Mellon Diversifying the Field

Exploring Modern African Art

A Chrysler Museum of Art and
Hampton University Museum Partnership

Man pouring palm wine into a barrel

A toddy tapper pours sap into a collection barrel to make palm wine in Sri Lanka. S.Kodikara, AFP, Getty Images.

Palm wine may be one of the oldest alcoholic drinks known to humans, dating back possibly as far as 16,000 BC, and has long been used at weddings, festivals, and other celebrations in western Africa. Different African countries have various names for the beverage (see table below). It is also popular in India (neera/patanīr and kallu), the Philippines (tubâ), Vietnam (rượu dừa), Indonesia (tuak), Mexico (tuba), and Central America (vino de coyol), but it is almost unknown in the United States currently. This is partially due to its very nature: it is self-fermenting upon exposure to air, and quickly turns to sour vinegar (acetic acid), within only a day or two. Early on after tapping it from the top of a palm tree, the liquid is described as a “lightly fizzy, sweet-and-sour, milky white booze” with a white, cloudy appearance. It can be preserved through pasteurization, allowing it to last longer on shelves. It can also be distilled into a gin called ogogoro, which is popular in Nigeria.

A table showing the different names for palm wine in various countries.
Table credit: Bisi-Johnson 2011.
A bottle of palm wine sits on a table next to a glass of the same milky white substance.
Glass and bottle of Palm wine, By Dhruvarahjs at ml.wikipedia, CC BY 3.0

Only one ingredient is needed to create the wine: palm sap, which is traditionally obtained by climbing tall palm trees using ropes or a ladder, and making a cut at the crown from which to drain the natural liquid inside. This may be collected in gourds, kegs, plastic bottles, or bamboo tubes (the latter is often used in Asia). The liquid immediately begins fermenting, due to the presence of yeast species in the air, becoming about as alcoholic as the average American beer in only 2 hours. Several species of palm can be used: raffia palms, coconut palms, date palms, and oil palms all contain this sugary sap. Different cultures disagree on which variety of palm produces superior wine. The Yoruba people prefer the wine from raffia palms, while Igbo people place higher value on oil palm wine. 

Palm Wine in the Harmon Collection

A watercolor painting of two figures carrying jugs of palm wine.
Tapping Time by Emmanuel Owusu Dartey (Ghanaian, 1927-2018), Mid-20th century, Watercolor on paper, Gift of the Harmon Foundation, Hampton University Museum, 67.435
Boys tapping a fallen palm tree.
Tapping for Palm Wine by Emmanuel Owusu Dartey (Ghanaian, 1927-2018), Mid-20th century, Watercolor on paper, Gift of the Harmon Foundation, Hampton University Museum, 67.484

At least two watercolor paintings by Emmanuel Owusu Dartey depict the process of tapping palm trees for wine. In the image above on the left, two figures are setting out or returning from the tapping, carrying pots and gourds to hold the valuable liquid. On the right, three boys have knocked down a small palm tree, and they are in the process of making the incision from which to drain the sap. Clara Etso Ugbodaga-Ngu also painted a scene related to this industry, specifically a palm wine seller, who are called elemu in the Yoruba language. This figure is surrounded by colorful gourds, which are presumably filled with the beverage. They are most likely decorated because they will be reused for the next batch of wine, which allows the existing yeasts and bacteria to jump-start the fermentation process.

Elemu palm wine seller painting
“Elemu” Yoruba Palm Wine Seller by Clara Etso Ugbodaga-Ngu (Nigerian, 1921-1996), ca. 1963, Oil on canvas, Gift of the Harmon Foundation, Hampton University Museum, 67.138
Painting of figures reclining and drinking palm wine
Recess Time at Farm by Akinola Lasekan (Nigerian, 1916-1974), Mid-20th century, Oil on board, Gift of the Harmon Foundation, Hampton University Museum, 67.150

Though not as direct of a reference, it appears that the figures in Akinola Lasekan’s painting Recess Time at Farm (at left) may be drinking palm wine, since the substance in their bowls appears to be white, and it presumably came from the large gourd in the center. This beverage is often used as an antidote to the heat, so this would make sense for the workers to be enjoying it during their break. Lasekan also depicted palm-wine tappers climbing tall trees to attach or switch the gourds collecting the sap in a detailed pen-and-ink drawing (below).

Pen and ink drawing of palm wine tappers climbing the trees.
Detail of a palm wine tapper at the top of a tree.

Palm-Wine Tappers, Lagos, Nigeria by Akinola Lasekan (Nigerian, 1916-1974), Mid-20th century, Pen and ink on paper, Gift of the Harmon Foundation, Hampton University Museum, 67.546 (left: overall, right: detail)

The Future of Palm Wine

If you’re interested in trying palm wine for yourself, you will likely have to travel to Africa (or Southeast Asia), at least for now. Fortunately though, there are several people trying to produce it commercially for more widespread sale and exporting. The Nigerian company Pamii, created by Daniella Ekwueme, was bottling the beverage at 4% ABV in 11 oz bottles, and trying to “cultivate a brand and lifestyle around it”, focusing on a younger crowd. Her goal has been to preserve this African tradition and promote “appreciating things from home and reclaiming them and doing them better.” Unfortunately, the social media pages have not been active since December 2020. Other similar exporters like Nkulenu are entering the US market slowly.

Four bottles of of Pamii brand palm wine lined up on a counter.
Courtesy of Pamii, Atlas Obscura.

On another front, Nigerian immigrant Onye Ahanotu and his family struggled to find this “cornerstone of culture and society” in the US, largely due to lack of demand as well as the rapid fermentation and souring process. Ahanotu, with his background in science, founded Ikenga Wines in 2018, in order to experiment with a more high-tech route of palm wine production. In order to bypass the resource-intensive process of harvesting, storing, and shipping the palm sap, he has been working on synthetically producing a molecularly identical liquid in a lab near San Francisco. Yeast and microbes for the fermentation are sourced from Nigeria, which contribute to creating an authentic “terroir” or flavor profile. The synthetic sap won’t sour quickly like the natural wine, and can be aged to develop even more complex flavors. Ikenga Wines, which will sell their sparkling product in traditional 750 mL bottles, is hoping to begin shipping to most US states within 8-12 months.

References

Bisi-Johnson, Mary, et. al. “Meddling with a cultural heritage: Traces of salicylate in adulterated palm wine and health implications”. African Journal of Food Science Vol. 5 (9), pp. 536-540. 15 September 2011.

Darnton, John. “Palm Wine Tappers Give Nigeria The Beverage That Cures All Ills.” New York Times. 8 November 1976.

Durosomo, Damola. “This 21-Year-Old Entrepreneur Is Bringing Nigerian Palm Wine Into the Future One Bottle At a Time”. OkayAfrica.

Ewbank, Anne. “Palm Wine”. Atlas Obscura.

Gattuso, Reina. “The Battle to Bottle Palm Wine”. Atlas Obscura. 2 February 2021.

Ogunfowoke, Adeniyi. “4 Reasons to Drink Palm Wine From Igboland” Medium. 22 April 2016.

Palm Wine: God-made Alcoholic Beverage”. This Nigeria. 16 August 2021.

Villarreal-Morales, Sandra L., Julio C. Montañez-Saenz, Cristóbal N. Aguilar-González, and Raúl Rodriguez-Herrera. (2018). Chapter 11 – Metagenomics of Traditional Beverages. In Alina Maria Holban & Alexandru Mihai Grumezescu (Eds.), Handbook of Food Bioengineering, Advances in Biotechnology for Food Industry (pp. 301-326). Academic Press.

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