Beer brewing ratios in the Maurya Empire (322-185 BC).


We cannot discuss the question of beer brewing ratios in ancient India during the Maurya Empire (322-185 B.C.) without setting the historical context. For the vast majority of historians, the existence of beer in India in the 2nd and 1st millennia BC is simply disregarded, if not inconceivable. What can be said of an Indian brewing tradition of comparable antiquity and complexity to other Asian or Western brewing traditions! Yet both the Vedic sources and the famous political treatise Arthasastra attest to the ubiquity of beer on the Indian subcontinent for at least 4000 years (see The sura-beer in Vedic and Brahmanic India).

The Indian subcontinent is one of the major left behind areas in the world history of brewing. The history of fermented beverages in India has been overshadowed by the overwhelming amount of studies devoted to religions, sacred texts, Indo-European languages, and the much-discussed issue of soma. These have been key studies for understanding the origins of Indian civilisation[1]. The life of the peoples of India since the 2nd millennium B.C. has only been glimpsed through texts written around 500 B.C. by a small circle of Brahmins[2]. Entire facets of people's daily lives remain simply disregarded.

This historical short-sightedness has been gradually corrected by the studies carried out in India by a new generation of researchers and the publication of new ancient texts such as the Arthasastra. One such contribution is the rediscovery of the economic and social role of fermented beverages, foremost among which are various kinds of traditional beers.




In 1987, Madhavi Bhaskar Kolhatkar published an article "The method of preparing surā according to the Vedic texts", followed in 1999 by the book "Surā. The Liquor and the Vedic Sacrifice". She highlights the use of surā beer as an offering beverage during the Vedic period (1500-500 BCE). The sura beer is used as an offering in Vedic sautrāmanī sacrifices performed by kṣatriyas and not by brāhamanas, amid a political competition for supremacy between these two social classes or castes.[3]. Sura beer is also involved as offering and partaken beverage during the ritual enthronement of kings, the rājasūya.

The sura fermented beverage is undoubtedly a beer, a fermented cereal-based beverage (millet, barley, rice) brewed with amylolytic ferments and/or malted barley. Its brewing for rituals follows a relatively sophisticated process described by the Vedic texts. It allows us to understand the essential brewing techniques behind the making of this beer, which is consumed during rituals, but especially during important events in social life.

The origin of Sura beer is not to be found in the rituals that have adopted it as an offering beverage and have ritualised its preparation. Sura beer is first and foremost the favourite beverage of warriors, a festive drink and an ordinary beer for the population at large, excluding Brahmins. It is mentioned, positively or negatively, by all the Vedic literature until the beginning of our era. Sura beer was the main fermented beverage in Gangetic India between 1500 and 500 B.C., along with mead (madhu) and wines made from fruit or palm sap.

With the emergence of powerful kingdoms in northern India around 500 BC, new names for beer appear in the texts. Sura-beer did not disappear. Its name remains associated with Sanskrit texts, its use being almost restricted to rituals. Alongside the sura-beer, other types of beer for 'secular' use are mentioned in the texts. Buddhist texts mention three intoxicating beverages: surā-beer, meraya (sugarcane wine) and mead (majja in Pali = madhu in Sanskrit). With the Arthashastra treatise, the list of fermented beverage expands (Inventory of ancient Indian beers in the Maurya Empire) :

MEDAKA A rice beer
PRASANNA Beer from various kinds of flour
SVETASURA Rice beer ? litt. « white sura »
ASAVA Palm wine
ARISTA Wine from various fruits
MAIREYA Wine from sugarcane
MADHU Grape wine



India Mahajanapadas (c. 500_BCE)


Between 600 and 345 BC, 16 powerful kingdoms, the Mahajanapadas, ruled northern India. In 345 BC, the eastern kingdoms were integrated into the Nanda empire. One of these kingdoms, the Kosala (part of present-day Nepal), was the birthplace of Siddhārtha Gautama, the historical Buddha.

This first imperial political structure in India serves as the foundation for the Maurya Empire (322-185 BC). Around 250 BC, the Maurya Empire reached its maximum territorial expansion. Its organisation became a model of political centralisation and economic control.

India, Maurya Empire minimal_territorial_extant_c.250_BCE


The Maurya Empire is divided into four provinces: Tosali in the east, Ujjain in the west, Suvarnagiri in the south, and Taxila in the north, with Pataliputra as the imperial capital. The Arthasastra describes in great detail an imperial administration governing a very large territory. It must ensure the security of the empire (army, territorial control from the smallest village to the largest city, spying) and collect material resources through a system of taxes and a policy that encourages trade with neighbouring countries[4].


Its chapter 25 (Book II) is dedicated to the management of fermented beverages. This exceptional document lists the fermented beverages made in the various regions of the empire, details their recipes, the proportion of their ingredients, and informs us of their uses as fermented beverages or medicinal drinks.


The Arthaśāstra text edited in 1915 by R. Shamasastry was revised and studied in 1972 by Kangle using the two known manuscript versions. These authors do not mention beer (a proper technical term for MEDAKA, PRASANNA SVETASURĀ). They use a loose terminology (liquor, alcohol, spirits, wines) and a misleading one. It has led some to believe that alcohol was distilled in India 4000 years ago! 


We can calculate a brewing ratio for the medaka rice beer. The text gives us the volume of water and the weight of the raw materials (R.M.). The brewing technique with beer ferments involves adding up the mass of the cooked grains used and the mass of the kinva ferment cakes, which are mostly starch. We refer to the page List and composition of beers under the Maurya Empire for the text of the Arthashastra dealing with fermented beverages.

The medaka-beer = 13.2 kg or liters of water + 3.3 kg of rice + 0.825 kg of kinva-ferment.

The kinva beer ferment is composed of starchy material, which will be assumed here to be rice. RM = 4.1 kg or 4.5 liters (av. rice density = 0.9 g/cm3). So the volumic ratio "brewing dry RM / water" equals 1: 3.5; it is within the ordinary density range for the traditional beers.

The prasanná-beer = 39.6 kg of flour (pishta) + 4.125 kg of kinva-ferment + spices.

That is to say a RM weight = 43.7 kg. The volume of water is not given by the text; a volumic ratio is not calculable. Note that only the proportion of kinva-ferment is 2 times lower, compared to the weight of rice flour for medaka-beer given above.

The Arthashastra or contemporary Brahmin texts provide only indirect clues to a correlation between brewing ratios, i.e. the density of beers, and the social status of those who drink these fermented beverages. It is assumed that such correspondence exists as in the case of social grids and brewing ratios in Mesopotamia or Egypt during the second millennium BC.

The Arthashastra mentions three different qualities not of medaka or prasanná beer, but of ásava, a wine made from sugar cane and honey with sour fruit (Limonia acidissima) added :

  •  100 palas of kapittha (Feronia Elephantum aka Limonia acidissima), 500 palas of phánita (sugar) and 1 prastha of honey (madhu) form ásava.
  • With an increase of ¼ the above ingredients, a superior kind of ásava is manufactured; and when the same ingredients are lessened to the extent of ¼ each, it becomes of an inferior quality. (List and composition of beers under the Maurya Empire)

If three qualities of ásava are mentioned by the Arthashastra, why does the same text, which is so accurate about the recipes for making the fermented beverages of its era, say nothing about the possible brewing ratios of the three kinds of beer?

Emperor Ashoka's (r. 268-232) visit to the Ramagrama Stupa (Sanchi Stupa 1, southern gate).

Again, there is no correlation between these three qualities of ásava and the social ranks of those who drink them. It is expected that in a highly hierarchical Indian society such as that of the Mauryan Empire, the quality of a fermented beverage or the density of a beer would serve as social markers. The Arthasastra, for example, outlines the very strict and developed hierarchy that should govern an army.  The text also describes the organisation of a fortress or camp, divided into quarters, each with a function assigned to a specific social class. The craftsmen (in the Vaishya class) include brewers (Surākāra). Furthermore, historical data and Greek sources confirm that the armies of the Mauryas were numerous, specialised and disciplined, which was not without a very strict hierarchical organisation. We also know that alcoholic beverages, sura-beer in particular, were the distinctive drinks of the fighters, the Kshatriya.

The Arthashastra devotes several paragraphs to the meticulous detail of spices and herbs used to make fermented beverages, including medaka, prasanná and sura (List and composition of beers under the Maurya Empire). These aromatic plants, more or less rare or luxurious, may have served in India as a social discriminator, a qualitative role played by the strength of fermented beverages, especially beer in Egypt and Mesopotamia. There is a technical explanation for this phenomenon.

The brewing method with amylolytic ferments does not involve a liquid phase (the sweet wort) as with the grain malting method. The starch fermented with these ferments remains a semi-liquid mass that is diluted with water only at the end of the process, when drinking time has come. The Indian brewer cannot adjust the initial gravity of the beer by adding more or less grain. He can only lengthen or shorten the alcoholic fermentation to obtain a stronger or weaker beer. This explains why in Asian countries the initial volume of grain in relation to the final volume of beer does not play a pivotal role as it did in Egypt, Mesopotamia and later in Western Europe. The density or alcohol strength of the beer is decided at the time of drinking (the fermented mass is diluted more or less), not at the onset of beer brewing. A comparison of these two brewing patterns illustrates this fundamental technical difference (brewing schema with malting vs brewing with amylolytic ferments).

Paradoxically, given the title of this page, brewing ratios for beer may not have been implemented in India in the form of vol. of grain/vol. of beer. Subject to further study, only the quality of ingredients and aromatics would have served in ancient India to differentiate categories of fermented beverages in accordance with the social class of their recipients.



Houben Jan E.M. Vedic ritual as medium in ancient and pre-colonial South Asia: its expansion and survival between orality and writing. Veda-Vedāṅga et Avesta entre oralité et écriture. 2010, Bucarest, Romania. pp.147-183.

Kangle R. P. (1972), The Kauțilīya Arthaśāstra, Part I (Text sources), Part II (English Translation with Critical and Explanatory Notes), Part III (Study), Motilal Banarsidass Publishers Private Limited, Delhi.

Kolhatkar, Madhavi Bhaskar (1999), Surā. The Liquor and the Vedic Sacrifice, Reconstructing Indian History and Culture no. 18, D. K. Printworld (P) Ltd.

Kolhatkar, Madhavi Bhaskar (1987), The method of preparing surā according to the Vedic texts, Bulletin of the Deccan College Postgraduate and Research Institute 46, 41-45.

Malamoud Charles, Le soma et sa contrepartie. Remarques sur les stupéfiants et les spiritueux dans les rites de l’Inde ancienne, in Le Ferment Divin, Dominique Fournier et Salvatore D’Onofrio (dir.), Éditions de la Maison des sciences de l’homme, 1991, 13-33.

Weber Albrecht, Zur Kenntnis des Vedischen Opferritual, Indische Studien Zehnter Band (10), 1868. ...

 Witzel Michael, Aryan and non-Aryan Names in Vedic India: Data for the linguistic situation, c. 1900-500 B.C. In J. Bronkhorst and M. Deshpande (eds.), Aryans and Non-Aryans, Evidence, Interpretation and Ideology, 337-404. Cambridge: Harvard University Press 1999.



[1] Early ancient Indian scholars such as Albrecht Weber described the brewing of the sura-beer for the Sautrâmaņi ritual as early as 1868 (Weber 1868, Indischen Studien 10, 349-351), although they did not describe it as `beer'. In 1868, Weber wrote: „Letzteres Getränk wird durch Gährung aus zwei Körnermussen (caru) von Reiss und çyâmâka-Körnern (panicum frumentaceum) bereitet, deren heisser Absud mit frischen Reiss (çashpa) und Gersten-Halmen (tokma), gerösteten Reisskörnern (lâja) und einer aus allerlei Gewürz und Kräutern bunt zusammengesetzten Hefe (nagnahu), welche Gegenstände man von einem surâ- und soma - Verkäufer oder von einem Eunuchen für Blei, Wolle, Garn (? sûtreņa) etc. gekauft und gemahlen resp. zerstampft hat - gemischt (die Mischung heisst mâsara) und dann, mit den beiden Mussen selbst zusammengegossen, drei Tage lang, unter dreimaligem Zu Guss von Milch etc., der Gährung überlassen wird ( Kâty.19 , 1 , 20—27 Mahîdh . zu Vs. 19, 1).“ ('The latter drink [sura] is prepared by fermenting two mashes (caru) of rice and çyâmâka grains (panicum frumentaceum [millet]), the hot decoction of which is mixed with fresh rice (çashpa) and barley stalks (tokma), roasted grains of rice (lâja) and a yeast (nagnahu) colourfully composed of all kinds of spices and herbs, which objects are bought from a surâ and soma seller or from a eunuch for lead, wool, yarn (? sûtreņa) etc. and ground or pounded - (the mixture is called mâsara) and then, poured together with the two mashes themselves, left to ferment for three days, with milk etc. being poured on three times, (Kâty.19 , 1 , 20-27 Mahîdh . to Vs. 19, 1).'). A perfect description of beer brewing in ancient India, written over 150 years ago, even though the words beer or brewing were not written!

[2] The Vedic culture is an oral culture whose transmission is based on advanced memorization techniques and the intensive training of specialists (ritualists, storytellers, memorialists in the service of the rajas, etc.). Hymns, songs, prayers, recitations, tales, etc. were transformed into written documents in Sanskrit around 700-500 B.C. This new written culture has frozen the cultural oral contents and deeply modified the mode of transmission of knowledge, without however making the oral culture of the ritual masters disappear (Houben 2010).

[3] The nature of these Vedic or Hindu 'castes' is too complex a question to be touched upon here.

[4] Does the Arthasastra, a treatise about good governance of a vast kingdom, coincide with what we know about the historical reality of the Maurya Empire? In broad terms, but the details are impossible to ascertain. Discussion by Kangle R. P. 1972, The Kauțilīya Arthaśāstra, Part II (English Translation with Critical and Explanatory Notes).

06/02/2021  Christian Berger