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BALI ARAK AND TUAK: BALI’S LOCALLY BREWED “MOONSHINE”

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bali arak

local Amed guy drinking arak at funeral ceremony

pouring arak for a friend

BALI ARAK AND TUAK: BALI’S LOCALLY BREWED “MOONSHINE”

Most S.E.Asian countries have some form of locally brewed ‘hard stuff.’ In Asia such brews are usually made from rice or palm juice. Bali’s two local drinks are made from palm tree fruits. Arak is the more famous brew, known even by tourists because it’s often served in 5-star resorts and hotels in Bali. At resorts and tourist restaurants arak is usually served as a  cocktail, the two most popular being ‘Arak Madu’ (arak with honey) and ‘Arak Attack’ (arak with sprite and lemon)

Arak is also an integral  part of daily Balinese life. It’s served at various ceremonies including funerals, weddings, and numerous Hindu ceremonies. In addition, local guys often drink arak in the evenings with friends, either at a bar, a friend’s house, or outside along the street. In rural areas like Amed in NE Bali, it’s quite common to find groups of guys sitting around roadside or in a public pavilion drinking arak and talking loudly- often yelling excitedly- as they become more and more inebriated. Please note I said ‘guys.’ Balinese girls do not drink or smoke. Drinking is done entirely by ‘the men.’ Forget our western notions of going out for a drink with a girlfriend or wife. The same is true for going out dancing or visiting bars. You won’t find local women in bars dancing. Guys go out. Women stay home. ho-hum.

bali arak

local Amed guy drinking arak at funeral ceremony

Lipah friend drinking arak at funeral
Drinking arak is a communal activity. Whoever has some extra cash pitches in for the evening’s brew. At local shops arak is quite inexpensive- currently costing 10,000rp/ small water bottle (600ml) or double that for a big bottle, roughly $1.10 US/ small bottle. Arak is extremely potent, both in flavor and punch,so  it’s seldom drunk straight. Locals generally mix it with cola or beer. I prefer it with sprite.

bali arak

local Amed guy drinking arak at funeral ceremony

locals drunk on arak

Someone inevitably produces a single cup. Arak is poured into the communal cup and passed to each person in turn. Everyone sits around chatting and joking, taking their swig of arak in turn. Locals  always swill it back in one big gulp. When I join their drinking groups they get  annoyed with me because I slowly sip my portion. They get impatient waiting but more importantly, they want me to slug it back like the guys. Local Balinese are pretty pushy/ controlling with each other anyhow. I just ignore their entreaties and drink at my own slow pace. Arak is so potent so it doesn’t take long to get tipsy then outright drunk. Soon everyone is yelling, laughing loudly and generally acting obnoxious. Good fun for all.

Tuak is the less known brew, but is quite popular among locals in rural areas. It’s made from the same palm juice as arak.  In fact, It’s made simultaneously with arak. Unlike arak, tuak is a milky fermented rather sour tasting drink which, for some odd reason, is often drunk midday rather than at nighttime. Tuak is even cheaper than arak, but doesn’t stay fresh long. It must be drunk the day it’s made.

bali arak- tuak

tuak

In places like Lipah village and other Amed communities  local guys often sit around a pavilion from late morning to late afternoon, in the burning tropical heat, swilling milky tuak from a big pot. By 4pm, if not earlier, they’re quite toasted. They drink tuak communally like arak, passing around a single cup to each person in turn. Local guys commonly spend half their waking hours drunk, either on tuak, arak, or both. They have lots of spare time. Rather than using it constructively on activities like reading, learning new skills, home improvement, quality time with the wife and kids, or exercise they prefer spending their free time drinking and chattering. They’re laid-back people.

While living in Amed, drinking arak and observing local guys get toasted on tuak midday, I became quite curious about arak/tuak production. It didn’t take long to hear about a distillery not far from Lipah that makes both. A local friend took me over one day to learn more and photograph the distillation process…

bali arak- toddy palm

toddy palm

palm tree used to make arak and tuak

In the meantime, I started hearing whisperings that both tuak and arak are illegal. Bootleg. I was told it’s illegal to make, buy, sell, possess, and drink the stuff. WHAT? How could that be? I’d been drinking arak regularly the past few months. It’s sold openly at a few local shops. Everyone sits around outside drinking both brews. And it’s sold in restaurants all over Bali. I was quite alarmed at the notion it was illegal. So in addition to observing the distillation process I also set out to learn the truth about this ‘bootleg’ brewing.

What I learned is that Arak and tuak themselves are not illegal. Whew. But some local distilleries are illegal businesses because they are not registered and therefore don’t pay taxes. Perhaps such places also don’t adhere to health/ safety/ sanitation practices, if such regulations exist in Indonesia. At the rural ‘distillers’ I visited, sanitation certainly was not a top priority, as you’ll see from the photos. In particular, the containers used to boil palm juice seem very dodgy to me.

bali arak- distillery

arak distillery- Bali

bootleg arak / tuak distillery

I also learned the distillation process for tuak and arak:

* Palm tree fruits are split open, the juice extracted.

* Palm juice is poured into containers, which are placed above open flames. The juice is boiled.

* Bamboo pipes are fastened to the tops of the containers. Steam runs up the pipes then drips down into bottles. This is arak.

* Boiled juice remaining in the original ‘cooking pots’ becomes tuak. (see black bucket above)

bali arak- distillery

arak distillery- Bali

arak brewing

Pretty simple. I learned there are 4 grades of arak, 1 being the ‘most pure’ and ‘cleanest.’ #1 arak is actually as clear as water. #2 arak looks a bit yellowish. #3 and 4 are even less ‘pure.’ You can certainly taste the difference. Grade #1 is much smoother.

If you visit Bali, be sure to try some arak, both the restaurant cocktail variety and the local’s blend. Then get a swig of tuak from a bucket one afternoon in a rural village. It’s sure to curl your toes!!

Lash

You might also like:

Gamelan: Bali’s Traditional Percussion Orchestras
Life of a Mackerel Fisherman in Amed
Salt Making in Amed
Photo Gallery: Rural Life in Amed
Photo Gallery: Balinese Ceremonies

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  1. Suzy

    I had no idea women don't drink or go out in Bali. That must have been an interesting experience to be a woman drinking arak with all of these men! Sounds very potent!

    1. Stephanie

      Hi thanks for all your reporting. I really enjoy reading your blogs.
      I have read reports where Arak is dangerous in some parts because they don’t distil it properly. The methanol is a problem. It kills and can make you go blind. I hate to be a party pooper on this one, but I thought people should be aware. There are trip advisers about this on the net and on the Canadian and Australian govt. websites.

      1. Lash WorldTour

        Hi Stephanie,

        Thanks for stopping by and adding your warning.

        YOu’re absolutely right. Since about 2010 there have been random arak poisonings around Bali and elsewhere in Indonesia. And it’s definitely good to let people know!

        I wrote this post a few years before the poisionings started (despite the publishing date on this post).

        to be honest, last year while I was in Bali I did feel a bit nervous about drinking arak myself! I did have it a few times at upscale resorts and with friends. But it certinaly makes you stop & think when you could potentially go blind or die.

        Yes, all should be wary these days if sampling arak in Indonesia!

        Thanks again for pointing that out.

        cheers, Lash

  2. LASH

    yes, I'd say 95% of Balinese women do not drink or go out. A few 'bad girls' do no doubt. You will find Indonesian women drinking in Bali, though. They are mostly from Java or other islands and.. supposedly Muslim! hmmm…

  3. Carol

    Hi Lash, it’s worth mentioning that here in Australia we have had serious warnings against drinking arak after an Aussie nurse & her mum fell victim to its potentially lethal side effects. Apparently there is a fine line between arak becoming toxic or remaining safe & whilst it is fair to say that it is nearly always safe the horrors that can occur have led me to never take the risk. In a nutshell the dodgy brew can cause brain damage, blindness & can kill & it’s to do with the actual distilling process. Apparently this is also found in European cultures that commonly distil their own alcohol. A toxicologist explained how it occurs after the nurse was airvacced back to Oz in a critical condition. It was even more frightening when it was apparent that they were drinking in a bar that was of reasonably good standard. I guess it’s the difference between having qualified chemists overseeing the production and locals participating in a long tradition. Very scary though and maybe not worth the risk.

    1. Lash WorldTour

      Hi Carol,

      Yes, you’re absolutely right. I’ve heard stories of arak poisoning and blindness in recent years. Apparently, it’s mainly from local unlicensed distilleries actually adding methanol during distillation! I actually paused in writing that article about whether to actually include arak. But I’ve been drinking arak in Bali at many places around the island for years without any problems and I don’t personally know anyone -either locals or travelers who’ve been poisoned. I believe the occasional poisonings are very isolated incidents, much like one always has the risk of food poisoning. I did mention in the article to be sure to drink arak at well-established resorts/hotels and/or busy & popular local bars. I also presume that the magazine would not have agreed to include arak recommendations if they saw it as a danger.

      Thanks for bringing this issue to everyone’s attention here, though. cheers, Lash

  4. miss s

    why do you write that ‘few bad girls’ do no doubt? Haven’t you heard about modernity? perhaps you only visit places like kuta where many indonesian women are thought as prostitutes, but as i knew, since I am also indonesian woman, if you go to places outside Legian, you will find indonesian women drinking and they’re not bad girls. And who are you judging local women? You’re a tourist, you’re visitor! Give a respect!

    Since your website is visible to the world and apparently you’re promoting Bali, I hope you will be careful with things you write, especially you’re earning money from Bali.

    1. Lash WorldTour

      Hello Miss S,

      When I said ‘bad girls’ I was being sarcastic! I MYSELF definitely don’t’ think they are bad girls! I’m a very very mondern woman myself. But the local people generally consider it bad for girls to drink. That’s what I was referring to. cheers, Lash

  5. jakob

    Hi Lash!

    I’m a bartender and really interested in the production of arak. I just arrived in bali and gonna stay here for a couple of weeks. May u say me very exactly u visited this distillery?

    thanks a lot.

    1. Lash WorldTour

      HI jAkob,

      Welcome!

      Awesome. The arak distillation process is very interesting in person, as you can probably see from this article.

      I’m sorry, I can’t tell you exactly where I visited this distillery. For one thing, I dont’ want to get anyone in trouble, in case the distillery isn’t registered. Also, I’m not sure of the road names, etc.

      The best I can say is to go to Amed or Tulamaben, get to know a few locals and then ask around. Maybe someone will take you to visit a local place if they know one and feel you’re ok.

      Good luck!

      cheers, Lash

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