Perhaps you've heard of tuba. Cebuanos will often mention this native alcoholic drink when in conversations with foreigners. Chances are, though, that you've never seen it, because it's not sold in any stores or served in any restaurants or eateries.

That's a great pity, because tuba is the drink of the gods. Long before Western multinational corporations invented alcopop, the Visayans were blessed with tuba. Contrary to what one expects from the description - that tuba is a homemade alcoholic beverage found in rural villages - it ain't no moonshine. While in the West, I frequently - a bit too frequently, I must admit - savored the delights of the best champagne, and I can state without reservations that good tuba is more than equal to the most expensive Dom Perignon. Now, snooty sommeliers may sneer at this suggestion, but just because tuba comes straight from the coconut tree does not mean that it is inherently inferior to something that comes out of a French bottle.

In fact, what tuba does is make one realize how ingenious these Europeans are. Confined by malicious gods to a cold and infertile terrain, and consequently deprived of that wondrous nectar which flows freely from the coconut tree, the Europeans had no recourse but to ferment grape juice in oak barrels until, after many years and extensive labor, it - incredibly - delivered a degree of the wealth of flavor found in tuba. But only a degree, and only in a good year.

So what does tuba actually taste like? It is sweeeeeeeeet! And naturally carbonated. At first, it is barely alcoholic but this changes over time as the sugar is broken down into alcohol. The thing about tuba is, it has a limited shelf life, even when refridgerated (and refridgerate it you should, for it's best downed ice cold). It stays fresh and delectable for perhaps 24 hours; after that, it gradually turns into vinegar. For about a fortnight it is a substance known as bahal; sour and strongly alcoholic, favored by drunkards. After three weeks, the conversion to suka bisaya (native vinegar) is complete.

Tuba is as cheap as it is sweet. Just 20 pesos will get you a galon. But since it's not sold in stores or restaurants, how do you get ahold of it? You have to go on a quest fit for a National Geographic program, and find yourself a manananggut, i.e. someone who specializes in the art of climbing up coconut trees and making tuba and suka bisaya.

Here's what the manananggut does. He climbs up the coconut tree, and uses twine to bend a premature fruit stalk, called a daol, until it faces downward. This has to be done gradually; otherwise, the stalk will snap. Next, a special curved knife known as a sanggut - the term manananggut means "he who uses a sanggut" - is used to etch the daol. A bamboo container called a sugong is left attached overnight, to catch the sap draining from the daol. The sugong is carefully wrapped and covered with leaves to keep out the rain.

The next morning the gods will have rewarded the manananggut with a jar-full of fresh tuba. The container is emptied, the stalk is shortened, and the process is repeated. Now, the sap is initially tuba, but it becomes vinegar over the course of a few days. Sometimes a mysterious substance called tungog is used to color the liquid red.

Since tuba doesn't come in a bottle with a label attached, I have no reliable data regarding the aclohol content, but I would guess it's about the same as, or perhaps slightly stronger than, beer.


After accompanying the manananggut to take the photographs seen on this page, I invited him to my residence and we relaxed over a quart of freshly gathered tuba while discussing his work. The manananggut's name is Melsie, and he is a carpenter by day. He's almost fifty and has six children, which is about average.

The haul that day had not been plentiful, with three trees yielding only about a liter. One reason was the weather; it hadn't rained in about a week. But the main problem was with rats. In Bisaya, the word for "mouse" and "rat" is the same. "Little ones or big ones?" I asked. "Rats as big cats," Melsie assured me.

The rats climb up the palm tree, gnaw a hole through the cover of the bamboo container, and lick the tuba. Apparently, rats can hold their liquor well, for they don't get drunk on tuba - at least not drunk enough to fall off the tree.

Some palm trees have metal casings about a foot wide around their stems, to prevent the rats from climbing up. Melsie told me that it was pointless to attach these, as the rats can dig a furrow underneath the metal sheaths. Additionally, dead serious, he told me "they'll put a curse on you."

I squinted with incredulity. Melsie explained that not only will the rats damage a coconut tree out of spite, they will literally put a curse on he who deprives them of their tuba. Melsie told me how his father, who also had been a manananggut, would attribute problems in the house - whether health-related or economic - to a curse of the rats. While wild bees also drink the tuba - sometimes drowning in it - the number one enemy of the manananggut is, by far, the rat. Melsie's solution is to not attach any metal sheath, and to let the rats have their share - rather like a tax.

Climbing up four-storey-high palm trees without a harness is dangerous work. I personally was surprised to discover that fear is a factor for me when I climbed up the tree to take pictures of Melsie at work - once you realize that you are very high up and that your immunity from gravity is only as good as your grip on the tree, you tend to climb down in a hurry, which I did.

I asked Melsie if he knew anyone who had fallen off a palm tree recently. It turns out that, yes indeed, a few years back somebody did. "Was he a manananggut?" Yes, of course. "Did he survive?" Melsie laughs. One doesn't survive a fall from a 20-meter high palm tree.

As Melsie sheathed his sanggut which I had been admiring, I wondered whether it is a coincidence that Melsie is one of the very few religious men in this rural village, and whether he would be undertaking the hour-long trek to the church in the city every Sunday if it were not for his line of work. Suddenly, every drop of tuba seemed more precious to me.


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