Tuak is a traditional Dayak brew generally made with glutinous rice, yeast, sugar and water. It is similar to Chinese rice wine and Japanese rice wine. Tuak is served during the harvest festival, called Gawai Dayak by the native Dayaks in Sarawak. It has extensive purpose during any merrymaking which includes weddings, thanksgiving dinners and parties.
Tuak is the welcoming drink for the Dayaks especially in the longhouses and villages in Sarawak. Today, Tuak has made it's mark across the South China Sea as many Sarawakians working in the Peninsular Malaysia celebrate Gawai here. There are very few Tuak makers in peninsular Malaysia and the good batches are usually reserved for personal collection and consumption.
Tuak is made with glutinous rice or a mixture of fragrant rice and glutinous rice or just fragrant rice. The process of making tuak involves fermentation of the cooked rice where the starch in the rice is converted into sugar which is then fermented to produce alcohol. For a detailed description of tuak making and the chemisty involved, please click the Brewing tab.
The fermentation process in tuak making starts with yeast which is often readily available in local markets called pasar tamu, sundry shops and most Chinese medicine shops across Sarawak. Some elders prefer to make their own yeast using the squeezed pulp of ginger and galangal (lengkuas) and rice powder. The squeezed pulp is mixed with rice powder and the dough is shaped into buns to be dried out in the sun.
The dried yeast, obtained commercially or made traditionally, is pounded into fine powder and added to the cooled glutinous rice. The rice must be cooled down to room temperature to avoid killing the yeast (at high temperature). The mixture of yeast and rice is then stored in a container which is tightly covered with a cloth to prevent insects and lizards from entering. The container must not be airtight because carbon dioxide is continuously released as a by product during fermentation. There are ways of having a good fermentation process such as using a stop valve and storing in glass or ceramic jars. Some tips are covered in the Brewing tab.
Just before two weeks of initial fermentation, water and sugar may be added to the mixture, depending on how much rice flavor and alcohol level is desired in the end product. Whether with or without sugar water, the mixture is left to continue the fermentation for at least six weeks to reach the highest alcohol level and the majority of the yeast dies off.
The process of making tuak generally takes an average of two months; the longer the better. This gives time for the brew to clarify and take a yellowish color, something like chrysanthemum tea . Tuak fermentation with yeast will stop as the alcohol level reaches between 16% to 20%. This is when the yeast succumbs to alcohol poisoning and dies. However, some yeast may endure higher alcohol levels, including traditional yeast mold.
Tuak can be stored for a very long time, some have been known to age for up to ten years, looking very much like whisky, some even taste like whisky. Depending on the end sugar level and yeast survival, further fermentation may occur which reduces the sweetness and increases the alcohol level.
Related article: A few questions about Tuak.