How to make tuak at home, my way. 
By: Agustus Sapen

The introduction
Tuak is considered a cultural drink for the Dayaks.  Traditionally, it is served in most rituals and the first serving is to be offered to the spirits and deities before public consumption begins.  The ritualistic significance of tuak conjures up various taboos and protocols in making this Borneo Spirit.  Most taboos have scientific reasons while others are respectful gestures.

It is perhaps one of the reason behind the dwindling numbers of practicing tuak makers, as the taboos lead to the impression of a complicated process. For some, there are too many things to consider and the tedious process causes them to drop their intention.  The typical ingredients are very simple though;  glutinous rice, yeast, sugar and water.  The experience, trials and errors make the journey sound  complicated, in a good way.  And as with all journeys, to master the art is to keep a journal and improvising as you conduct various experiments and trials and errors.

The best thing about tuak is there are so many ways you can adjust your ingredients and the methods of making it.  Understanding fermentation is key and learning from your first batch provides an insight to your next endeavor.  By the time you enjoy your third batch you'll have more creative ideas.  Having said that, it helps to get it right at your first batch and the following is my guide.

The preparation
The best way to begin your tuak making expedition is to take things one step at a time, beginning with the ingredients.  Decide how much rice you are willing to sacrifice should your experiment turn sour, literally. I recommend using a pack of one kilo of glutinous rice, which is readily available in supermarkets.  With one kilo of rice goes one kilo of sugar.  This is the typical amount intended for a fairly matured tuak of more than 3 months and up to 1 year or more.  For short term maturity, I suggest half a kilo of sugar, so the resulting brew is not too sweet when consumed early.  

For volume, an average of 4 liters of water is required.  I normally use bottled drinking water.  The quantity of water corresponds to the amount of sugar in the recipe and vice versa.  The syrup should initially be very sweet to allow the sugar to be converted to alcohol during the fermentation process.  A good tuak should have just enough sweetness left as it reaches the desired alcohol level, which is between 15% to 20%.  You could also choose to omit water and just rely on the moisture absorbed by the rice during the cooking process.  Sugar is also not necessary for this option as there will be enough sugar converted from the starch contained in the rice.  Well, maybe a spoonful of sugar will do.  The resultant brew will be a pure rice brew; full body with distinct rice flavor, unless your rice was a little burnt to start with, then you’ll get a smoky flavor.  Thick rice flavor or diluted light flavor, the choice is yours.  Economically, the pure rice flavor would cost more because it has a higher ratio of rice per volume of liquid.

And the star of the journey is of course the yeast.  For a beginner, I suggest starting with the ‘sweet’ type.  They come in round white balls, the size two of plastic mineral water bottle caps put together.  Sometimes they are shaped like a flat disc so it helps to ask the shopkeeper for the ‘sweet ragi’.   One kilo of rice requires 3 pieces of yeast. You can get them from the Chinese medicine shop.  If you’re in Malaya, ask for ‘ragi tapai manis’ or ‘chao peng’.  If you’re in Sarawak, ask for ‘ragi tuak, manis’. Don’t worry if you’ve used too little yeast because these buggers are able to multiply and expand efficiently.  Too much yeast on the other hand will affect your tuak flavor because yeast are made of many spices, some even contains dried chilli.

Assembling your utensils
Now that we have an estimate of the ingredients, it is easy to plan for our utensils.  The key word is hygiene and volume.   For a kilo of rice with 4-5 liters of water, you’ll need about 6 liters of volume.   Use a new 10 liter food grade tupperware for easy mixing of ingredients.  Traditionally, a ceramic jar or ‘tajau’ or ‘tempayan’ is used.  The thick ceramic wall helps maintain the temperature during fermentation.  The best substitute would be a glass jar with lid.  All utensils must be thoroughly cleaned and sterilized by pouring boiling hot water on them.  You could also use alcohol such as vodka to disinfect, especially the glass jar because pouring hot water may break the glass.  Make available a broad round tray or basin to spread the rice thinly, cooling it down to room temperature before spreading the yeast evenly on top and mixing them thoroughly.  You will also need a pestle and mortar or a blender to pulverize the yeast into fine powder.

The process
The first step is to cook the rice.  This can be done in a typical rice cooker or in a steamer.  When using a rice cooker, the amount of water shall be a quarter less than that of normal rice because glutinous rice is softer than normal rice.  When using a steamer, the rice must be soaked in water overnight and steamed on a muslin cloth or banana leaf for easy handling.  Either way, the rice must be perfectly cooked.  Don’t forget to clean the rice thoroughly before cooking.

Cool the rice on a broad tray, spreading evenly and thinly for a quick cool and also to ensure even distribution of yeast powder later.  It is useful to note that glutinous rice is easier to handle when it is still hot.  Therefore, try to get a really broad tray of plastic basin for this job.    It is important to cool the rice to room temperature because the heat will kill the yeast and there will be no fermentation thereafter.

While the rice cools, pound the yeast into a fine powder using a pastel and mortar or blender, depending on the mess you’re willing to deal with later on.  Trust me, the yeast powder is really fine and boy, do they fly.

Pour the yeast powder on the thin layer of rice evenly.  Mix the two ingredients well with a sterilized metal spatula.  Put the mixed ingredients into a sterilized container and cover it with the lid or a cloth.  The container must not be air tight to allow carbon dioxide to escape and prevent pressure buildup.  Ensure that no insect, lizard, dust and dirt are able to penetrate the cover. Eww….

Let the mixture sit for about ten days, but not more than 2 weeks.  Otherwise the high level of alcohol would kill the yeast and there will be no reaction when the sugar water is added later.

After 10 days, prepare the sugar water.  Boil 1 kg of sugar in 4 liters of water.  As you complete your first journey, you will gain some idea of your own preferred sweetness and hence be able to decide if more sugar is required.  Let the syrup cool to room temperature before pouring it to the fermenting rice.  Remember to cover back the Tupperware to prevent contamination.  You could install a one way valve (air lock valve) by putting one end of a small hose at the cover and the other end submerged in a small bottle of water.  This is to prevent oxygen from entering while allowing carbon dioxide to be released during the fermentation process.  Leave the mixture to ferment for at least another 5 weeks or until there is hardly any carbon dioxide bubbles released from the container.

To help in the fermentation process, you could swirl the watery mixture once in a while.  You will notice more bubbling activity thereafter.

When there is hardly any bubble released, this indicates that the fermentation process has reached a plateau stage.  Sieve the sediment and rice fibers out and refill the liquid in the same container or another container.  The strained fiber can be used to begin another batch of fermentation.

The filtered liquid can now be served or left to continue with its slow fermentation.  At this stage, the liquid resembles barley drink. This can now be consumed.  However, for a better quality tuak, the liquid is allowed to clarify.  There will be a white layer of sediment building up gradually at the bottom of the container, a process which clarifies the tuak naturally.  Note that clarification depends on the ‘somewhat’ completed fermentation process as the yeasts slowly die out.  If fermentation still goes on at a rapid state, the movement of tiny carbon dioxide bubbles as a result of fermentation will continue to create an upward current in the liquid and clarification process  is hindered.  However, when enough sediment is accumulated at the bottom, the resulting liquid is a clearer brew.

Air lock valve
The use of air lock valve or a one way valve doubles as an indicator tool to determine the rate of fermentation.  The frequency of released bubbles through the water in the small bottle is directly proportional to the fermentation activity of the yeast.  Slow bubbles means the fermentation process is slowing down.  You will also have a better idea of when to bottle your tuak; whether you choose to have a fizzy tuak or a stable tuak.

The air lock valve can also be installed in the beginning of the process, working throughout the end which is the bottling stage.

Processing and storing your fermenting tuak in a clear glass jar helps you to observe the process and appreciate how yeast works.  They are like your tiny little friends; making your very  own booze.  Just make sure there is room to release carbon dioxide.

Bottling your fermenting and clarifying brew in an airtight container will cause pressure buildup due to creation of carbon dioxide as a by-product.  At a certain pressure, there seems to be less yeast activity (no bubbling), until the pressure is released and fermentation continues, building up pressure in the airtight container again and again.  Storing pressurized tuak in the fridge gives you a fizzy tuak drink.  That’s cool too.

For some reason, it seems that some strain of yeasts die hard and tuak will remain in slow fermenting stage till there is no more sugar left in the mix.  That is why tuak made for maturity is mixed with more sugar to sustain fermentation process and acquire more alcohol content.