Palm wine adventures

Just about every week, we have a spry older guy from the forest who comes and sells us palm wine. Usually, we can’t drink the five liters he sells us – not because of the alcohol content, which I figure sits somewhere between Odoul’s and Michelob Ultra. But we share it with people, and it’s so cheap at 300 francs (0.33 USD) a liter.

So we arranged to visit him and see how it was made. The actual process requires a lot of physical labor, but I spent about two hours watching the exciting part. It’s sort of like harvesting maple syrup, only you have to cut the whole tree down.

I took loads of pictures, which I thought might do a better job (with captions) of explaining the process.

I met “Papa Jean” at his home in the forest. From there we set off down the trail and at one point he and JP – our guard and motorcycle taxi man – launched into an invisible hole in the brush.
Papa Jean had already cut down and de-branched the tree, and this plastic container secured with palm bark is collecting the sap.
Here, he’s removed the container and is collecting the “wine” in another receptacle.
From a 15- to 20-foot palm tree, he collects about 5 liters twice a day, for up to 2 weeks.
Papa Jean has rigged up a filtration system with palm bark – one reason his palm wine is free of debris and bugs, and a big reason we buy from him.
The palm sap drips out of the trunk of a fallen tree.
Twice a day, he uses a razor-sharp machete to open the tree trunk’s pores and keep the sap flowing.
The sap drips from the spongy trunk.
We visited three different trees, the wine from which Papa Jean will take the 13 kilometers into Lodja to sell from his bicycle.
These palm trees grow quickly and produce a massive amount of foliage. We have a few in our yard, and I usually have enough strength to hack off two or three fronds at a time.
Before tapping the tree, Papa Jean and his helpers hacked off all of the fronds, leaving them to decompose on the forest floor.
Sap comes bubbling out almost immediately after trimming the wood.
The wine has a slight carbonation, and cold, it’s quite refreshing.
The honey bees like it too. The produce some delicious honey and are among the most docile and least aggressive I’ve seen.
Papa Jean stands in front of his house after the morning collection.
Women weave these ergonomic baskets and used them to carry extremely heavy loads of pineapples, firewood and just about anything else on long trips from the forest to Lodja and back.
The view from the road, snaking down into a small river valley and then back up to the plateau on which Lodja sits.

2 thoughts on “Palm wine adventures”

  1. Your Palm wine story is really fascinating…I wish there was a way to stick a spigot in the tree, taking a little bit at a time, letting the tree renew the liquid and then having a continuous supply without killing the source….i know things grow faster in the tropics but I wonder how long it takes for one of the trees to reach a size worth cutting down………..Some form of alcohol has been used by mankind for close to 10,000 years….it’s amazing to see how every culture has discovered some sort of source to “Party Hardy”………..enjoy your wine! and thanks for the up dates.


    1. These trees are 4-5 years old. They grow like weeds here – in our garden, literally, as I could cut them all out in the morning and have plenty of 6- to 12-inch shoots sprouting all over the place by the evening. Perhaps we could tap trees like we do for maple syrup without ending the tree’s life. I don’t think there’s a lot of waste here – the trunk becomes an excellent source of charcoal (though that brings up other issues) and the foliage decomposes rapidly, thanks to ants and bacteria and the zillion other forms of life that we probably don’t even know about.
      You do have a good point, and I think there is a principle involved here in taking just what you need from the forest and no more. That ethos is difficult to find here, I think for a couple of reasons. One is environmental: The idea of nuanced maintenance, of thinking about the consequences, doesn’t always make sense in the rain forest. For example, why break my back to maintain the walls or roof of my house when termites are going to turn it to dust eventually anyway? Might as well save myself the effort and when the house falls down, there will be plenty of water for bricks, plenty of wood for the frame, plenty of thatch for the roof.
      The second is historical/cultural (and this is something I didn’t notice in Niger): Why throw my efforts into preserving/building wealth for the future, perhaps even to pass down to my children, in the form of, say, cattle, when even teenagers here can remember the last time soldiers (both rebels and government) came through and took them all with no compensation? Better to not waste the effort and keep my family from becoming a target.
      I’m certainly generalizing a bit here, but it’s in an effort to understand why people sometimes do things differently depending on location, history, economics, etc. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.


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