Thursday, April 4, 2013

Burmese Toddy

Visiting the imminently-opening country of Myanmar (Burma) was amazing and I highly recommend it.  (Though you might have to keep an eye on the news to avoid sectarian violence in certain places.)  An embarrassment of ancient Buddhist temples and some of the friendliest people you'll find anywhere.

Beer-wise, it's much like the rest of southeast Asia - almost exclusively macro light lager.  Our bus drove by a very new-looking and certainly government- or crony-owned brewery in Yangon that brews Myanmar, Tiger, ABC and other beers under contract, for domestic consumption.

Far from the macro brewery, along the roadside near the Bagan temple area in central Burma, are palm sugar "factories."  These are really just stands of sugar palms punctuated occasionally by a family-run thatched hut where the sugar is refined.  Tourists can stop and see the process, try the wares and make a donation/purchase if so inclined.

Grinding peanuts into oil is also a merry-go-round for this kid. The ride ends when you stop whipping the ox

Collecting sugar palm juice is a little like collecting maple syrup, but requires decent climbing skills.  You lop off one of the branches at the top of the tree, and hang a pot below the wound to collect the dripping sap.

Every morning you must scale a rickety bamboo ladder lashed to the tree in order to empty the juice pots into a pot hanging off your waist belt.

This requires entwining your legs through the ladder so that your hands are free.  While you're up there, you re-score the palm branch wound with a palm knife so that the sap keeps flowing.

The result is sweet, woody juice with more than a few dead but happy ants floating in it.  Then it's off to the refining hut.

The juice is heated in metal bowls fired by the branches cut from the palms.  After some hours of boiling and reduction, followed by some drying, you get...

...palm sugar nuggets, also known as jaggery. Woody and sweet, but not nearly as toothache-inducing as table sugar.  Important in much southeast Asian cooking.

That's all well and good, but what does this have to do with beer?  Another use for palm juice is to let it sit overnight in an open container.  Wild yeast combined with the high environmental heat mean that the container will have a big, meringue-like krausen by the next morning - natural fermentation a la Belgian lambic beer.

The fermented palm juice is called toddy (at least that's what the British named it back in colonial times), and it's drunk fresh that same day as a weak beer-like beverage (probably just a couple of percent ABV).  If you wait until the next day, it has "gone off" and is considered undrinkable.  (I'm guessing the residual sugars would be largely gone by then, and the wild yeast would have produced many earthy and sour flavours.)

Unfortunately I visited early in the morning, and the toddy was not yet ready for sampling.  But it did look inviting.

This was next to the fermenting toddy - a homemade still!  The toddy is largely used to make a wash that is distilled into palm liquor.  The clay oven is again fired by palm branches.  On top of that is a pot filled with toddy, that is heated and evaporated by the fire.  The big "wok" of water on top is for cooling the toddy steam.  Underneath the wok (inside the pot) is a funnel that collects the condensate where it drips off the bottom of the wok, and feeds it through the wall of the pot, through the spigot and into the bottle sitting on the ground.  The result is a powerful schnapps-like liquor.  Aside from being a libation, the alcohol is also used to create tinctures from native roots and plants, which after a few months of steeping are used as salves, arthritis pain relievers and other curatives.

A good lesson that, as good as beer is, you can ferment practically anything to create an interesting and helpful beverage.

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