Local Winemaking in Imphal

Yesterday I took my first trip to a branch office of WSDS to help the Loan Officers do interviews for borrower profiles. As my Kiva Coordinator and I left the city of Imphal in his mini station wagon, I watched the road turn from well-paved, to potholed, to dirt over the course of thirty minutes. I watched our terrain change from flat, dusty valley to lush green mountains, and I watched the buildings turn from crowded city dwellings to sparse shacks. While out in one of the villages, Andro, we stopped to visit one of the Kiva clients, who makes “wine.” Isn’t it interesting how all cultures in the world (well, almost all) figured out the essentials to alcohol-making separately? Somehow the processes are all similar, but they use different ingredients based on what is readily available.

The winemaking process in the case of this region in Manipur is actually more similar to making a hard alcohol, like Vodka, than it is to the winemaking we see in Napa Valley. The reason for this is that the base for this wine is a starch (rice), rather than a readily available sugar (grapes). The women who make the wine first mix cooked rice with this tree bark.

The tree bark to ferment that "makes you crazy in the head"

They let this rice and bark ferment for four days. The women say it is the tree bark that “makes you crazy in the head.” I thought about this for a few minutes. After all, people all over the world advise against drinking moonshine (i.e. home made wine). I wasn’t about to drink some sort of hallucinogenic alcohol, was I? What was this bark, opium? I picked my brain for any knowledge I had of the natural sources of drugs in the U.S. I was kicking myself for being such a goody-two-shoes my whole life that I didn’t have basic drug knowledge. I blame the D.A.R.E. program.

Then it occurred to me to ask where the bark came from. What kind of tree is it? They said they didn’t know the name, but that I should try a piece of the bark on its own. Supposedly, the plain bark does not make people “crazy in the head.” So, I tried it. It was actually sugary sweet -- surprisingly so. That’s when it occurred to me. The essential ingredient to any alcohol is sugar. The sugar can either come from something obviously sweet, like grapes, or from the gradual fermentation of a starch, in this case, rice. These women ferment the rice and the sweet tree bark for only four days, at which point the alcohol content is already high enough. So, of course the bark is what makes you “crazy in the head” – this is what makes the fermented rice alcoholic, faster. Without the sugary bark, the women would have to wait for the rice to be converted from starch to sugar, and then the yeast to convert the sugar to alcohol.

Once the rice and bark are fermented (we call this the mash), the women put the large pot over a fire. On top of the large pot, they put a metal plate with holes in it. On top of that goes a round cylinder in which there is a funnel that feeds into a spout that leads into a metal jar. Finally, on top of the cylinder is a smaller pot full of cold water.

As the fermented rice and bark heat up, the alcohol evaporates. Alcohol’s boiling point is lower than that of water, so the alcohol is the first thing to come out of the mash. When it hits the cold surface created by the pot of cold water, the steam condenses and drips into the funnel and out into the metal jar. This product is the first distillation, and is the strongest “wine” to come from that mash.

The women at this particular home do three distillations with the same mash, each distillation weaker than the last, since more water will evaporate with the alcohol over time. The proportions of ingredients will change through what is called a “continuous distillation” process.

Being from California, with a wine-enthusiast for a father, I was fascinated by the process here in Manipur. Our family grows grapes in the Russian River valley, so I have learned, over the years, the winemaking process. The process I learned yesterday has its similarities to winemaking at home, but in reality it is much more similar to the vodka or whiskey-making process.

With wine, the grapes already have sugar content. In fact, they are basically all sugar. So, rather than having to take a carbohydrate and seduce it into producing sugar, grapes are ready for the task. Grapes are fermented in a primary fermentation vat. During this one-week fermentation process, the sugar is converted into alcohol and flavor. There is no distillation process; wine is never heated while it is made. A winemaker will simply remove the “meat” and skin of the grapes from the vat after one week. Then, it will go through a second fermentation process that can take anywhere from six weeks to six months or longer. During this period, the murkiness of the wine eventually is removed, as the sediment (what winemakers call “lees”) will settle to the bottom and be removed periodically over this time.

The reason wine as we know it retains its color is because you are actually drinking the liquid that was produced from the sugary grapes. In the case of distilled alcohols, like that made in Andro, no matter the color of the fermented products (the mash), the consumer is drinking the condensed steam.

The winemakers in Andro sell their product wholesale to people who will come and sell it in the city of Imphal. They tell me that out here in Andro is the only place you know it’s pure; all of their bulk buyers will mix any of the distillations with water, or something worse, to have it go farther.

When I returned to Imphal, I went on a mission to find somewhere that actually sells this wine. As far as I could tell over my two weeks in this city, no one drinks. There are no bars, in the “meat hotels” and “rice hotels” as far as I could tell everyone was drinking water or soda. Turns out, the “hotels” that sell booze look somewhat non-descript. Maybe you’d be able to see “hotel” scrawled quite small somewhere on the wooden doorframe. Most of the other hotels will be open and bright, as welcoming as a business here can be. These hotels, on the other hand, look like they are closed. There will be a curtain over the door, and if there isn’t, when you look inside it is very dark even during the bright day.

The reason for this shady business is because technically, Manipur is a dry state. This means the buying, selling, and consuming of alcohol is technically illegal. I continue to use the word “technically” because (if you read between the lines of what I have been writing about) the production, sale, and consumption of alcohol still continues despite this law. It is even the case that in Churachandpur, the second largest city in Manipur, one can have a beer with lunch.

I’ll save the discussion of lawmaking and civil society in India for another day, but I thought I’d throw it in so you can rest assured the winemaking women of Andro manage to make a living despite these anti-alcohol laws.

About the author

Stasi Baranoff

Stasi was born with travel in her genes. Her Japan-born mother and South Korean-born father (though both Russian by blood) chose to spend their honeymoon as nomads, wandering the globe for six months before settling down. She has always connected strongly to this sense of wanderlust and has committed time over the years to fueling her curiosity about the world. As a Global Studies major at UCLA, Stasi went on the Semester at Sea abroad program. It was through these travels throughout Southeast Asia and North Africa that she saw first-hand the significant economic and social disparities throughout the world. After graduating, she followed her pasison to Buenos Aires, Argentina, where she worked with a local NGO to fight human rights abuses within the prison system in the Buenos Aires province. The impact of these experiences has driven her to promote sustainable change to improve lives in developing communities. This past September, she returned from London where she completed her master’s in international relations, focusing her dissertation research on microfinance and women's empowerment. Stasi is excited to serve as Kiva Fellow in India, facilitating lasting change for women and girls through microloans.