Tuak: Balinese Palm Beer
Tuak is palm beer, a sudsy and quite mild elixir brewed from palm tree sap. Tuak is produced by fermenting the sap of flower bud of any of a number of species palm. In Bali, coconut tree, called punyan nyuh, is most often used because of the trees are quite common. In areas where sugar palms, punyan jaka, palm trees, grow, their juice is used. In north and east Bali, the lontar palm, called punyan ental, is used for tuak. The problem with ental, however, is that the leaf-bearing branch of the tree is full of thorns.
There are two kinds of tuak; tuak manis, “sweet,” (sometimes called nguda, “young”) and tuak wayah, “old.” The difference between the two is in taste and alcohol content, with tuak wayah being “dryer” and more potent. Tuak manis is fresh from the tree, and it has a fairly high sugar content because the fermentation process has not gone very long. Most connoisseurs avoid tuak manis because it causes stomach problems, flatulence, and diarrhea. But it does have a following. The preferred drink is tuak wayah. It has a much stronger taste than manis, with a definite alcoholic flavor. Somewhat sour, and not unlike heavily hopped beer. Like beer, it is an acquired taste. But an awful lot of Balinese seem to have acquired it.
Both varieties of tuak produce bubbles constantly, because fermentation is still going on, and one of the products of fermentation is carbon dioxide. Manis has thicker bubbles than wayah and more of them. A narrow mouthed container of tuak with bubble and foam as if it contain soap suds. It cannot be sealed, of course, or it would explode. These days the favored receptable for tuak is plastic jeriken, or “jerry can.”
Tuak get stronger as day goes on. If produce in the morning, you can drink it in the evening, or even for two or three days after that. Then it turns into vinegar. Most people drink it fresh. Tuak will keep for a long time in the refrigerator, but few individuals have one. No tuak is prepared and bottled in large factories for sale in stores. All tuak is collected and fermented by individuals or small groups of individuals who market it very locally.
Tuak nyuh, tuak from coconut tree, is a pale tan color with a kind of musty odor. Because of the high concentration of suspended solids, the beer is translucent, even opaque. No attempt is made to filter the drink. The continuous production of carbon dioxide bubbles contributes to its opacity. Tuak jaka, from sugar palm, has more of a pink or reddish color. Old and new tuak both look exactly the same.
Tuak drinking is quite a social affair in Bali. There are innumerable small warungs (food stalls) scattered all over the island where men come to sip a glass, have a snack, and chat in the heat of the day. Usually some sort of rice dish is served, wrapped in banana leaf – nasi bungkus. The owner has a couple of dozen bottles of all shapes sized lined up on the table, each filled with foaming tuak wayah.
It is never consumed from the bottle, but always from the glass or a short bungbung (glass made of hollow bamboo culm). There is no hurry. The table is in the shade in front of the little warung. There are benches all around, and few are topics that are not covered. There is no woman in that place, except if she is the owner of the warung. A man generally drinks only one bottle of tuak then leaves to go about his business.