Guam's 'Water of Life' lives on
Stories of “moonshiners” hunted by the authorities have long been fodder for movies and TV shows. But in Asia, Africa and the Pacific Islands, people have been making their own liquor almost since the dawn of time, with nary a trace of the car chases and shotgun battles of American history and lore.
On Guam, it is called “tuba” (pronounced too-bah), or coconut sap, which was introduced to the island by Philippine farmers.
Unfortunately, Guam’s rush toward modernity and the ready availability of beer and other types of alcohol have turned tuba making into something of a dying art, according to a local practitioner, Antonio Blas, who learned the technique from his older brother after Blas retired as a teacher. He has passed on the knowledge to his son and a few other relatives but admits that the younger generation is not very interested in continuing the tradition.
Tuba is extracted from the tender, unopened tips of the floral branches of coconut trees. The branches must be tied downward for one to two weeks until they droop. Then the first cut is made to the tip, Blas explains. It takes two or three days to get the first sap, but then it begins to flow continuously with two daily cuts.
“You can make tuba out of any coconut tree,” Blas says, “but because of the work involved (climbing each tree twice a day), you must be very dedicated. It’s a seven day a week job.” A tree can produce about a gallon of tuba a day.
The sap begins fermenting immediately after collection due to natural yeasts in the air. Within six to eight hours, fermentation produces an aromatic liquor – sometimes called palm wine – of 4 to 6 percent alcohol content, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. It is sweet and mildly intoxicating, or “tangy” as Blas calls it. Some people mix it with beer to get an alcohol taste, he says.
If you leave the liquid to ferment longer, it will turn into cooking vinegar in two to three months. It is used for salads and the “finadene” sauce commonly used in Guam cooking.
However, if you distill the sap, you can make “aguayente,” a 180-proof liquor that is almost pure alcohol. Making aguayente is also something of a lost art, and not too many people on Guam know how to do it, Blas says. A license is also required. It takes five or six gallons of sweet tuba to make one gallon of aguayente.
Before it ferments, tuba can be boiled and turned into a syrup that is used to make candy. It is also used to make “potu,” a steamed rice cake.
Of course, when it is fresh and unfermented, tuba juice makes a refreshing sweet drink.
Tuba can be purchased in different ways. A family that makes tuba may put a sign in front of their house saying it has some for sale. Sometimes trucks stop by the side of the road and sell their supply.
Blas gets his customers by word of mouth. “My tuba has no additives – no sugar, coconut juice or water. It’s pure,” he says. He supplies small fiesta parties and sometimes large ones like the fiesta in Dodedo. The Guam Visitors Bureau even orders some to offer tourists.
“When I cut my tuba and bring it down, I stick it in my refrigerator and cool it. If it is going off island, I freeze it and put it in a cooler (for shipment),” he says.
Blas, who served in the Marine Corps for nine years and in the Navy for 17 years, also keeps some tuba for personal use and for friends. “Whenever we have military people at parties, they enjoy having tuba.”
On Guam, the coconut tree is sometimes called the “tree of life” because it provides people with food, milk, materials for shelter, decorations and more. And while Blas and some others are still around, the coconut tree will also provide tuba, Guam’s “water of life.”