Earlier this year, after my winemaking duties were wrapped up in New Zealand, and before they began again in Oregon, I happened to find myself in Mongolia, that large central Asian country locked between Russia and China where visions of yurts, yaks and Genghis Khan often come to most minds. I was not there to investigate the potential for wine production, wine importation or anything related to wine, but rather to visit an old friend who had joined the Peace Corps and had been fortunate to find themselves posted to a country who’s charm grows on you the moment you arrive.
When I first began planning my trip to Mongolia a fellow winemaker asked me if I had ever tried fermented dairy products? No, was my obvious answer. Dairy is not the first thing that comes to one’s mind as a fermented beverage. However, in an area of the world where the number of livestock outnumbers that of people by 15 to 1 it may have been inevitable that the art of fermenting dairy was bound to be discovered.
There are few facts on just exactly how long the people of central Asia have been drinking fermented mare’s milk ( known as “kumis”), but it is agreed by most of those who study that sort of thing, that is has been a while.
Genghis Kahn, who unified the Mongolian people in 1206 and within two generations createdthe largest empire the world has ever seen, was known to have quaffed kumis with quite some regularity. Its consumptions today is just as regular, though one will not find it in a store. No, this is a cultural product made by individual hands in the exact same way it has been for, quite possibly, millennia.
Fermentation, at its most basic level, is not a complicated process. There are, however, some requirements, chief among them being sugar, yeast and a little warmth. The yeast feed off the sugars, multiply and produce two primary byproducts: CO2 and alcohol, the latter of which stays in solution while the former is released as gas and never makes it to the bottle, except for in the case of Champagne…and kumis of course.
As it was explained to me one evening over vodka (Mongolians other favorite drink) kumis is both easy and quick to make. The milking season for mares is in between mid-June and October. Once the milk has been obtained, it is poured into a horsehide container (other containers are used, but horsehide is traditional). Occasionally, additional sugar is added but often there are enough natural sugars in the milk to produce the 1% – 2% alcohol that will be in the finished product. Natural yeasts inoculate the milk inside the horsehide bag, which is usually hung just outside the entrance to a yurt, or just inside during cooler times of the year. Initial fermentation takes place with 2 hours once the milk has reached about 80F (27C). Traditionally, when entering or leaving a yurt with a kumis bag it is customary to stir the brew a few times, which stimulates the ferment and keeps the yeast happy. After a couple of days, the process is finished and presto, you’re done! Break out the Riedel.
Having been in the fermentation business for some time it is not hard to understand my curiosity for an alcoholic beverage that can take only days, and in some cases just hours, to make. If nothing else, winemaking does allow for the lesson of patience. Kumis, on the other hand, is all about the “now”. Milk your mare, throw it in a bag, wait a day and then have a bowl…or two. And if you are lactose intolerant, worry not. The fermentation process converts the lactose in mare’s milk (which is 40% higher than in milk of sheep or cows) to lactic acid, a necessity in a country where over 80% of the people are lactose intolerant.
So there I was in Mongolia. My friend and I were a few days into a two-week road trip that would eventually take us nearly 1000 miles around the country, camping most of the way. We had just finished up a long day of driving and had pulled well off the “road” to pitch camp (FYI: If you ever travel to Mongolia, remember that most roads there require patience and a 4x4).
We were currently two days drive from the nearest city, among what looked to be an endless expanse of sparsely vegetative rolling hills. This was the steppe. As the sun was beginning to set we noticed two boys on horses herding a group of horses in our direction. As they rode past out campsite, one of them peeled off and rode over. My friend spoke to him in Mongolian. The boy explained that they were retrieving some horses that had run off the day before. Their camp as still over an hour away and they had run out of water. They wanted to know if we had any to spare. In Mongolia, where nearly half the population still lives a nomadic lifestyle, it is customary to provide water, a meal or even place to sleep to someone who is traveling and in need. We gave the boys water to drink and some to take with them. They thanked us several times, then road off, literally into the setting sun.
The next morning we found a plastic two-liter bottle of white liquid on the hood of our jeep. Neither one of us had heard them, but one or both of the boys had returned to our camp later that night to give us a bottle of kumis. “Probably to thank us for the water,” my friend explained.
Curious, I opened the bottle up and poured a little into a small bowl. The white liquid popped slightly as CO2 still bubbled out. Obviously, this was a fresh brew. I tasted it. Hmm? Light in body, tangy in the mid-palate with notes of sour yogurt and a so-quick-you-did-not-see-it-coming finish, my first experience with fermented mare’s milk left me thinking…that wasn’t so bad. Champagne it was not, but then again, we were a long way from France. Despite the culture shock my palate was going through, I continued to drink the kumis, becoming more intrigued with these new flavors and even textures I was experiencing. Actually beginning to enjoy it, I quaffed the whole bowl and nearly asked for another. Nearly. One bowlwas plenty, for now.
For the rest of our trip we had a little kumis every morning, and sometimes even “enjoyed” a little in the afternoon. By the end of our road trip I was actually developing a taste for it. That said, I don’t think I will be milking any horses here in Oregon any time soon.
So, if you find yourself traveling in some far away land and someone offers you a drink of some fermented beverage, try it. Why not? You never know what you might discover.
By the way, did I mention the Mongolia vodka made from yogurt? No? Well, maybe another time.