18 August 2011

Toaka Gasy!

Just got back from an amazing two week expedition with colleagues from the CHANGE program at UW-Madison to find the critically endangered Greater Bamboo Lemur and to investigate the effects of hunting on this and other species in the region around my research area. Next time I will post an anatomy of the expedition, as a sort of digital field journal.

But, as there is nothing better than a cold beer to soothe the physical and mental exhaustion after such an endeavor  I thought it would be appropriate to share short photo essay on toaka gasy, Malagasy moonshine, before heading back out for another 10 day field trip. Not that it is anywhere near as refreshing as beer...

Doing my rounds a couple weeks ago, visiting various houses to conduct interviews about livelihoods and forest use, I came to a toaka gasy distiller's house. It was immediately recognizable by the fact that his house was completely surrounded by sugar cane.

Suger cane field with wetland forest remnants in background


In fact, he wasn't growing much of anything else, including rice, which was a bit of a shock. He was still waiting on a request he had put in to the Water and Forest ministry to cultivate some land that the local forest management group controls that had been cleared 10 years previously in order to grow rice. In the mean time it was all sugar, all the time.

Mortar and pestels for pounding sugar with bark of the marotsaka tree

Materials are simple: a trough to pound the sugar, a barrel to ferment it in, and a rudimentary still. The sugar is peeled and pounded with a large handful of bark from a certain tree in the forest to give the nectar its distinguished turpentine flavor.  It really takes just a bit of bark, though I have heard in some areas a conservation concern for the tree in question (Genus anyone?).

Marotsaka tree bark

The sugar cane mash is then put in a barrel and left to ferment for a week to ten days before being carried across the yard to the still.

Barrel full of ripening sugar cane

The simplest of stills

The barrel will be put on the right side of the still on rocks with a low burning fire under it for about 8 hours. As the alcohol burns off is is funneled into a tube that runs through a trough to condense it again and the sweet, and not too strong (roughly 20-30% alcohol, as measured by my distinguished palate) liquor emerges from the tube on the left.

Condensation tube in water bath

The one barrel of sugar will generate approximately 20 liters of toaka, which is technically illegal and can't be transported on public busses and the like, though there is no need for that because it will most likely be consumed around the village.

Oh boy,  here we go!

I don't foresee a big export market for this product anytime soon. While the guys around the village (and some of the women, though it is quite a bit more frowned upon) like to drink the stuff after a days work, most westerners who I have seen try it, can't stand the stuff. It is sickly sweet and not altogether unreminiscent of paint thinner. After having bottles of the stuff passed around in my honor in many a village, I have gotten almost zatra, or used to, the distinct flavor, allowing some of its finer qualities to come through, if I really try to focus.

If you get lucky, it'll come in a reused rhum bottle that had maybe even been washed out first, like the one above. If not, you may end up drinking liquor out of a broken coke bottle and gasoline can like a few WWF volunteers and I did a few years ago.

Backcountry bootleg, complete with floating ants. Photo credit: Liz Johnson