Malana: A Himalayan village shrouded in myth

India’s Parvati Valley is well known among travellers for its psychedelic parties and free-flowing hashish that originates from the ancient village of Malana in North India’s Himachal Pradesh region. But if you look beyond the haze, you’ll find a treasure trove of legends, intrigue and unanswered questions.

Nestled in the peaks of the Himalayas, Malana is surrounded by steep cliffs and snow-capped mountains. Travellers have long been drawn to this village of nearly 1,700 inhabitants, staying for days on end amid the cold gushes of wind and rows of dark green deodar trees to consume what locals consider the holy herb and what outsiders see as a way to free the mind: the famed and award-winning Malana cream. This cannabis resin or hashish is renowned both for the hand rubbing-technique used to produce it and for its reportedly remarkable intoxicating effects. But I’d come to Malana to try to make sense of the myths surrounding the village.

The ancient village of Malana in India’s Himachal Pradesh is known to outsiders for its hashish (Credit: Credit: © Sauriêl Creative | Samantha Leigh Scholl/Alamy)

The ancient village of Malana in India’s Himachal Pradesh is known to outsiders for its hashish (Credit: © Sauriêl Creative | Samantha Leigh Scholl/Alamy)

Legend has it that some of Alexander the Great’s army took shelter in this isolated village in 326BC after they were wounded in a battle against Porus, a ruler in India’s Punjab region. These soldiers are often said to be the ancestors of the Malani people. Artefacts from that period have been found in the village, such as a sword that reportedly rests inside the temple. However, genetic ties to the soldiers have not been studied or established. In fact, many of the locals I spoke to had no idea where this myth originated.

“The big claim that Malani people have descended from Alexander the Great’s army has become a widely accepted truth, but I have not found any real backing to it. There are some weapons and other things that can be found that have raised these links, but I am certain that there is no evidence to this story,” said Amlan Datta, a filmmaker who has spent a decade working in Malana.

But these theories are fuelled by locals’ noticeably different physical features and their language, which are unlike that of any other local tribe, adding to the enigma surrounding the Malanis and their identity. They speak Kanashi, which is considered sacred and is not taught to outsiders. It is also spoken nowhere else in the world. During my visit, I referred to some of the men I met as ‘Bhaiji’ (a polite way of saying brother), which is a fairly common way to address men in Himachal. Though locals understood when I spoke to them in Hindi, their responses in Kanashi were incomprehensible to me.

The residents of Malana are said to be descendants of Alexander the Great’s army (Credit: Credit: © Sauriêl Creative | Samantha Leigh Scholl/Alamy)

The residents of Malana are said to be descendants of Alexander the Great’s army (Credit: © Sauriêl Creative | Samantha Leigh Scholl/Alamy)

A study of Kanashi is currently being undertaken by Uppsala University in Sweden, led by professor of linguistics, Anju Saxena. “Kanashi qualifies as a definitely endangered, as an unwritten and almost undescribed language,” Saxena told me. “It belongs to the Sino-Tibetan language family, and in all the surrounding villages, Indo-Aryan languages are spoken, which are completely unrelated to Kanashi. This raises interesting questions concerning its prehistory and its linguistic structure.”

Even getting to Malana was a journey into the unknown. There are no motorable roads to the village, and it took me about four hours to trek there from the village of Jari at the bottom of the Parvati Valley. The approach was steep yet breath-taking. It wasn’t long before I started passing Malani people – distinguishable by their light brown hair, light brown eyes, long noses and a distinct wheatish or a golden-brownish complexion of skin – most of whom were traditionally dressed in light brown robes, caps and hemp shoes. To me, they looked more Mediterranean than Himachali.

Malanis speak Kanashi, a language that is considered sacred and is not spoken anywhere else in the world (Credit: Credit: © Sauriêl Creative | Samantha Leigh Scholl/Alamy)

Malanis speak Kanashi, a language that is considered sacred and is not spoken anywhere else in the world (Credit: © Sauriêl Creative | Samantha Leigh Scholl/Alamy)

As I entered the village, I came to a group of teenagers who casually inquired whether I was interested in buying some hashish. Though cannabis has long been the backbone of this small village’s economy, it has led to a host of socio-cultural issues, such as young children being involved in the drug trade. This is perhaps why, one year ago, the village deity Jamdagni Rishi – who is locally nicknamed the Jamlu Devta and is a great sage in Hindu mythology – decreed through his spiritual spokesperson (the Gur) that all guesthouses across the village would be shut, leaving the village open to outsiders only during the day.

Jamlu Devta is an important figurehead in village governance, a political set-up that has long baffled researchers and visitors who cannot comprehend how such an advanced form of governance exists in this quaint and remote Himalayan village.

Malana’s unique democratic system is said to be among the oldest in the world, and, similar to the Ancient Greek system of democracy, it consists of a lower house and upper house. However, it has a uniquely spiritual twist to it: ultimate rulings rest on the upper court, which includes three important figures, of which one is the representative of the local deity, Jamlu Devta.

“Devta is the ultimate word and we have a set-up of a council and three political figures of sorts, one of whom – the Gur, or the vessel who is possessed by Jamlu – communicates to us the decisions of Jamlu Devta,” explained Rohan, one of the hashish-dealing teenagers.

Malanis’ distinct physical characteristics are reminiscent of those seen in Mediterranean populations (Credit: Credit: Jenny Matthews/Alamy)

Malanis’ distinct physical characteristics are reminiscent of those seen in Mediterranean populations (Credit: Jenny Matthews/Alamy)

Datta had told me about a local legend that said Jamlu Devta once inhabited Malana, which he was gifted by the Hindu god Shiva. There are two temples in the village, one dedicated to him and the other, to his wife, Renuka Devi. As I walked through the narrow passageways of this ancient village, dotted with wooden and brick houses, I entered the large courtyard, where the lower court gathers, and a temple dedicated to Jamlu Devta. It was sight to behold against a backdrop of snow-capped mountains.

The temple, with wide wooden pillars, intricate doors and a host of bones, skulls and other sacrificial animal parts on one wall looked intriguing. But there was a warning sign outside demanding INR 3,500 ‘On touching of this holy place of Jamdagni Rishi’.

This sign is an outward demonstration of another tradition that is very apparent in Malana: a quest to preserve the ‘purity’ of the village. People across Himachal Pradesh will tell you that the Malanis are known to restrict contact with outsiders, particularly in terms of direct physical contact. I personally had been warned to keep my distance by the driver who had brought me to Jari earlier that day.

Malana’s unique democratic system is said to be among the oldest in the world (Credit: Credit: © Sauriêl Creative | Samantha Leigh Scholl/Alamy)

Malana’s unique democratic system is said to be among the oldest in the world (Credit: © Sauriêl Creative | Samantha Leigh Scholl/Alamy)

Although I did see some of the younger generations hugging or shaking hands, most people here still strongly hold the taboo of touching outsiders. When I went to pay for a bottle of water, the shopkeeper asked me to leave the notes on the counter instead of handing them to him directly. I also learned that marriages must take place within the village; transgression of this norm invites social boycott.

Well aware that outsiders aren’t welcome here, I felt like an intruder as I kept probing people to find out more information about the village. Himachali people in general are warm and chatty, and they love to share stories and meals with visitors; in Malana, however, long conversations with locals were rare.

Malanis are known to restrict contact with outsiders (Credit: Credit: © Sauriêl Creative | Samantha Leigh Scholl/Alamy)

Malanis are known to restrict contact with outsiders (Credit: © Sauriêl Creative | Samantha Leigh Scholl/Alamy)

Descending from the hills and coming down from this otherworld, I acknowledged my position as a traveller who would forever be on the outside of this mysterious Himalayan hamlet. Whether I liked it or not, the locals hadn’t taken me in, and I needed to respect their culture.

But now, weeks later, as I look back on my quest to unfold the legends of Malana, I have come to the realisation that the very beauty of my experience was based on the essence of mystery, the unknown. Cherishing that very quality of Malana finally has led me to a newfound appreciation of this strange, cold land of enigmatic people.

By Mehk Chakraborty 22 August 2018

Ibn Baṭṭūṭah MUSLIM EXPLORER AND WRITER

Ibn Baṭṭūṭah, in full Abū ʿAbd Allāh Muḥammad ibn ʿAbd Allāh al-Lawātī al-Ṭanjī ibn Baṭṭūṭah, (born February 24, 1304, Tangier, Morocco—died 1368/69 or 1377, Morocco), the greatest medieval Muslim traveler and the author of one of the most famous travel books, the Riḥlah (Travels). His great work describes his extensive travels covering some 75,000 miles (120,000 km) in trips to almost all of the Muslim countries and as far as China and Sumatra (now part of Indonesia).

Early Life And Travels

Ibn Baṭṭūṭah was from a family that produced a number of Muslim judges (qadis). He received the traditional juristic and literary education in his native town of Tangier. In 1325, at the age of 21, he started his travels by undertaking the pilgrimage(hajj) to Mecca. At first his purpose was to fulfill that religious duty and to broaden his education by studying under famous scholars in EgyptSyria, and the Hejaz (western Arabia). That he achieved his objectives is corroborated by long enumerations of scholars and Sufi (Islamic mystic) saints whom he met and also by a list of diplomas conferred on him (mainly in Damascus). Those studies qualified him for judicial office, whereas the claim of being a former pupil of the then-outstanding authorities in traditional Islamic sciences greatly enhanced his chances and made him thereafter a respected guest at many courts.

That renown was to follow later, however. In Egypt, where he arrived by the land route via Tunis and Tripoli, an irresistible passion for travel was born in his soul, and he decided to visit as many parts of the world as possible, setting as a rule “never to travel any road a second time.” His contemporaries traveled for practical reasons (such as trade, pilgrimage, and education), but Ibn Baṭṭūṭah did it for its own sake, for the joy of learning about new countries and new peoples. He made a living of it, benefitting at the beginning from his scholarly status and later from his increasing fame as a traveler. He enjoyed the generosity and benevolence of numerous sultans, rulers, governors, and high dignitaries in the countries he visited, thus securing an income that enabled him to continue his wanderings.

From Cairo, Ibn Baṭṭūṭah set out via Upper Egypt to the Red Sea but then returned and visited Syria, there joining a caravanfor Mecca. Having finished the pilgrimage in 1326, he crossed the Arabian Desert to Iraq, southern IranAzerbaijan, and Baghdad. There he met the last of the Mongol khans of Iran, Abū Saʿīd (ruled 1316–36), and some lesser rulers. Ibn Baṭṭūṭah spent the years between 1327 and 1330 in Mecca and Medinaleading the quiet life of a devotee, but such a long stay did not suit his temperament.

Embarking on a boat in Jiddah, he sailed with a retinue of followers down both shores of the Red Sea to Yemen, crossed it by land, and set sail again from Aden. This time he navigated along the eastern African coast, visiting the trading city-states as far as Kilwa (Tanzania). His return journey took him to southern Arabia, OmanHormuz, southern Persia, and across the Persian Gulf back to Mecca in 1332.

There a new, ambitious plan matured in his mind. Hearing of the sultan of DelhiMuḥammad ibn Tughluq (ruled 1325–51), and his fabulous generosity to Muslim scholars, he decided to try his luck at his court. Forced by lack of communications to choose a more indirect route, Ibn Baṭṭūṭah turned northward, again passed Egypt and Syria, and boarded ship for Asia Minor (Anatolia) in Latakia. He crisscrossed that “land of the Turks” in many directions at a time when Anatolia was divided into numerous petty sultanates. Thus, his narrative provides a valuable source for the history of that country between the end of the Seljuq power and the rise of the house of Ottoman. Ibn Baṭṭūṭah was received cordially and generously by all the local rulers and heads of religious brotherhoods (ākhīs).

His journey continued across the Black Sea to the Crimean Peninsula, then to the northern Caucasus and to Saray on the lower Volga River, capital of the khan of the Golden HordeÖz Beg (ruled 1312–41). According to his narrative, he undertook an excursion from Saray to Bulgary on the upper Volga and Kama, but there are reasons to doubt his veracity on that point. On the other hand, the narrative of his visit to Constantinople (now Istanbul) in the retinue of the khan’s wife, a Byzantine princess, seems to be an eyewitness record, although there are some minor chronological discrepancies. Ibn Baṭṭūṭah’s description of the Byzantine capital is vivid and, in general, accurate. Although he shared the strong opinions of his fellow Muslims toward unbelievers, his account of the “second Rome” shows him as a rather tolerant man with a lively curiosity. Nevertheless, he always felt happier in the realm of Islam than in non-Muslim lands, whether Christian, Hindu, or pagan.

After his return from Constantinople through the Russian steppes, he continued his journey in the general direction of India. From Saray he traveled with a caravan to Central Asia, visiting the ancient towns of BukharaSamarkand, and Balkh, all of those still showing the scars left by the Mongol invasion. He took rather complicated routes through Khorāsān and Afghanistan, and, after crossing the Hindu Kush mountain range, he arrived at the frontiers of India on the Indus River on September 12, 1333, by his own dating. The accuracy of that date is doubtful, as it would have been impossible to cover such enormous distances (from Mecca) in the course of only one year. Because of that discrepancy, his subsequent dating until 1348 is highly uncertain.

Time In India And Later Journeys

By that time Ibn Baṭṭūṭah was already a man of some importance and fame, with a large train of attendants and followers and also with his own harem of legal wives and concubines. India and its ruler, Muḥammad ibn Tughluq, lived up to Ibn Baṭṭūṭah’s expectations of wealth and generosity, and the traveler was received with honours and gifts and later appointed grand qadi of Delhi, a sinecure that he held for several years.

Though he had apparently attained an easy life, it soon became clear that his new position was not without danger. Sultan Muḥammad, an extraordinary mixture of generosity and cruelty, held sway over the greater part of India with an iron hand that fell indiscriminately upon high and low, Muslim and Hindu alike. Ibn Baṭṭūṭah witnessed all the glories and setbacks of the sultan and his rule, fearing daily for his life as he saw many friends fall victim to the suspicious despot. His portrait of Muḥammad is an unusually fine piece of psychological insight and mirrors faithfully the author’s mixed feelings of terror and sympathy. Notwithstanding all his precautions, Ibn Baṭṭūṭah at last fell into disgrace, and only good fortune saved his life. Gaining favour again, he was appointed the sultan’s envoy to the Chinese emperor in 1342.

He left Delhi without regrets, but his journey was full of other dangers: not far away from Delhi his party was waylaid by Hindu insurgents, and the traveler barely escaped with his life. On the Malabar Coast of southwestern India he became involved in local wars and was finally shipwrecked near Calicut (now Kozhikode), losing all his property and the gifts for the Chinese emperor. Fearing the wrath of the sultan, Ibn Baṭṭūṭah chose to go to the Maldive Islands, where he spent nearly two years; as a qadi, he was soon active in politics, married into the ruling family, and apparently even aspired to become sultan.

Finding the situation too dangerous, he set out for Sri Lanka, where he visited the ruler as well as the famous Adam’s Peak. After a new shipwreck on the Coromandel Coast of southeastern India, he took part in a war led by his brother-in-law and went again to the Maldives and then to Bengal and Assam. At that time he decided to resume his mission to Chinaand sailed for Sumatra. There he was given a new ship by the Muslim sultan and started for China; his description of his itinerary contains some discrepancies.

He landed at the great Chinese port Zaytūn (identified as Quanzhou, near Xiamen [Amoy]) and then traveled on inland waterways as far as Beijing and back. That part of his narrative is rather brief, and the itinerary, as well as the chronology, presents many problems and difficulties, not yet surmounted, that cast shadows of doubt on his veracity.

Equally brief is his account of the return voyage via Sumatra, Malabar, and the Persian Gulf to Baghdad and Syria. In Syria he witnessed the ravages of the Black Death of 1348, visited again many towns there and in Egypt, and in the same year performed his final pilgrimage to Mecca. At last he decided to return home, sailing from Alexandria to Tunisia, then to Sardinia and Algiers, finally reaching Fès, the capital of the Marīnid sultan, Abū ʿInān, in November 1349.

But there still remained two Muslim countries not yet known to him. Shortly after his return he went to the kingdom of Granada, the last remnant of Moorish Spain, and two years later (in 1352) he set out on a journey to the western Sudan. His last journey (across the Sahara to Western Africa) was taken unwillingly at the command of the sultan. Crossing the Sahara, he spent a year in the empire of Mali, then at the height of its power under Mansa Sulaymān; his account represents one of the most important sources of that period for the history of that part of Africa.

Toward the end of 1353 Ibn Baṭṭūṭah returned to Morocco and, at the sultan’s request, dictated his reminiscences to a writer, Ibn Juzayy (died 1355), who embellished the simple prose of Ibn Baṭṭūṭah with an ornate style and fragments of poetry. After that he passes from sight. He is reported to have held the office of qadi in a town in Morocco before his death, details of which remain uncertain. It has been suggested that he died in 1368/69 or 1377 and was buried in his native town of Tangier.

Legacy

The claim of Ibn Baṭṭūṭah to be “the traveler of Islam” is well founded: it is estimated that the extent of his wanderings was some 75,000 miles (120,000 km), a figure hardly surpassed by anyone before the age of steam power. He visited, with few exceptions (central Persia, Armenia, and Georgia), all Muslim countries, as well as many adjacent non-Muslim lands. While he did not discover new or unknown lands, and his contribution to scientific geography was minimal, the documentary value of his work has given it lasting historical and geographical significance. He met at least 60 rulers and a much greater number of viziers, governors, and other dignitaries; in his book he mentioned more than 2,000 persons who were known to him personally or whose tombs he visited. The majority of those people are identifiable by independent sources, and there are surprisingly few errors in names or dates in Ibn Baṭṭūṭah’s material.

His Riḥlah, as his book is commonly known, is an important document shedding light on many aspects of the social, cultural, and political history of a great part of the Muslim world. Ibn Baṭṭūṭah was a curious observer interested in the ways of life in various countries, and he described his experiences with a human approach rarely encountered in official historiography. His accounts of his travels in Asia Minor, East and West Africa, the Maldives, and India form a major source for the histories of those areas, whereas the parts dealing with the Arab and Persian Middle East are valuable for their wealth of detail on various aspects of social and cultural life.

On the whole, Ibn Baṭṭūṭah is reliable; only his alleged journey to Bulgary was proved to be invented, and there are some doubts concerning the East Asian part of his travels. A few grave and several minor discrepancies in the chronology of his travels are due more to lapses in his memory than to intentional fabrication. A number of formerly uncertain points (such as travels in Asia Minor and the visit to Constantinople) have since been cleared away by contemporary research and the discovery of new corroborative sources.

Another interesting aspect of the Riḥlah is the gradual revealing of the character of Ibn Baṭṭūṭah himself; in the course of the narrative the reader may learn the opinions and reactions of an average middle-class Muslim of the 14th century. He was deeply rooted in orthodox Islam but, like many of his contemporaries, oscillated between the pursuit of its legislative formalism and an adherence to the mystic path and succeeded in combining both. He did not offer any profound philosophy but accepted life as it came to him, leaving to posterity a true picture of himself and his times.

Ivan Hrbek

Armenia Might Be One of the Oldest and Youngest Beer-Making Countries in the World

In 1984, Charlie Papazian authored The Complete Joy of Homebrewing, a landmark text (now in its fourth edition) that laid out for the first time in simple, straightforward terms, the basic formula for making beer in the comfort of one’s home.

Papazian soon became the guardian of an entire generation of brewers and his calming mantra, “Relax, Don’t Worry, Have a Homebrew,” set the cultural stage for beer to become more than just a beverage in modern America, but a way of life. The last few decades have witnessed the number of breweries in the United States jump–​or rather, skyrocket–​from a meager 100 the year his book was published to just over 5000, as reported last spring by the Brewer’s Association (an organization Papazian himself helped found).

Photo via brewersassociation.org

(Photo via brewersassociation.org)

But while nothing jostles one’s beard hairs like a freshly poured Northern California IPA, this barley-based beverage had to travel a long way before it became the drink of choice for tatted, plaid-wearing urbanites across the nation. The oldest proto-beers trace back, not to Europe and our colonial forefathers, but to the Fertile Crescent, and one of the first known written mentions of it in the 4th century BCE come from the travel diary of the ancient Greek mercenary, Xenophon, as he wandered across what was then, quite coincidentally, Papazian’s ancestral homeland: Armenia.

Though ethnicity has never been a motivating factor in Papazian’s beer obsession, one must admit, it is rather serendipitous. And even more so now that the very movement he’s helped spearhead in America, filled with DIY microbreweries and brewpubs, has finally made its way full circle. As remarkable as it sounds, Armenia might just be both one of the oldest and one of the youngest nations in the history of beer making.

Certainly, much has transpired since Xenophon sipped on that strange barley concoction in the Armenian highlands over two thousand years ago, but unfortunately for beer, the well-documented history of wine in the region usually takes center-stage. The little we know about Armenia’s historic brewing habits unfolds primarily within the last two hundred years and, like most ‘then-and-now’ type stories in former Soviet countries, it is defined by the rise and fall of that peculiar Russian breed of socialism we call the U.S.S.R.

In the late-19th century, when we start to see the first mentions of beer factories in Armenia, beer was emerging as a lucrative industry in the Russian Empire. Factories were opened in Alexandrapol (now Gyumri) and Kars, areas which had historically inherited European brewing techniques from medieval monks and which were also well-disposed to growing local ingredients, like barley. While Kars is no longer part of modern-day Armenia, the beer factory in Gyumri still exists and though it operates out of a newer building, the historic factory from 1898 has been preserved and curious, beer history buffs visiting the area can take tours.

A compilation of Soviet and pre-Soviet Armenian beer labels

A compilation of Soviet and pre-Soviet Armenian beer labels (Image via Yerevan Magazine)

In Yerevan, the most famous factory was Zanga Brewery, located in the picturesque Hrazdan River Gorge. Founded in 1892 by Harutyun Avedyants, the son of a successful factory owner. Zanga produced only one style of beer, a traditional German Bock. For a while, business was good and the brand achieved some international success, both across the Russian Empire and in Europe (even winning some awards in Naples and Milan).

Hrazdan gorge in Yerevan

Hrazdan gorge in Yerevan where Harutyun Avedyants’ Zanga beer factory was located. (Image via Sputnik.am)

In 1917, Lenin’s communists seized power and all major factories were nationalized. When Armenia became an S.S.R., Avedyants, like many other successful entrepreneurs, lost his business. Without the specialized expertise required for beer production, however, the business began to go under. So, on March 1st, 1924, in a sobering twist of fate, Avedyants was hired as an employee of the very factory he had founded over thirty years earlier. After his death in 1926, the factory closed and there would not be beer production in Armenia again until after World War II.

These were the dark ages for beer in the U.S.S.R. Alcoholism was a huge problem affecting worker productivity, so the state began actively discouraging alcohol consumption. When beer making finally did return to Armenia in the 1950s, it did so with few innovations. Picking up where they left off, beers made in the traditional German pilsner style, popular in the Russian Empire, came to dominate industry. That, combined with anti-drinking propaganda, resulted in an extremely homogeneous market in which any variety from outside the Iron Curtain had to be procured through an underground black market.

An anti-alcohol Soviet propaganda

An anti-alcohol Soviet propaganda poster from 1929; the text reads: “A friend of vodka is an enemy of the Trade Union”. (Image via redavantgarde)

A network of subversive beer drinkers emerged, gathering in Soviet Armenia’s watering holes. The good stuff was possible to find – for the right price – if you had the right acquaintances. Novelist Gurgen Khanjyan recalls these days nostalgically, “The old Yerevan beer lovers were not small in numbers… We used to talk about everything, but there was a sense that an invisible eye was watching us. The beer lover of an independent country is different. He enjoys beer differently, freely… unafraid, uninhibited…”

So while Americans in the 1980s were busy heeding the calming mantra of Charlie Papazian (“Relax, Don’t Worry, Have a Homebrew!”) and opening their hearts and minds to the endless possibilities being created by the growing craft beer movement, Soviet citizens were scuttering through dimly lit alleys, risking their freedoms for a highly-coveted lager from nearby Czech Republic.

Naturally, a more liberal market brought about by the fall of the Soviet Union and Armenia’s independence has done wonders for the alcohol industry in Armenia. According to a report from 2015, consumption in 2014 was 24.5 million liters of beer – a figure which is up 32% from 2010. But while these numbers sound promising, 80% of beer consumed in Armenia is produced by only a handful of mainstream breweries who offer a generic product, which is affordable, but deviates little from the pilsners of Soviet times.

Fortunately, 2012 signified the beginning of a cultural shift with the opening of several new beer-oriented establishments in the city. “Back then, there was a stereotype that breweries were mostly places for men,” observes founder Armen Ghazaryan, founder of one of Armenia’s first craft brewpubs, Beer Academy, “So from the very first day we focused on being a family place.” Ghazaryan’s establishment has evolved from an uncertain novelty to a successful business with a loyal following from locals of all ages.

But craft beer as a concerted cultural movement in Armenia didn’t take off until the spring of 2016 with the launch of Dargett. Founded by two brothers, Aren and Hovhannes Durgarian, Dargett is a brewpub that has embarked on countless firsts since it opened: the first IPA made on Armenian soil, the first cider made from Armenian apples, the first fruit beer in Armenia (a lovely ale infused with Armenia’s most abundant and symbolic fruit: apricot). Everything they touch turns to ‘first’.

Image via Dargett

(Image via Dargett)

The variety Dargett’s founders strive for is impressive, even for longtime veterans of brewing; around twenty styles are rotating on tap at any given point, all of which have been crafted on site in the restaurant’s downstairs dining area where behemoth, steel tanks transported from Italy last year are visible to diners behind large panes of glass. “I’m sure they [mainstream brewers in Armenia] think we’re naïve lunatics,” says Aren Durgarian, “Because why brew in variety when they’re selling millions of just one style?”

But despite this skepticism​, Dargett and Beer Academy have both evolved into highly successful businesses with plans for expansion, even while serving what might arguably be the world’s most affordable craft beer at less than $2 a pop. “We need to be able to reach young people who may not have access to this product if it were too expensive,” the Durgarians explain, “We want them to test our beer, since the youth is the main component in any cultural revolution.”

Dargett co-Founder, Aren Durgarian

Dargett co-Founder, Aren Durgarian (Biayni Sahari/Yerevan Magazine)

The price is all the more surprising since starting a brewery in a country like Armenia is a very expensive and risky undertaking. Unlike brewers in the U.S., with access to developed supply chains and expedited shipping models, the Durgarians say they must order their ingredients from abroad at least a year in advance. A local supply chain, while not out of the question, just isn’t realistic right now.

But what is an Armenian beer if it’s made with all foreign ingredients? And what did Xenophon’s mysterious barley drink of yesteryear taste like? One can only hope that consumers’ growing curiosity will someday soon provide the incentive for answering these questions

By Karine Vann

SMITHSONIAN.COM