shubat (fermented camel milk) left versus koumiss (fermented mare's milk) right

Kazakhs, Mongolians and other Central Asians like to drink koumiss, an alcoholic drink made from fermented mare's milk with salt added. Koumiss (also spelled kumys, kumis, and kumiss) is a sour, bitter-tasting milky drink, with bits of brown horse-milk fat floating it in it, made by adding yeast cultures to a mare's milk mixture. Ordinary koumiss has an alcoholic content of three percent—less than beer, which is generally four to six percent and less than wine, which is generally 12.5 to 14.5 percent. Koumiss is called airag in Mongolia and is regarded as the Mongolian national drink. The word koumiss is of Turkic origin. [Source: Michael Wines, New York Times, July 19, 2002]

Koumiss is an acquired taste that many Westerners don’t go for. The taste of koumiss has been described as "across between buttermilk and champagne" with a “tang reminiscent of good pickled brine” or a strong smoked gouda and is said to be high in vitamin C. Hillary Clinton tried some when she visited Central Asia . She said it tasted like yoghurt. Other have said it tastes like “stomach bile.” Its white color is equated with purity.

Koumiss is drunk at celebrations when it is in season. It contains only a little alcohol and it is very hard to get drunk off it. The Kyrgyz regard it as a healthy drink: full of protein, minerals, vitamins and sugar. Kyrgyz people have been fond of it since ancient times. Many Kyrgyz will tell you they drink the stuff to help their horses. At high altitudes colts die if they get too fat so the nomads keep them from drinking it by drinking themselves.

Koumiss is typically made in the summer or autumn, when the pastures are lush, the herds are thriving and milk is plentiful. Containing a relatively low percentage of alcohol, koumiss is usually translucent. It is said that "the color is similar to white wine", and "it is like sweet dew to the taste and smelled as brewed sweet wine". Mongolians say koumiss has a mellow, satiny, sweet and sour texture and a sweet, milky smell. On the health front they say it dispels cold, stimulates the circulation of blood and aids digestion. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, Science of China]

During Tsagaan Sar, the Mongolian New Year, koumiss is presented to all guests and is part of the welcoming ritual for the White Month. In the old days servants who were late reportedly had to down five to 10 liters of koumiss as a punishment. Mongolians insist that its healthy because it made of milk. The Mongolian provinces of Arkhangai, Bulgan , Overkhangai are said to produce the best airag (koumiss).

Early History of Koumiss

The Mongol khan Mongke's great drinking fountain

Koumiss has been around for thousands of years and is a fixture of daily life as well as festivals, feasts and big celebrations. William Rubrick wrote in the 13th century: “At the taste of it, I broke out in a sweat with horror and surprise...It makes the inner man most joyful, intoxicates weak head and greatly provokes urine.”

Adrienne Mayor wrote in Wonder & Marvels: “Amazons, those fabled women warriors of the steppes, were working mothers too busy to breastfeed. According to the ancient Greeks, they nourished their infants with mare’s milk. Since Homer, nomadic tribes from the Black Sea to Mongolia were known as “mare-milking Scythians.” That notion was exotic enough, but the Greeks would have been surprised to learn that the babies’ milk contained alcohol. [Source: Adrienne Mayor,Wonder & Marvels. Mayor is a Research Scholar in Classics and History of Science, Stanford University. She is the author of “The Amazons: Lives and Legends of Warrior Women across the Ancient World” (2104), and “The Poison King: The Life and Legend of Mithradates, Rome’s Deadliest Enemy,” nonfiction finalist for the 2009 National Book Award. ^^]

“Scythian men and women preferred a stronger alcoholic punch than the drink given to babies. (One ancient Amazon’s name translates as “Drunkard.”) The nomads discovered how to enrich fermented milk by the process now known as “freeze distillation.” No strangers to snow, the nomads would allow the fermented milk to freeze, thaw it, remove the ice crystals, refreeze, and repeat until the desired alcoholic level was reached. ^^

“The Greek historian Herodotus (ca 450 BC) observed mare milk churning on a large scale among the settled Scythians on the Black Sea. They poured the milk into deep wooden casks, then stirred vigorously as it fermented. What rose to the top was drawn off and drunk. The early European traveler William of Rubruck, who trekked across the steppes ca AD 1250, watched the same process: “As the nomads churn the milk it begins to ferment and bubble up like new wine.” He sampled the effervescent beverage and found it pungent and intoxicating. “Koumiss makes the inner man most joyful!” Smaller batches of koumiss were fermented in leather bags by families on the move. In Inner Asia, the custom was to hang the sack where passersby could periodically punch the bag to agitate the koumiss. Koumiss is a favorite drink from the Black Sea to western China. ^^

“How ancient is koumiss? Historical linguistics and archaeology provide clues. The three most ancient alcoholic beverages are mead (fermented honey), kvass (beer), and koumiss. Kvass and mead have cognates in Proto-Indo-European languages, while koumiss derives from the ancient Central Asian Turkic language family. So koumiss originated along with the domestication of the horse on the steppes more than 5,000 years ago. ^^

“Lipids from horse milk can be identified on artifacts in ancient burials. Bowls containing residue of mare’s milk have been discovered in Botai culture dwellings of about 3500 BC in Kazakhstan. These people were among the first to tame wild horses. Evidence for fermented mare’s milk is also found in the graves of Scythian men and women. Special utensils for beating koumiss and drinking vessels with traces of horse milk are common grave goods. The famous Golden Warrior of Issyk (Kazakhstan) was accompanied by koumiss beaters and bowls that held traces of mare’s milk. In the grave of the tattooed “Ice Princess” (Ukok, Russia) archaeologists discovered a wooden stirring stick in a cup decorated with snow leopards. Inside the cup was the residue of koumiss that would sustain her in the Afterlife.” ^^

William of Rubruck on Koumiss

William of Rubruck (c. 1220 – c. 1293, or ca. 1210-ca. 1270) was a Flemish Franciscan missionary, monk and explorer. His account is one of the masterpieces of medieval geographical literature comparable to that of Marco Polo and Ibn Battuta and is the most detailed and valuable of the early Western accounts of the Mongols. Born in Rubrouck, Flanders, he is known also as William of Rubruk, Willem van Ruysbroeck, Guillaume de Rubrouck or Willielmus de Rubruquis. He travelled to various places of the Mongol Empire in Asia before his return to Europe. [Source: Wikipedia]

Rubruck called koumiss cosmos. He wrote: “This cosmos, which is mare's milk, is made in this wise. They stretch a long rope on the ground fixed to two stakes stuck in the ground, and to this rope they tie toward the third hour the colts of the mares they want to milk. Then the mothers stand near their foal, and allow themselves to be quietly milked; and if one be too wild, then a man takes the colt and brings it to her, allowing it to suck a little; then he takes it away and the milker takes its place. When they have got together a great quantity of milk, which is as sweet as cow's as long as it is fresh, they pour it into a big skin or bottle, and they set to churning it with a stick prepared for that purpose, and which is as big as a man's head at its lower extremity and hollowed out; and when they have beaten it sharply it begins to boil up like new wine and to sour or ferment, and they continue to churn it until they have extracted the butter. Then they taste it, and when it is mildly pungent, they drink it. It is pungent on the tongue like râpé wine [i.e., a wine of inferior quality] when drunk, and when a man has finished drinking, it leaves a taste of milk of almonds on the tongue, and it makes the inner man most joyful and also intoxicates weak heads, and greatly provokes urine. [Source: “The Journey of William of Rubruck to the Eastern Parts of the World, 1253-55" by William of Rubruck, translation by W. W. Rockhill, 1900; depts.washington.edu/silkroad /~]

“They also make cara cosmos that is "black cosmos," for the use of the great lords. It is for the following reason that mare's milk curdles not. It is a fact that (the milk) of no animal will curdle in the stomach of whose fetus is not found curdled milk. In the stomach of mares' colts it is not found, so the milk of mares curdles not. They churn then the milk until all the thicker parts go straight to the bottom, like the dregs of wine, and the pure part remains on top, and it is like whey or white must. The dregs are very white, and they are given to the slaves, and they provoke much to sleep. This clear (liquor) the lords drink, and it is assuredly a most agreeable drink and most efficacious. Batu has thirty men around his camp at a day's distance, each of whom sends him every day such milk of a hundred mares, that is to say every day the milk of three thousand mares, exclusive of the other white milk which they carry to others. /~\

“As in Syria the peasants give a third of their produce, so it is these (Tartars) must bring to the ordu of their lords the milk of every third day. As to cow's milk they first extract the butter, then they boil it down perfectly dry, after which they put it away in sheep paunches which they keep for that purpose; and they put no salt in the butter, for on account of the great boiling down it spoils not. And they keep this for the winter. What remains of the milk after the butter they let sour as much as can be, and they boil it, and it curdles in boiling, and the curd they dry in the sun, and it becomes as hard as iron slag, and they put it away in bags for the winter. In winter time, when milk fails them, they put this sour curd, which they call gruit, in a skin and pour water on it, and churn it vigorously till it dissolves in the water, which is made sour by it, and this water they drink instead of milk. They are most careful not to drink pure water.” /~\

Koumiss and Health

milking a horse

Koumiss is believed to have medicinal qualities and is used for treating lung and intestinal ailments. It is reportedly high in Vitamin C. Adrienne Mayor wrote in Wonder & Marvels: “Milk from horses is nutritious but because of its high lactose content raw mare’s milk is a strong laxative. It requires fermentation to be a viable source of nutrition, even for babies. During fermentation the milk is agitated or churned like butter. The lactobacilli bacteria acidify the milk and yeasts create carbonated ethanol. The result is mildly alcoholic koumiss high in calories and vitamins. (Koumiss is similar to kefir, a fermented, less alcoholic milk drink of the Caucasus.)[Source: Adrienne Mayor,Wonder & Marvels.^^]

In the 1840s, Russian doctors said they discovered that koumiss had curative properties and used it for treating tuberculosis, anemia, chronic lung diseases and gynecological and skin diseases. Some 16 special sanatoria were established which treated patients with lots of fresh air, exercise and koumiss. They served a number of famous people including members of the imperial family, Leo Tolstoy, Maxim Gorky, and even a minor British Member of Parliament who made the journey to Central Asia especially to undergo the treatment. Unfortunately, traditional koumiss can be stored for only up to three days, so production is limited to the milking period of mares. To solve this problem, a method of producing pasteurised koumiss was developed allowing treatment all year round, and even export. A special facility producing pasteurised koumiss was opened in the Naryn region of Kyrgyzstan.

The Mongolian State University of Science and Technology has entered into a partnership with the Swiss International Development Agency to process Mongolian mare’s milk into beauty products [Source: Sam Knight, Times of London, July 21, 2007]

Making Koumiss

To make Koumiss: 1) fresh horse milk (or camel milk) is stored in leather churns; 2) yeast is added; 3) then the mixture is stirred continuously, heated and fermented for three or four days until it is ready to drink. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, Science of China, China virtual museums, Computer Network Information Center of Chinese Academy of Sciences ]

mare's milk in a bucket

Mare’s milk is much thicker than cow’s milk and is so sweet that it seems like it has sugar added. It is the sugar content that allows it be fermented and made into an alcoholic drink. Koumiss is generally only available in the spring and summer, when mares are foaling. The milk is drawn from a mare by allowing a foal to start nursing and then pulling the young animal away but keeping the foal beside the mother. Milking a mare is a difficult and even dangerous procedure. A herd of 600 horses produces about 25 gallons of milk a day.

The milk is collected in a bucket and poured into rawhide bags. Some starter is added from the last batch to churn along with 2½ gallons of mare’s milk, half gallon of water and some cow butter to keep the leather flexible. The churn is a barrel-size bag with a stick sticking out the top. The mare’s milk mixture is churned 500 times a day, or churned fewer times every few hours, during the three or four days it takes to ferment. On the last evening it is churned 5,000 times until it curdles. Bags of fermenting koumiss hang in leather bags inside gers to left of the door. It is customary for visitors to a ger to stir the koumiss to assist fermentation.

Fermented milk can be made from the fresh milk of horse, cow, sheep or camel. Koumiss made from cow's milk has sugar added to it because cow's milk contains less lactose than horse's milk. In some places koumiss is made in factories and delivered to settlements and camps in tank trucks, with customers lining up to have their pails filled with a hose.

Cathy Ang wrote: Milk wine “is made with any type of milk, the most valuable and famous made using horse milk. To make milk wine use raw milk and put it into a wooden barrel or porcelain jar. There, it is allowed to ferment and separate itself from the fat. The fermented milk without its top layer of fat is transferred to a pot equipped with a distillation devise. This is usually a bucket of cold water placed above two brick jars covered and insulated with towels. The heat under the pot is kept at a high temperature, the evaporated alcohol condensing underneath the cold water bucket where it drips into the prepared brick jars. The most expensive horse wine is fermented and distilled six times. [Source: Cathy Ang, Chinese Ethnic Minorities and Their Foods, Spring Volume: 2000 Issue: 7(1) page(s): 7 and 8. Cathy Ang (formerly Yung-kang Wang) is a research chemist working for the Food and Drug Administration in Jefferson, Arkansas. ^=^]

Bumping-ferment is the traditional way of making kumiss. It is said that this method dates back to the time of the ancient nomads. Ancient horsemen usually placed fresh milk into leather bag that they carried with them. Since the nomads often rode their horses for long periods, moving up and won as one does on horseback, land all day, the milk fermented under these conditions, especially when the weather was hot. The result was fermented milk with a unique sweet, sour and hot taste. The bumping-ferment method of making koumiss attempts simulate the conditions of the ancient horsemen: 1) Fresh milk is churned from time to time in a container, such as leather bag or bucket, with a special wooden stick. 2) The milk is heated up and stirred until it ferments and separates. 3) The dreg that sinks to at the bottom are removed while the whey floating is the koumiss. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, Science of China~]

To make koumiss with a higher alcohol content requires distillation: 1) pour milk into a kettle or pot to heat up. 2) While heating, cover the kettle or pot with a bucket that has no bottom or a tubular hood made of purple wicker or elm branches. 3) Place a basin or a pot of cold water for cooling above the bucket or the hood, in which a small jar is hanged. 4) In addition to this, sometimes a tube is placed in the kettle mouth. 5) After the milk is heated it vaporizes and collects in bucket above the pot. 6) As the vapor cools down it congeals into drops, which drip into the little jar or flow through the tube of the kettle. If you distill the koumiss over and over again, the percentage of alcohol increases gradually. ~

Drinking Koumiss

koumiss drinking stuff

Koumiss is usually ladled out of a large container and served in pint-size bowls. It is often handed around in a communal bowl. One must drink a lot of it to get high. It is sometimes poured from glass to glass several times to make it thick like whipped cream. Before drinking it Mongolians dip their ring finger in it and smear some of their forehead and flick it in the four compass directions as a sign of respect to koumiss itself. Some Mongolians drink ten liters of the stuff a day. Describing a herder drinking koumiss, Michael Wines wrote in the New York Times, “He lifts a bowl to his mouth, drinks deeply and practically belches an emphatic, ‘Ahhhh!’ He licks his lips...Then he does it all over again.”

It is said koumiss tastes sour, sweet, and slightly bitter all at the same time. First time drinkers, even locals, often have stomach problems. When she visited Central Asia, U.S. Secretary of State Madeline Albright told her staff: "You must touch it to your lips as if tasting it" if you don't drink it.

There are generally age limits on the consumption of koumiss. One herder told the New York Times, “Children begin with small quantities. Then after a while they can drink large quantities.” The best stuff come from herders. The koumiss found in the cities is often diluted with cow’s milk or water. In Mongolia, the koumiss from the Gobi tends to be stronger than that produced in other places. The variety made in Hujirt is said to especially tasty. One herder told the New York Times, “It all depends on the quality of the grass. In the fall when the grass is drier, the koumiss becomes even stronger.”

The koumiss-making process also produces a small quantity of fermented whey, a clear liquid that rises to the top and can be drawn off. The whey is more than 30 percent alcohol, close to that of vodka.

Drinking Customs in Kyrgyzstan

In the summer a traditional drink called koumisss is available. This is made of fermented mare's milk, and is drunk at celebrations when it is in season. Multiple shots of vodka are mandatory at all celebrations. It is a custom for Kyrgyzstani people to drink a lot of alcohol for holiday celebrations. The drinks usually vary between beer, wine, Champaign, and vodka or sometimes altogether.

Being a guest in some Kyrgyzstani houses, you may be pressured to drink more than you usually do. If you attend a big event like a Birthday party or a national holiday, there is going to be a lot of toasting, and often times people drink "bottoms up" to most of the toast. If you are a guest of honor (and being a foreigner you may expect to be one), people would drink a lot to you, and you're expected to knock it all down no matter how much or little you enjoy it. For someone who is not used to it, such heavy drinking may be difficult to keep up with, and the main goal for someone like that would be no to stay sober, but avoid getting sick. So, if you really do not feel like drinking, just say politely "no" and do not drink -this is the best way out in such a situation. Often you may accept one drink, thinking that one means one, but if accept the first drink custom will often dictate that you drink with the rest until the end of the bottle. Women have an easier time refusing alcohol then do men. They say there is a very short period between the first and the second (drink or sometimes (what happens more oftenly)bottles). [Source: fantasticasia.net ~~]

Toasting is a big part of any drinking event, just like drinking is a big part of any social event. Everybody is supposed to be able to make a long toast. The longer the toast, the better. Long toast supposedly show your intelligence. To make a toast is the same as to make a speech before a big auditorium. Many find pride in being given a toast, and many find offense in not being offered to propose one. That is why the host or the toast-master often would not call it a day until everybody has had his or her chance to propose a toast. Also be sure to pour drinks for everybody, then for yourself, to pour for yourself first is very odd here. ~~

Koumiss (slightly fermented mare’s milk) is usually ladled out of a large container and served in pint-size bowls. It is often handed around in a communal bowl. One must drink a lot of it to get high. It is sometimes poured from glass to glass several times to make it thick like whipped cream. Before drinking it many Central Asians dip their ring finger in it and smear some of their forehead and flick it in the four compass directions as a sign of respect to koumiss itself. Some Mongolians drink ten liters of the stuff a day. Describing a herder drinking koumiss, Michael Wines wrote in the New York Times, “He lifts a bowl to his mouth, drinks deeply and practically belches an emphatic, ‘Ahhhh!’ He licks his lips...Then he does it all over again.”

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. 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.

Last updated April 2016

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