9 Strange Brews From Around the World

Beyond beer

Photo: Roman Yanushevsky/Shutterstock

Depending on where you are in the world, beverage choices can seem quite strange — at least to outsiders. Some of these exotic drinks are infused with unusual herbs or even animal parts, and others come from unexpected or hard-to-find sources. From absinthe (shown at left) to the South American corn beer chicha — which includes a step that requires the maker to chew grains and spit them into a pot before they are used — there are many unusual alcoholic beverages in the world worth exploring.

Chicha

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Chicha is the most unusual beverage on our list. Native to Peru, it is a sour beerlike drink usually made from corn. You may have heard of this strange brew, even if you haven't tried it. In the past, chicha was made with an unusual process. Early brewers realized that chewing the corn activated the fermentation process — saliva breaks down the grain’s starches. After chewing it, the brewers would spit the corn pulp into a large earthen pot for fermentation.

In other parts of Latin America, different grains and roots, mainly manioc, were chewed and used to make similar drinks (sometimes called cauim). Today, chicha can be found everywhere in Peru. However, the modern version of the beverage is rarely made using the chew-and-spit method. The popular drink, which has about 3 percent alcohol, is now created using malted barley.

Snake wine

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Some liquors are infused with special ingredients that aren't necessary for distillation but add flavor or even health benefits. Take Vietnam's snake wine: basically, rice-based liquor (usually called “rice wine,” although the strength makes it more akin to “rice vodka”) is poured into a bottle that contains a snake and, after a certain amount of time, the resulting cocktail can be consumed.

Though souvenir shops often sell whole snakes in a fancy bottle, the practice of combining unique ingredients with rice wine is based on traditional medicine. Still popular today, these drinks are called ruou thuoc, which literally means “medicine wine.” In some versions of ruou thuoc, certain herbs are added instead of or in addition to animals. Though whole animals such as snakes or baby mice are sometimes used, most often the wine contains only the organs, which are thought to be beneficial for health.

Pulque

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Tequila is just one product made from agave. The most traditional drink to come from the famous cactus species is pulque. This beverage is easily recognizable because of its milky color and thick texture. It is made from the sap of the agave, which is collected and fermented. This drink has a long history, with artifacts proving that it was used by Aztecs as early as the 11th century.

Once the cactus becomes productive, the sap is drained daily and collected in a natural bowl created at the center of the plant. The alcohol content of the finished product is similar to beer, and the thick texture leads some people to compare it to milk or cream. In Mexico, beer was actively promoted in the 19th and 20th centuries as a “hygienic” alternative to the traditionally made pulque. Ironically, modern studies have shown that pulque is actually packed with nutrients (such as vitamins C, B, D and E, as well as amino acids and iron). Today, the drink remains popular in many rural areas of Mexico, and there has been a push to revive interest through tourism.

Palm wine

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Palm wine goes by a number of names because it's made in many parts of the world, from the Philippines to India to West Africa. This is one of the most natural alcoholic drinks you are likely to come across. Palm wine is made by tapping the top of a palm tree and collecting the sap. Often, the sap is allowed to leak into a container (traditionally a gourd or coconut shell). The liquid begins to ferment almost immediately, and after about four or five hours, you can drink it.

The alcohol content of most palm wine is about 4 percent. Because of its natural makeup, palm wine is “on the house” for anyone who has access to a palm and has the skill and bravery to climb high enough up the trunk to get usable sap. There is a catch, however. After 12 hours, the sap becomes too acidic to drink, basically turning into a vinegar. So you have to drink palm wine the same day you collect it.

Kumis

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Most alcoholic beverages are made using grains, fruits, vegetables or sap. Kumis, also known as airag, popular in Mongolia and Central Asia, relies solely on dairy products. Traditionally made using only mare's milk, mass-produced versions of kumis use fortified cow's milk. This is because horse milk cannot be collected on a mass scale. In rural areas of Mongolia, traditional methods and ingredients are still used.

Mare's milk has more sugars than other types of dairy, so fermentation can occur naturally. Occasionally, stirring or churning is needed to keep the milk on its path to fermentation without spoiling. Kumis is not a strong drink. The alcohol content ranges from 1 percent to 2.5 percent. However, the finished product is sometimes distilled to make the much-stronger Mongolian arkhi, which has a 12 percent alcohol content.

Kvass

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Kvass is a Russian beverage that, like most alcoholic drinks, is made from grains. However, the main ingredient is not raw grain but already baked, dried bread. In Russia, rye bread is usually used, though wheat and barley breads will work, too. Actually, people from Russia and Eastern Europe would argue that kvass is not an alcoholic beverage at all. The alcohol content is usually about 1 percent, and it is classified as a soft drink in the countries where people drink it. Kvass is sold on the street at open-air kiosks in many cities.

Kvass can be made at home. The process involves baking or frying the bread until it is dry and adding sugars, yeast and some sort of fermentation starter. The drink is often served unfiltered, which actually gives the drinker a high dose of B vitamins (from the yeast).

Feni

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The Goan specialty feni (also spelled fenny or fenim) is unusual simply because it is not often seen outside of the northwestern Indian state where it was invented. Made using cashew apples or coconuts, this drink is produced by hundreds of part-time distillers. Most distilling takes place during the cashew season. The nuts, eaten throughout the world, are harvested and exported, but the apples, which have a very short shelf life, must be used locally.

Traditionally, the apples are prepared for distillation by being stomped to release the juices. This practice still occurs, though it has largely been replaced by specialized presses. Likewise, the tradition of using clay pots buried partially underground has been replaced by more-modern methods and equipment. In some parts of the state, however, the clay-pot method is still used. Feni is either double or triple distilled, and the end product is quite strong, with an alcohol content ranging from 40 percent to 45 percent.

Absinthe

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Absinthe is famous for being outlawed until recently in many countries because its ingredients were thought to induce hallucinations. The ill effects of absinthe were attributed to the chemical compound thujone, which can affect the central nervous system in high doses. Recent studies have shown that, even in the past, absinthe contained only trace amounts of the chemical. A drinker would suffer from alcohol poisoning well before he or she felt any noticeable influence from the thujone. The health problems attributed to the drink were most likely caused by its extremely high alcohol content (between 90 and 150 proof, or 45 percent to 75 percent alcohol by volume).

In the past few decades, bans on the spirit have been lifted in most countries, though limits still dictate thujone content. Like other anise-flavored drinks, absinthe is translucent in the bottle but becomes cloudy when combined with water. This is usually done by perching a sugar cube atop a special flat spoon placed across the glass, then slowly dripping water over the cube. Some people say that this ritual is one of the most attractive aspects of drinking absinthe.

Dandelion wine

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Not all unique alcohol drinks come from far-flung corners of the Earth. Dandelions, those pesky yellow flowers that most people consider weeds, can be found on lawns all across the U.S. These plants are edible — when they haven't been treated with weed killer or lawn fertilizer, of course. The roots can be roasted, ground and brewed as a coffee substitute, and the green leaves can be added to salad. The yellow petals have traditionally been used to make wine.

The petals are fermented like other types of wine (with sugars and yeast). Because the end product is very light, citrus fruits or fruit juices are often added for extra flavor. Some dandelion wine is available commercially. Though home brewing is possible, a fair bit of know-how is required. Once bottled, the wine has to ferment for at least an additional six months before it can be enjoyed.