The Legacy Of Arak
Discover the origins, the making, and the struggle of selling arak, one of the unique traditional drinks in Bali...
No one knows exactly when the village of Tri Eka Buana first became an arak producer. Nestled deep in East Bali, this village has been making the traditional Balinese liquor arak for generations, a process the villagers call “nak mule keto” – a Balinese term that actually means, ‘it’s been like this for ages’. “We’ve been living as arak producers since we were children. Our parents and grandparents also made arak,” said I Wayan Darmanta, one of the many arak producers in the village.
This village is located in Sidemen, a sub district of Karangasem that covers 336.5 hectares, and is surrounded by hills and coconut trees. More than 90 percent of the 600 families living there are farmers and arak producers who learned their skills directly from their senior family members at a very young age. Climbing the 20-meter high coconut tree to extract the liquid from its flowers (also called nira – the sweet palm wine that is the main ingredient of arak) is one of them.
However, arak is not just a drink for the villagers. In fact, it has become more than just a cultural legacy, as the villagers believe that arak plays an important role in their traditions. In religious ceremonies, the arak of a lower quality that contains from one to five percent of alcohol is mixed with water and used for tetabuhan. Arak is also sprinkled on the flowers used for offerings to appease the evil spirits residing in the human habitats.
Meanwhile, the first quality arak that contains 40 to 50 percent alcohol is usually used for traditional healing of rheumatism. A quarter glass of arak before work is believed to boost one’s mood for the whole day. And for the young and old alike, arak is the icebreaker for any conversation.
It takes approximately 10 hours to boil and distill the high quality arak. First, nira is collected in a drum filled with husks to facilitate the fermentation. It is then left for a day or two before the distillation process starts.
Arak producers use a wide range of traditional and modern equipment, such as coconut trunks, steel drums, bamboo and stainless steel pipes to extract fresh arak from the boiling palm wine. The first container made of a coconut trunk is filled with fermented palm wine and boiled above a wooden fire to maintain the heat and steam – it is connected to the second drum through a bamboo tube or a stainless steel pipe. This second drum contains water to cool down the arak to avoid having a scorched taste from the heat. Finally, the arak will be distilled in a 30 to 45 liter plastic container.
The alcohol levels will vary, depending on how much processed palm wine is used and how long the distillation goes. An Alcometer, a numbered stick-shaped tool is used to check the alcohol level – an arak producer just needs to put the alcometer on the surface of the arak and it will float to show the alcohol level. The first quality is 50 percent, but they mostly produce it at 20 percent for daily use. It takes three to four days to make 30 to 45 liters of arak, which is valued at between Rp. 150,000 to Rp. 400,000.
Unfortunately, in the past few years there have been some concerns about arak being produced by irresponsible people who mix this traditional drink with contaminants such as rubbing alcohol, methanol, energy drinks, beer and even liquid mosquito repellent to become inebriated more quickly, but it is deadly. Methanol for instance, looks like water. It is colorless but volatile and easily burnt, and is commonly used for industrial products such as glue, cushion foam, synthetic textiles and fuel. The price is cheap but it results in blindness and death when consumed.
In 2009, 25 tourists died after drinking arak Bali that contained those poisons. Of course this news was spread widely and negatively, so the police made strict regulations for arak producers to ensure that the arak they produced was not contaminated with other substances – and that they needed to limit their distribution as well. “The police said we can only sell arak around this village and in the Sidemen district, but our market is actually outside of these villages. We were often treated like criminals when we delivered traditional arak to the outside areas,” said I Wayan Lemes Indrawan, the Head of Telun Wayah Duuran in the Tri Eka Buana Village.
“Those irresponsible people are the cause of this entire misfortune. We’ve been living our lives as arak producers since our great grandparents’ era, since hundreds or maybe thousands of years, we can’t even tell how long. Never have we ever heard a single person died because of the traditional arak that we made,” Indrawan adds.
This incident dramatically reduced the sales of traditional arak. The villagers now also raise cattle and work in construction for additional income. But their struggle doesn’t stop there, as local regulations currently restrict alcohol sales by deciding that alcohol should only be available at mini markets and small shops. But Indonesia’s House of Representatives attempted to make a new rule to ban all kinds of alcohol – and that includes the production, circulation and consumption – in order to protect Indonesian people from the negative behavior caused by alcohol.
But apart from those contradictions, preserving the centuries-old tradition of arak making in Tri Eka Buana Village is still important in order to pay respect to their ancestors.
Contributor : Anggara Mahendra
Magazine issue > Craft&Culture