It’s early summer and the frogs’ nightlong croaks have subsided. Dev Singh Nareti walks 50 steps from his house in Maharia village in central India’s Chhattisgarh state toward his agricultural fields. He’s here to collect a local “beer” — one that needs no brewing — from a beloved tree steeped in myth and superstition.
Neither the tree nor its sap, collected for drinking, is ordinary. First of all, the sap — also known as salfi or Bastar beer, named after the region — comes with a warning, not only for its intoxicating properties but also for its perilous shelf life. If you don’t drink it soon enough after it’s been harvested, you could end up in the hospital.
Salfi is the only Indian sap-based drink known to turn intoxicating on its own. Yeast in the air begins the fermentation of the sap the moment it begins flowing from a cut branch. Residual yeast at the bottom of the containers used to collect the sap also speeds up the process. White in color, salfi tastes a little like coconut water but is less sweet and has a mild, bitter punch at the end.
But that natural fermentation is a double-edged sword. Salfi, usually extracted at sunrise and sunset, must be consumed within an hour or excessive fermentation curdles it, leaving it rotten. Drink it then and you’ll have an upset stomach.
You’re unlikely to wait that long, though. Salfi is a smooth drink with a weaker kick than draft beer, so it’s easy to drain multiple cups — which are made of leaves — one after the other without waiting. “We begin with three [cups], then two and end with one,” says Halal Netam, Nareti’s friend. It’s been consumed this way for centuries.
Extracting the sap remains an example of industrious rural practices. Nareti flattens both feet on opposite sides of the tree trunk, grips with his hands and moves up like a frog. It takes him less than two minutes. Using a machete (locally called the haasiya), he cuts a branch and lets the sap flow into an earthen vessel. After filling other containers — including a tumba, a dry bottle gourd that’s used to store food — Nareti climbs down and thanks the tree.
Salfi is the crux of communities’ lifestyle here [Bastar region].
Tameshwar Sinha, researcher
A regional variety of the palm tree, the salfi (Caryota urens) is a symbol of prosperity in the region of Bastar, a part of the state that’s overrun by Maoist rebels, and it enjoys a special place among tribes. “Salfi is the crux of communities’ lifestyle” here, says Tameshwar Sinha, a researcher whose work focuses on the culture of Chhattisgarh’s tribal communities. Families gift salfi trees to prospective sons-in-law, and saplings are planted collectively by entire communities with an elaborate ceremony, explains Nareti.
The trees are so prized that their health is the source of superstition. Nareti cautions me against photographing him while he’s collecting sap. “Others’ reflection should not fall on us and on [the] salfi tree,” he says. And only one person can climb the tree or get close at any time. In 2013, a mysterious disease struck salfi trees in Chhattisgarh, and some were unable to produce sap. Worried, the state government convened a meeting of experts to devise a fix. But the disease started disappearing on its own, further fueling superstitions.
What’s no myth, however, is that Bastar beer is refreshing and rejuvenating. If you want to try some, villagers sell it for 100 rupees (less than $2). Take a tiny sip first — if it tastes like rotten curd, it’s more than an hour old and should be avoided. Netam recalls how in September 2017 villager Duashing Netam accidentally drank hour-old salfi. “It caused him loose stools,” recalls Netam. In an hour, his hands and feet grew cold, and he fainted on his way to the district health center, where he was pumped with fluids and revived.
Nareti advises a drink in the morning, and then — when its effects wear off — another one in the evening. “The idea,” he says, “is to sweat out all the bad water and replace it with natural water [salfi].” Just be sure to drink it fresh.