A Taste of Tapuey
Call it rice wine but I'll call it what it is. A primer on the Philippines' traditional fermented rice beverage
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Exciting news! If you haven’t seen our post on Instagram, we’ve been working on a collaboration video with the production team at FEATR to tell a story all about tapuey— a traditional fermented rice beverage in the Philippines, and the people around it. It’s a topic I am committed to learning more about and sharing in this lifetime of mine someway, somehow.
While you may not necessarily consume tapuey or rice libations, we hope you’ll gain an appreciation for the historical and cultural significance they hold as well as understand why construction of language is key to preserving what is tethered to what we consume.
This issue serves as a primer for the upcoming tapuey video, which will be released and sent to your inboxes very soon. In learning about tapuey, I have been gifted with the time of many individuals. Sharing their stories is our way of giving back. Stay tuned!
A Taste of Tapuey
by Jessica Hernandez
How does one begin to learn about and appreciate Philippine rice beverages? The category is guided more so by tradition rather than a rubric of standards. Loose definitions and lacking resources make it a bit of a challenge to define. Take, for example, how the umbrella of Philippine rice beverages is often labeled under tapuey. Perhaps originating in the Cordilleras and being prevalent around the highland areas in Luzon, it is the most familiar among urban-dwellers in Manila, who often lead conversations in the sphere of Filipino food both locally and abroad.
Tapuey is traditionally made using two core ingredients: cooked malagkit or glutinous rice (although I’ve also been told that a rice combination is sometimes used) and a disc-shaped wild starter culture called bubod. The mixture is left to ferment according to the brewer’s judgment then filtered before consumption.
Bubod is comprised of ground rice and local herbs which carry ambient yeasts and microbes native to its environment, imparting distinctive flavors to tapuey that isolated yeast strains cannot. The result is a complex alcoholic drink: tangy, sweet, with some variations having a savory almost toyo-like finish.
Tapuey is also referred to as rice wine but it is neither really a wine nor a beer. Having its own unique production style, it lives in a distinct category, much like Japanese sake and Korean wonju (or its more familiar cousin: makgeolli). But the best way to begin understanding tapuey is to compare it to its more relatable, more consumed brethren: wine and beer.
Disclaimer: I am not a beverage expert, but I’ll do my best to explain.
We get alcoholic beverages because of fermentation— when yeast converts sugars into alcohol (and CO2). Fruit wine is the most straightforward because of its already present natural sugars. Grape wine is the most preferred because of certain characteristics that make it ideal for winemaking: sugar content, natural yeasts found on the grape itself, ease of cultivation. It’s also been the most documented among humans and been around since ancient times.
Wine is a simple fermentation: sugar to alcohol. Beer is a tad more complicated so take a breath and run through this with me.
Beer is made with a grain, usually barley, which contains starch with no accessible sugar until it undergoes an additional process called saccharification— an intimidating term that basically means breaking down starch into sugars for the yeast (yeast is picky and only feeds on simple sugars).
In beer, this is done through malting, the process in which grain is steeped until it germinates. This process “tricks” the grain into releasing enzymes and modifies its structure. The end product of malting is malt, a source of fermentable sugar for yeast.
Now take tapuey, which is made from rice— also a grain. Yes, that means the starches also need to be converted into sugars before it becomes alcohol. What’s interesting is that bubod— the ingredient that makes this process truly unique to the Philippines— houses all the microorganisms needed to convert starch into sugar then sugar into alcohol. These two conversions—saccharification and fermentation—occur at the same time. What differentiates it from sake? We’ll jump into that another time.
To get to really know the category of Philippine rice beverages, you have to become intimate with the culture, the place, the history, the methods whose makers all pride themselves in. I did not grow up drinking tapuey so I do want to acknowledge its indigenous roots, its ties to the rice harvest, and its significance as an offering in ceremonies and traditions. I also want to emphasize that tapuey is but one style, one way of preparing this traditional rice beverage. In Batad of Ifugao, bayah is made with toasted glutinous rice. Amongst the Manobo people of Bukidnon in Mindanao, agkud is made with added crushed red pepper or ginger.
While linguistic confusion abounds, I find this matrix approachable by differentiating Philippine rice beverages based on process and ingredients. For example, what are its base ingredients and where do they come from? Is the rice glutinous or not? Are there additional botanicals or special steps that give it a distinction? My brain also yells: these are all variables ripe for process development.
From there, we can attempt to identify regional styles and amplify local ingredients. Based on those questions, we can map the range of Philippine rice beverages. We can even expand this to the breadth of traditional Philippine beverages and get a breakdown that looks like this:
Why go through all the trouble of categorizing something so extremely varied? I don’t mean to bestow restrictive definitions for the sake of simplification. Rather, I want us to tap into language we may be unfamiliar with. I believe that by practicing this library of words, we can preserve the histories and cultures of our food: names of different rice varietals used in tapuey, springs where water is sourced, mountains giving life to bubod. These go beyond terroir; they’re living wisdoms all around us. When we choose to wield life through our breath, we are expressing our utmost gratitude.
“With words at your disposal, you can see more clearly. Finding the right words is another step in learning to see.”
—Robin Kimmerer from Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses
I imagine the wine world would be distraught if a sommelier ever described a Bordeaux simply as a French grape wine. The audacity! Submitting a fine wine such as a Bordeaux under a broad generic term entirely dismissing its terroir, its history, its makers, and its unctuous tannins!
Isn’t that what wine categories do? Give significance based on either the region it is grown or the grape varietal used? Champagne is a sparking wine from Champagne, France while Bordeaux is a red wine from Bordeaux. Port wine is a fortified red wine that originates from the Douro region of Portugal. Wine terminology is already part of everyday vernacular.
One day, we’ll go beyond saying just Philippine rice wine. It will take time and a lot of education, just like older brother Bordeaux. That’s okay. If we reframe our thinking through this lens, perhaps then, Philippine cuisine and culture isn’t as complicated as some say. We just have to get used to embracing its nuances. We’ve already done so with wine, a beverage outside of the Philippine gastronomic landscape.
Okay, I will admit choosing from a wine list is still largely confusing and absurdly overwhelming but most of us already run the gauntlet with wine selection at dinner already, can’t we extend that to a broader beverage world as well?
My wish (or three) for the tapuey video is this: that it will spark more conversations, that it can become a useful resource that adds value to its makers, and that it inspires more to seek Philippine beverages on their own.
Happenings and events from the community
Ube Overload on Ocean is a free event happening in Long Beach, California on Saturday, February 18 from 11am-5pm PST. Learn more here.
Filipino-owned indie bookstore Bel Canto Books presents Boozy Book Fair at Ambitious Ales in Long Beach, California. Happening Sunday, February 26 from 12-5pm PST. Find more information here.
Join Abi Balingit of The Dusky Kitchen for her book launch of Mayumu: Filipino American Desserts Remixed at Yu and Me Books in Chinatown, New York on Tuesday, February 28. Event starts at 5:30pm EST. More info here. You can also pre-order Mayumu from your local bookstore: Los Angeles | New York | US-wide
Filipinx Food as Medicine is a 5-week virtual learning circle led by Kai Delgado Pfeifer. Using ancestral food as the entry point, you will come home to a deepening relationship with your bodies, ecology, hxstory, & cultural wisdom. Registration closes March 1. Learn more and sign up here.
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How About Wine from the Philippines?
While most of wine literature and research focus on grape culture, several studies have been conducted to assess the potential of fruit wine. There have been promising results from many fruits familiar in the Philippines: mango, lychee, bignay or bugnay, guava, passion fruit, and rambutan. This leads back to the question that has fired every neuron of my culinary cortex since visiting the province: why don’t we know more about Philippine fruit wine?
Fizz, Funk, and Flavor: Following Philippine Ferments
That’s not to say the practice of fermentation is fraught. This generation, fueled by curiosity and growing food conscientiousness, is revitalizing this seemingly mystified practice. Fermentation has never been more exciting and in a time that urges humankind to rekindle care and sensibility for the world around them, fermentation has never been more relevant.
I’d love to try all these traditional beverages and your chart is awesome in simplifying it. I have my bubod in the fridge waiting for me to get around to it, I’ve tried numerous times to tap our smallest coconut palm and its flowers (still not successful). These posts are very inspiring, thank you!