As brands of Burmese alcohol compete with recently approved foreign liquor imports, Karenni villagers are fighting to retain local brewing customs.
Family businesses are keeping to their traditional techniques for distilling sticky rice to make wine.
Khao Yae, as it is known in eastern Burma, remains the drink of choice for Karenni connoisseurs, despite an array of choice in a rapidly expanding Burmese liquor market.
Recently granted government liqueur production licenses now allow foreign companies like Carlsberg and Thailand’s ThaiBev to brew in Burma. They’re posing a threat to domestic producers such as Myanmar Brewery Ltd — Burma’s biggest alcohol company — operated in part by the military-owned Union Of Myanmar Economic Holdings.
Despite the reach of both multinationals and large domestic firms, family businesses in Karenni state continue to employ centuries-old practices to create a product they believe to be one of a kind.
Muda, of the ethnic Gheko subdivision of Karenni people, explains that four different types of sticky rice are used to brew Khao Yae, in a time-consuming process achieved by varying methods between local groups.
The rice is either boiled down before it is pot fermented, or distilled using a steaming method.
After detailing the process for perfecting her drop, Muda explained that techniques differ from area to area.
“In Hanpyu and Lahta areas of Karenni State,” she said, “people use the same methods as they do across Burma, cooking the sticky rice like cooking normal rice before they add yeast.”
“However, we use the Gheko traditional method of adding yeast to the rice before steaming it.”
Karenni rice wine is not only popular among locals looking to wind down after a day in the fields. Locals say the elixir serves as a medicinal tonic, used to soothe joints and cure ailments.
It is even used by mothers weaning breastfeeding children.
“It replenishes the body’s strength, drink a little each day and you’ll stay healthy,” said one local man who warns of the potency of the brew.
“When I run out of Khao Yae, I take a break from working for the day, or look for a place to buy some,” he admits.
Bottles of the brew sell for around 2,000 kyat (US$2) at local markets.
As foreign brands continue to flood the Burmese market, traditional Karenni rice wine may play an important role in preserving local culture.