A taste for spirits
Andreas D. Arditya
The Jakarta Post
Alcoholic beverages have been part of human civilization since the rise of agriculture during the Neolithic period.
The earliest evidence of an alcoholic beverage dates back 9,000 years to the ancient village of Jiahu in China's Henan province, where the people drank a mixed fermented beverage made of rice, honey and fruit.
Indonesia too has its own traditional alcoholic beverages, but according to culinary expert William Wongso, the drinking culture was never strong in the archipelago
'Traditionally, Indonesia doesn't have a strong drinking culture. We have traditional fermented beverages but only a few of our regions developed stronger drinks through distillation,' William says.
Most of the traditional alcoholic beverage makers stopped at fermentation.
'Not many continued to process them into spirits,' said the restaurateur, who received a Southeast Asia Wine Pioneer Recognition Award by Wine for Asia in 2011.
Indonesians make their traditional drinks by fermenting rice grain, gluten and the sap from sugar palms or coconuts.
One well known beverage is brem, mostly from Bali, the beverage is made from a fermented mash of black or white glutinous rice ' it is a sweet, yet, acidic and its alcohol content varies from 5 to 14 percent.
Another common traditional beverage is tuak, made from sap tapped from sugar palms. Unfermented sap or nira can be used to make refreshing sweet drink called legen.
The name tuak may also refer to any undistilled traditional beverage.
William said distilled traditional beverages are only produced in small number of areas, mainly in the eastern part of the archipelago.
'I don't think there is any in Sumatra, for example. Religious reasons would forbid the consumption of the high alcohol content in spirits,' said the 65-year-old.
These distilled traditional beverages are known by many including cap tikus in Sulawesi, moke in Nusa Tenggara, sopi in Maluku and arak in Java and Bali.
'Most of these are produced and sold illegally, hidden from the eyes of the law,' he said.
While alcoholic beverages contain ethyl alcohol ' commonly referred to as ethanol ' many illegal producers add methanol to their distilled beverage to cut production cost and retail price. A methanol overdose can result in vomiting, stomachache and the more severe kidney failure, coma and death. In 2009, at least 18 people across Bali died due to arak poisoning.
While traditionally spirits were aimed at people with alcohol problems, hence the low price, William observed an increased appreciation of liquor and wine in big cities.
'Some businessmen in Bali, for example, have produced legal and standardized arak, which in my opinion, could serve as a base for cocktails,' he says.
'I have also seen the emergence of wine tasting in Jakarta and some individuals have become connoisseurs.'
Although liquor appreciation may be small, William said it consists of people with high purchase power.
'The Internet also helped lead research and studies about liquor and wine,' he says.
William said he had observed liquor and wine enthusiasts since the 1980's and there had not been a decrease in the number of enthusiasts.
'There always more and more people year by year. It will continue to grow. The future is positive in this field,' he said.
Travel blogger and traditional spirit enthusiast Bowo Hartanto said separately that it was high time for Indonesian liquor to be developed and marketed seriously.
'There's so much potential in traditional liquor. Every region produces their own from local materials. We have a wide variety of spirits,' said the 29-year-old, whose favorite local spirits include congyang from Central Java and sagero from Maluku.
Bowo, who had visited spirit makers around Indonesia and tasted their products, said the producers of Bali wines and araks made a good start and had received global recognition.
'Liquors are also a cultural product of Indonesia. Various spirits can represent our nation in the eyes of the world.'
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