expect a mild beer that is slightly sweet served out of a can. is a local moonshine made from the root of a purple flower. Many Tibetans like to relax by drinking beer. Alcoholism is a serious problem in some Tibetan areas. Some Tibetans don’t drink for religious reasons.

Wild marijuana grows in a lot places in the Himalayas, China and Central Asia. In some places it is boiled and fed to pigs. Some Tibetans smoke tobacco in cigarettes hand rolled with newspaper. Others like to snort snuff --- powdered tobacco.

Tibetan Tea

Tibetans drink tea several ways: the most well-known is the buttered tea. This is a unique way to drink tea in highland and cold areas. The tea is made with butter and salt (or milk) in a special tea barrel. While stirring it some Tibetans egg or walnut. Another kind is the sweet tea stewed with high-quality black tea, fresh milk or milk powder and white sugar. Tibetans enjoy other types of tea as well, such as green tea, milk tea and boiled black tea.

In Tibet, tea—sweet or buttered—is like coffee for a Westerner: refresher, leisure time beverage to drink with friends, a drink to wake up and start the day. In Tibet no morning can pass without drinking some tea, usually the sweet tea, and no meal is complete without some tea, usually Tibetan buttered tea.

Both sweet and buttered tea are served in small or large thermos flasks. The local habit of drinking tea is in part due to local food composition. Tibetans eat lots of yak, sheep and goat meat. Strong buttered tea not only helps to keep the body warm, it is said it also helps to promote the digestion of the meat is eaten almost three meals a day, 365 days a year. A local sayings goes that while others cannot do without salt; Tibetans cannot do without either salt or tea. [Source: Chloe Xin, Tibetravel.org tibettravel.org ]

Tibetan Butter Tea

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Yak butter tea
Buttered tea is the favorite drink of Tibetan people. It usually consumed while eating Tsampa. It is made of boiled brick tea and ghee. Ghee, which looks like butter, is a kind of dairy product of fat abstracted from cow milk or sheep milk. Tibetan people like the ghee made of yak milk. When they make buttered tea, they mix boiled brick tea and ghee in a special can, add some salt, pour the mixed liquid into a pottery or metal teapot and finally heat up it (but not boil it). Different people have different tastes for the buttered tea.

Some people like salty flavor, others prefer to light flavor. People who do manual labor, especially men, like the strong-tasted, cream-like buttered tea. Old people, children and women like light-flavored tea. People usually heat up the buttered tea because cold buttered tea is not easy to be digested and does harm to one's stomach.

Buttered tea is called "Jiasuima" in Tibetan and pencha in Chinese. It is regarded as a nutritious drink well suited for high and cold region regions. Tibetans drink as much as 40 cups of tea a day. It is filling and the caffeine in it give those who drink a slight jolt. Tibetan and Chinese say it helps one resist coldness, promote body fluid and quench thirst, and get rid of fatigue. Tibetan people drink several cups of buttered tea in the morning and then go to work. To bring the taste of Tibet into your own home, here’s a quick Tibetan butter tea recipe: Boil one tablespoon of loose black tea; leave for 10 minutes. Strain. Add 1/4 cup heavy cream, one tablespoon butter, and salt. Tibetans drink their tea very salty. Indian milk tea is sweet.

Tibetans often offer pencha as a hospitality gesture and insist that the cup be finished and a refill offered. Foreigners often wretch and nearly throw up the first time they try Tibetan tea with yak butter. But after a while they get used it and after drinking it many times over a long trip some even like it.

Making Tibetan Butter Tea

Pencha (Tibetan tea) is brewed with an equal measure of salt and yak butter, giving it a consistency like soup. The drink is made by scrapping tea from a brick of black tea and boiling the tea leaves with rock salt or soda and yak butter and milk while the mixture is churned in a wooden tube.

To make Tibetan butter tea: boil brick tea in water for a long time into red thick juice, pour the juice into a specially made round wood pail which is 90 to 120 centimeters long with a diameter of 10 centimeters, and add an appropriate amount of butter or ghee (oil extracted from milk of cow or sheep) and salt. Tibetan butter tea is often blended in a slim wooden cylinder. After the mixture is put in the cylinder, a piston is used to push and pull inside the cylinder. With the passing of the mixture through the slit between the piston and the cylinder, the mixture of butter, salt and tea is forcefully and thoroughly blended. Then it is poured into a pot or boiler, is put on slow fire and is ready to be poured out for drinking. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, kepu.net.cn ~]

Cathy Ang wrote: “Tibetans have a special churning cylinder for making their butter-tea. First they boil the tea (almost always brick tea) for ten to fifteen minutes or use Darginlin tea boiled for three to four minutes. Next, they remove the tea leaves (brick tea leaves can be re-used two or three times). They then put the tea in the churning device, add butter, salt, and milk and mix for three minutes. It is important to mix using moderate force. After making the tea, they let it stand for a while and then tsampa and other items can be added. The cup used for butter tea is traditionally made of wood. [Source: by Cathy Ang, Chinese Food in China, Hong Kong, and/or Taiwan, Fall Volume: 1999]

Describing how yak butter tea is made in Dolpo, Eric Valli wrote in Smithsonian, "when the tea has been boiled into a strong brew, she pours it into a tall churn, adds a large dollop of yak butter...and agitates it all into a rich, regenerating broth...She hands a cup to each of us careful never to spill and waste the gods-given bounty.” Before Tibetans drink tea they often flick a few drops into the air as offering to the gods.

Drinking Tibetan Butter Tea

Drinking butter tea is a regular part of Tibetan life. Before work, a Tibetan typically downs several bowlfuls of this beverage, and it is always served to guests. Nomads are said to often drink up to 40 cups of it a day. Since butter is the main ingredient, butter tea is a very warming and filling drink, providing lots of caloric energy and is particularly suited to high altitudes. The butter also helps prevent chapped lips. [Source: Chloe Xin, Tibetravel.org tibettravel.org ]

According to the Tibetan custom, butter tea is drunk in separate sips, and after each sip the host refills the bowl to the brim. Thus, the guest never drains his bowl; rather, it is constantly topped off. If the visitor does not wish to drink, the best thing to do is leave the tea untouched until the time comes to leave and then drain the bowl. In this way etiquette is observed and the host will not be offended. Butter tea is also used for eating tsampa by pouring onto it, or dipping the tsampa into it, and mixing well.

The cups for drinking butter in Tibet are usually made of silver; some are made of gold. Tibetan people also use wooden bowls to drink tea. The wooden bowls are also set with gold, silver or copper. Furthermore, some Tibetan teaware is made of jade. The gorgeous and expensive jade teawares are handed down from generation to generation in a family. The teawares are also regarded as status symbols in Tibet.

Tibetan Tea Houses

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A Tibetan bar with
piled up beer bottles
In Lhasa and elsewhere tea houses are a common sight. Many Tibetans in Lhasa have buttered tea in the morning and sweet tea with lunch. Usually, the sweet tea houses in Lhasa opens at 7:00 am, and closes up at midnight when business is good. A pot of sweet tea, enough for four drinkers, costs about one dollar at the Delin Sweet Tea House in Lhasa. Simple Tibetan food such as tsampa as well as Indian and Nepalese style food are often offered.[Source: Chloe Xin, Tibetravel.org tibettravel.org]

Tibetan men like to play xiu (a traditional Tibetan game of dice, in which players "kill" each other) at the teahouses. The game is generally only played by men. One tea house patron said, “I am a regular customer here. Sometimes I spend the whole day here with my friends." The atmosphere of the teahouse is livening up with beer and wine. When Tibetans have nothing else to do, the sweet local tea house is a good choice to kill time. Many Tibetans like to stop at the local tea house before going to work. When someone doesn’t show up for work the local tea houses are often the first place to look for them.

People in their 80s remember the few sweet tea houses in Lhasa and Shigatse where beggars went there to seek money, and prostitutes looked for customers. This is one reason why tea houses are the domain of Tibetan men and are usually shunned by Tibetan women.

Tea and Culture in Tibet

Tea is considered essential by all Tibetans, lamas included. Every morning, lamas attend a morning prayer sessions led held under the aegis of the sutra teacher. This is followed the consumption of buttered tea and tsampa. At noon, they gather in the sutra hall of the Buddhist school of the monastery to pray and recite Buddhist scriptures while drinking tea. This ceremony is much the same as the morning mass, but is held on a smaller scale. In the evening, lamas gather in the Khang-tshan to pray and drink tea in a fairly informal setting. In Tibetan this is called Kamqa. It is very common for benefactors to visit monasteries, where they offer tea porridge to lamas while presenting them with the names of the Buddhist scriptures they wish the lamas to recite for them. There are also senior lamas studying for Geshi, a Buddhist academic degree equivalent to a Ph.D, who also offer tea porridge to the lamas of the whole monastery. [Source: Chloe Xin, Tibetravel.org tibettravel.org ]

Some say Tibetans learned to drink sweet tea from the British invaders (they were drinking butter tea long before the British arrived). Others say Tibetans learned the customs from the Indians and Nepalese. While most Tibetans make sweet tea in a way unique to themselves, people in Yadong and Gyangze, close to India, follow a method similar to that in India. The Tibetans make sweet tea with black tea, but with the taste is different than that made by the British, Indians or Nepalese.

Tibetans love sipping sweet tea at home. Ordinary people make it with milk, while the affluent have traditionally done it with canned milk imported from India. Many drank two or three cups of sweet tea in the afternoon, around the time of British tea time.

Chang

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Chang (also chong or "Qiang") is a famous Tibetan beverage. It's a kind of wine with very low alcohol content made from highland barley (nas). To some extent, it is like beer. Tibetans—no matter whether they're women or men, young or old—they enjoy chang very much and chang is indispensable for festive occasions. The color of chang is orange or yellow and it tastes sour and sweet. [Source: Chloe Xin, Tibetravel.org tibettravel.org ]

Cathy Ang wrote: “When making this wine, the grains are washed and cooked. Then, after cooling, the nas is transferred to a porcelain jar or a wooden barrel. A wine starter (usually yeast) is added and the contents are mixed with some water. The top is covered and the grain is allowed to ferment for two or three days. Fresh water is added and the fermentation continues for another day or two. At that time, the process is considered finished. The wine is consumed that way or it can be distilled to make a liquor with higher alcohol content.” [Source: by Cathy Ang, Chinese Food in China, Hong Kong, and/or Taiwan, Fall Volume: 1999]

Tibetans often make it in a pottery jar, seal the jar and cover it with Tibetan blanket which can increase the temperature make the barley ferment in the jar. The jar is unsealed after several days and an appropriate amount of pure water is put in the jar, and then it is sealed again for one or two day. There are also some traditional rules while drinking chang, which is called "three nips and a whole cup" meaning that the host should replenish the chang cup after each of the first three nips. And after the first three nips, the host should replenish the chang cup and the guest should drink up the whole cup. Usually, the host and hostess sing to propose a toast on a banquet and sometimes there are beautiful-dressed toast girls singing to make the guests drink until they are drunk.

Tibetans regard drinking barley wine as a sincere courtesy when entertaining honored guests. When offered the wine, the guest should take hold of the wine cup with both hands, shouldn't decline, and should drink three cups of wine continuously. Another way of drinking is to substitute a cup of wine with a mouthful of wine, which is to give consideration to people who have little capacity for wine. When the host pours a cup of wine, the guest takes it over, make the forefinger stained with the wine and flick the finger for three times to offer the wine to god of heaven, earth and dragon. Then the guest sips a mouthful of wine slightly, the host fills the cup, the guest drinks a mouthful again, and the host fills the cup again. The guest should drink the third cup of wine with bottom up, or it would be considered a breach of etiquette. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, kepu.net.cn ~]

Tibetan Drinking Customs

Drinking in Tibet has many rules. One concerns a ritual performed by guests at another’s house. The host first pours some chang (highland barley wine or beer). The guest must dip his finger in the chang and flick some away. This is done three times to represent respect for the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. The cup is then refilled two more times and on the last time it must be emptied or the host is insulted. After this, the host presents a gift of butter tea to the guest, who accepts it without touching the rim of the bowl. The guest then pours a glass for himself, and must finish the glass or be seen as rude. Tea drinking and its accompanying rules have a long and important history tied directly to respecting others. Therefore it is wise to ask advice from your Tibet tour guide about the proper etiquette for your specific situation.

A variation of this: During festivals, a guest is offered chang. Before drinking, the guest first lightly dips his third finger in the bowl, and upon withdrawing his finger from the bowl, snaps the liquid on the finger into the air. This should be done three times as a symbol of making a sacrifice to the sky, the earth and one's ancestors. Afterwards, the guest sips only once from the bowl, and then allows the host to fill it. This is also done three times, and the fourth time the guest drinks, he must empty the bowl. After this process is completed, the guest can drink as much as he likes. In fact, he must drink a lot or the host thinks that he is not pleased with the treat or that he is very unfriendly. There is a saying that underlines the importance of this ritual: 'One bowl only will make good friends enemies.' [Source: Chloe Xin, Tibetravel.org tibettravel.org ]

According to the Tibetan custom, butter tea is drunk in separate sips, and after each sip the host refills the bowl to the brim. Thus, the guest never drains his bowl; rather, it is constantly topped off. If the visitor does not wish to drink, the best thing to do is leave the tea untouched until the time comes to leave and then drain the bowl. In this way etiquette is observed and the host will not be offended. Butter tea is also used for eating tsampa by pouring onto it, or dipping the tsampa into it, and mixing well.

Image Sources: Food and Drink: Weird Meat blog; Purdue University and Antique Tibet. Clothes: Purdue University, Snowland Cuckooo and Johompas.

Text Sources: 1) Encyclopedia of World Cultures: Russia and Eurasia/ China , edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond (C.K.Hall & Company, 1994); 2) Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, Science of China, China virtual museums, Computer Network Information Center of Chinese Academy of Sciences, kepu.net.cn ~; 3) Ethnic China ethnic-china.com \*\; 4) Chinatravel.com chinatravel.com \=/; 5) China.org, the Chinese government news site china.org *|* New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Chinese government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated July 2015

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