I HAVE FRIENDS who hike. This should surprise no one; we’re surrounded by mountains, and Seattle’s personal brand is REI for a reason. People here wear their boots and Patagonia puffer jackets to the office as if, at any moment, they might be suddenly struck with the need to conquer Rainier during lunch.
So naturally, I have friends who not only hike, but who climb mountains, scaling the forbidding crags that loom above the city with the alacrity of mountain goats. For me, hauling my butt up Rattlesnake is an ordeal akin to bringing the Ring of Power to Mordor, so I am in awe of those who voluntarily choose to ascend to the misty realm of the gods, even if they’re just doing it for the ‘Gram.
And while they currently power their endeavors with a mixture of Snickers bars and coffee, I would like to propose they level up with a drink perfectly suited to the environment where it was developed: a rich, caloric, caffeinated hit meant to fire the engines of people living in a harsh, mountainous environment where extra calories form the thin membrane between survival and the alternative.
I speak, of course, of Himalayan butter tea.
Beloved and ubiquitous in Nepal, Bhutan, Tibet and the Himalayan regions of India and China, butter tea is high-quality nourishment for humans living strenuous lives in the cold, thin air of higher elevations: butter for calories and vitamins, pu-erh tea for caffeine, salt for electrolytes. This is the brew that powers Sherpas up mountains, and even helped Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay finally conquer the heights of Mount Everest.
Himalayan butter tea can be strange to the western palate, the butter heavy and cloying in the mouth, coating the tongue; the drink slightly bitter from the tea; and, notably, like a cup of hot, savory ice cream. The drink (or soup, if that description fits better) is sometimes thickened further with a Himalayan staple of roasted barley powder called tsampa, an additional energy-rich carbohydrate also often made into a porridge. It’s usually served to guests, and a drinker’s cup will be endlessly refilled during a visit until the guest simply cannot drink any more.
It was this tea, too, that reinvigorated Bulletproof Coffee’s Dave Asprey when he was suffering from the altitude on a trip to Tibet, inspiring him to blend grass-fed butter with his morning cup of joe. Thus a health trend was born, its appeal never veering too far from the original concept of high performance under harsh conditions (even if that performance is just a great lift in the artificially harsh conditions of a CrossFit gym).
And while butter coffee (and fat coffee, and protein coffee) can be found in many of Seattle’s local coffee shops, you might have a harder time finding an authentic-tasting cup of butter tea around here. Your best bet is a Nepali restaurant, although even there, you are more likely to find chai listed on the menu. You can try requesting it off-menu; let me know if you meet with success.
Otherwise, it’s easy to make at home what is possibly the world’s first power smoothie. The traditional method is to boil a brick of aromatic pu-erh tea in water with salt (and sometimes milk) until it is well-cooked and concentrated. Pu-erh tea is dark, oxidized tea (aka a black tea) that undergoes microbial fermentation and gets aged, often for years, like fine Parmesan cheese or Scotch, resulting in a complex, sometimes-peaty brew that its enthusiasts obsess over like oenophiles do wine. This is a tea spoken of in terms of terroir, tasting notes, complexity and pedigree, and your butter tea will be only as good as the tea you use.
Once a thick, oily brew is achieved, it is poured into a vertical butter churn or cylindrical container, along with some butter, and then vigorously shaken or churned until it is creamy. The resulting beverage is placed over a flame and served warm, cup after cup, until the drinker is sated and prepared to face the brisk Himalayan winds.
These days, luckily, it’s perfectly acceptable to throw it all in a blender. You can make a quick and dirty version with grass-fed butter and black tea in a pinch, but pu-erh tea is readily available. Seattle-based Zen Dog Teas sells several, which you can pick up at Zen Dog Tea House Gallery or at PCC.
The very best traditional butter tea is made with yak butter from animals that graze the thin, rough grasses of the mountains, but high-quality grass-fed cow butter is easier to find, and less expensive (even in the Himalayas). So take note, climbing friends, and try swapping your power bars for a few cups of butter tea before your next ascent, whether you’re crushing a personal goal, chasing the ultimate selfie or simply trying to save Middle Earth from certain destruction. I’m sure it goes well with Lembas bread.