We drank the wine of coconuts

Tell me what comes to mind as you read these next words: types of wine. Red. White. Zinfandel. Merlot. Rosé. Any more? Maybe you thought of a few others that I missed.

Except I’ve forgotten one more. Coconut. Was that on your list?

And it wouldn’t have been on mine, either, until my trip to Bali earlier this month. The United States is primarily saturated with grape wines; we think of corks and the deep glug glug that spills from a bottle as we pour; vast fields of grape vines in the warm, Napa countryside. Coconuts make the oil that we use for cooking, or the faintly sweet water we love to drink, or the crunchy flakes we put on yogurt or in granola. But certainly not wine.

In Bali — and in many places throughout Asia, Africa, South America and the Caribbeans — palm trees grow in great quantity. While we tend to think of a palm tree as a unique species, they are actually a family, one that encompasses over 2600 known species of plant life. Of that vast number of species, coconut is just one.

On my third day in Bali — living in the village of Bresela — my host Wayan told me he would take me to meet his friend who makes coconut wine. “Do you know it, coconut wine?”, he asked me. My answer was an emphatic ”No”, as indeed I’d never heard those two words used together to describe a beverage that one imbibes. And so into his rice fields we wandered, stopping along the way for him to describe the process of growing rice, or to explain how each village has a representative who maintains the delicate, ancient system that delivers water, by gravity alone, to hundreds of rice fields. The open space through which we walked was massive, stretching hundreds of acres, containing rice fields owned by at least as many families in turn. A thin copse of trees, lining the banks of a shallow depression through which ran a creek, was our destination.

As we neared the edge of the rice fields where the trees began, a small hut was revealed, nearly hidden in the shade of the foliage, dug into the side of the hill. Rough hewn boards formed its skeleton and a ridged metal roof sloped gently away from the fields toward the stream below. A small pen housed two cows nearby; they munched, looking bored, on the grass cut daily from the maintenance of the rice fields. From the tiny dwelling emerged the man we’d come to see: the maker of the elusive coconut wine. Wayan introduced us, and without a shared language between us we smiled and nodded to each other. His demeanor was one of a person thoroughly fulfilled by life, happy in his daily existence.

Our arrival marked the beginning of his day’s harvest. Each day at 5:30, Wayan explained, people walk from their fields all around to come buy his wine. He only sells it here, and only in the evening. Without further delay, he descended a worn trail into the small valley, to the base of a coconut tree, a towering specimen, easily 60 feet in height. Small notches had been cut into the tree at intervals going up, and with the dexterity and confidence of a monkey on a jungle gym, the man ascended the full height of the tree in no more than 30 seconds, barefoot and beaming the full duration of his climb.

Coconut wine is gathered by cutting the unopened flowers of a coconut tree and suspending a container below, allowing the sap to drain out and be caught. The resulting fluid begins a fermentation process immediately, and within a few hours yields a sweet, somewhat vinegary, wine with the alcohol content of a light beer. The resulting beverage is called, in Indonesia, tuak, or sometimes arak. Obscured amongst the fronds of the palm, the man removed several containers in turn, emptying their contents into his collection bottle. Before re-hanging each container, he used a long knife to shave off the end of the flower, reopening the gash that would restart the flow of sap.

Our friend descended, now with a single vessel containing the harvest from the first tree. He repeated this process of collecting sap from three more trees before meeting us back in the small hut, where he emptied his take into a large basin, already quite full with the liquid. By this time, about 15 minutes after our arrival, several more friends of Wayan’s had arrived, and as we sat down only 10 minutes later, there was a crowd of nearly a dozen.

And so it was that I spent my evening — the hot Balinese sun going down over the rice fields beyond — in an intimate circle of friends getting buzzed on coconut wine. We paid by the bottle — ladled out from the basin — and passed around small tumblers fashioned from bamboo shoots. This was their daily ritual, a celebration of sorts to end another day of work. I was but a visitor, and I listened contentedly as they spoke in Balinese around me — Wayan translating occasionally after an uproarious outburst — feeling honored to have been included in such a special tradition.