Growing up on the Philippine island of Leyte, Arturo Pacho loved to watch the adults drink coconut wine. Delivering gallon-sized jugs of the potent drink, known locally as “tuba,” always came with little rewards. Sometimes, he’d listen to guerilla vets regale their war stories, or he’d lap up fresh-caught conch in the company of his uncle’s talking green parrot.
“I had to learn what was good tuba because, if there were complaints, I would have to return it,” says Pacho. He spent most of his adult life as an administrator for the City of Los Angeles, but he never stopped thinking about tuba. So, when he retired in 2015, he wrote a book about it, Discovering Tuba.
Made from the sap of palm inflorescence, tuba is the favorite drink of those in the Philippines’ rural south, and especially in populous Visayan Islands like Leyte. It overflows at annual fiesta folk celebrations, baptisms and funerals, as well as dinners in poor areas.
Moneyed and middle-class drinkers go for imported beer, bottled rum and whiskey, says Pacho. But many Filipinos recognize tuba’s importance, thanks to its deep-rooted history and enduring social and cultural impact.
Tuba can “keep interpersonal relationships smooth,” says food historian Felice Prudente Sta. Maria, who drank quite a bit of it during research trips to rural fiestas in the 1970s and ’80s. “Social interaction is extremely important in the Philippines, and tuba is an important part of that.
“Locals are always very proud of their tuba. They will keep pouring into your glass. It’s a statement of regional pride.”
A symbol of kindness mistaken for weakness
A cultural artifact, tuba was consumed during spiritual ceremonies and shamanic rituals long before the Philippines was colonialized by Europeans. Spanish diaries from the 16th century describe an alcoholic beverage served as a welcome drink and sipped through a reed straw. Historians believe it was tuba.
The hospitality of Indigenous tribes was misjudged for subservience. The Spanish fleet’s leader, Ferdinand Magellan, demanded the Filipinos pledge loyalty and convert to Christianity. When the local leader, Lapu-Lapu, refused, Magellan threatened to destroy houses and coconut trees. The legendary sailor was killed in the ensuing battle.
According to Pacho, Philippine history is full of instances where “tuba became a symbol of resistance,” he says. “Wine became empowering and linked to the will to fight back and preserve our rights.”
Tuba’s influence spread outside of the Philippines to countries like Guam and Mexico via migration. In the 17th century, Filipinos working on the Manila-Acapulco galleon trade began making tuba in western Mexican states Jalisco and Colima, where it remains popular today.
In the Philippines, that “tuba has continued throughout over 300 years of Spanish colonialism and 50 years of American colonialism, does say a lot,” says Sta. Maria.
The people’s tipple
Tuba represents “marginalized people yearning for a better life,” says Pacho. While coconut wine is widely known, it’s not readily available in northern areas like the capital, Manila.
Music and literature references to tuba often evoke sadness and heartache, echoing the harsh economic realities of tuba gatherers. Collecting tuba is hard work for little pay. Bottles are sold at sari-sari shops, or small family-run convenience stores, starting at 60 pesos ($1.25) per liter.
“It’s affordable for any occasion and all walks of life like to drink it.” —Edmil Fabi, fourth-generation tuba dealer and distiller
Mananggiti, or tuba gatherers, climb coconut trees and fetch small amounts of sap. It’s a job fraught with hardships like bee colonies, snakes and extreme heights. They work with few tools, often just a knife, bamboo container, funnel and strainer, and they climb the trunk barefoot. In some regions, they make a cut at the base of the tree or attach bamboo steps to the top, what’s known as an “alley to heaven.”
Often, mananggiti do not own the land where the trees are located, and must either pay rent for the trees or share the tuba with the landowner. If the tuba isn’t consumed privately, it’s sold to a local distributor who ferments the liquid in a large drum or can.
Aging can take anywhere from three days to one month to produce a version known as bahal, or if it’s aged a year or more, bahalina. With time, the taste becomes smoother, richer and more floral. The alcohol content also goes up.
Young, slightly astringent-tasting tuba is often mixed with cola, while elderly folks add it to condensed milk and raw egg, a “healthy cocktail” that supposedly contributes to a long life. That version is also a common hangover cure.
“It’s affordable for any occasion and all walks of life like to drink it in our region,” says Edmil Fabi, a fourth-generation tuba dealer and distiller on Leyte.
Tasting the future
Pacho wrote Discovering Tuba to raise awareness for the beverage and encourage broader production. Scaling bottling and standardizing quality is no easy task, he says, but it would ultimately bring more profits for farmers and sap gatherers.
“If tuba could be exported overseas or sold in Manila, there is certainly a market for it,” he says. He points to the eight million tourists who visited the Philippines in 2019, as well as the two million Filipinos who live abroad and may miss a taste of home.
“Coconut wine is important for our own history, it’s a part of who we are,” says Pacho. “We need to recognize that.”