Believe the hype. It’s known by many names: Palm Wine, Vin de Raffia, White Stuff, White Mimbo, and Fuchuk. It might just be the most interesting drink in the world. No batch is the same, and the batches themselves are constantly changing. In fact, it continues to ferment in your stomach after drinking. It also is hard to find, since it cannot be bottled (it would explode) and after a couple of days it becomes too alcoholic for consumption. Obtaining the liquid is an ancient art, and in parts of Africa where the Raffia Palm grows it is an integral lubricant of the culture. From marriage proposals to old men bathing, I present you with everything you wanted to know about the “mimbo” and more. So, as they ask here “Do you take White?”
Palm wine is an alcoholic beverage that can be tapped directly from the Raffia Palm Tree. That’s right, the wine actually ferments in the tree. Once it is tapped, both the taste and alcoholic content will change as time goes on. It will start off as sweet as juice with a low alcohol content and continue to ferment becoming sour and more alcoholic. The drink here is sold in the bar one liter at a time, for 100 CFA per liter (that’s $0.20 for an entire liter!). As you might imagine it is the most popular drink in my village, surpassing water by a hefty margin. On any given day, elderly gentlemen can be found at the palm wine bar starting around 6 or 7am, and over the course of the day I have seen papas put down several liters of the White Stuff. It is best enjoyed while eating Kola Nuts, which are packed with natural caffeine. Interesting fact, Coca-Cola got it’s name from Kola Nuts which were used as a secret ingredient.
This wine has a different effect than most alcoholic beverages in that it produces a different type of intoxication. You may not feel overly impaired, but as time goes on, the wine continues to ferment in your belly while your body continues to process the alcohol, resulting in a prolonged “buzzed” feeling. But do not be mistaken, if you chug two liters of the stuff it will not end well.
How to Enjoy With Class
There are some unwritten rules (which are about to be written) you should observe while responsibly enjoying palm wine:
- Traditionally it is consumed out of a hollowed out ram horn, but this is no longer mandatory. Any container will suffice, although you will earn mad respect for drinking out of a horn.
- Always drink with your right hand, using the left is very disrespectful. (For those drinking game aficionados, “Buffalo Rules” are in full effect).
- Before buying a pitcher, it is normal to test the different batches to see which one you like best.
- The person who buys the pitcher is obliged to “cut” the batch by pouring him or herself first.
- When pouring or receiving a drink it is a respectful gesture to lightly grab your right forearm with your left hand. Also, be sure you are fully facing the other person.
- When you reach the last bit of your drink, it is appropriate to pour it on the ground, as there is usually a bit of Palm Wine residue left in the bottom of the cup.
- If, when finishing the pitcher, you are able to perfectly fill someone’s cup to the brim, it is a sign. The owner of that special cup must to buy another liter and the group will continue drinking.
The wild part about these rules is that when you see people drinking mimbo it seems rather rowdy and disorganized, but if you join them you realize all of these rules are being followed to a tee.
Fuchuk, as it is known in the local language, is a part of day-to-day life here in Kugwe. It is served at all social gatherings. In some villages it is rubbed on the lips of newborn babies. Mothers will even give sips to their small children (not medically advised). I have been told that in the olden days, elderly men preferred to bathe in the “dry” Palm Wine (the strong stuff) for increased vitality.
Traditionally, when a man asks a woman to marry, he brings a large gourd container filled with Palm Wine. Upon acceptance, the couple will drink from the container together. In some instances there is a coin at the bottom, and whoever drinks the coin will live longer (or something like that…).
Many Cameroonians firmly believe it is a magical elixir that can cure any illness, improve vision, and make you strong. Although the nutritional content is unknown, I imagine it might be better than other alcohols, since it is almost like fresh fruit juice.
There is a subculture here of “The Tappers.” They are younger men, usually a bit rough in appearance, sometimes with a scraggly beard, and they are just trying to make some money quick by tapping White Stuff. I relate them somewhat to lumberjacks. To illustrate I will use my friend Franklin who is the most powerful tapper in Kugwe.
Franklin started young, learning from his elder brother around the age of 12. When he couldn’t afford to go to secondary school, he started tapping. He has tapped ever since, putting both himself and his wife through high school.
Tapping is tedious business though. In order to tap the tree, you must climb a very skinny homemade ladder into the bamboo-like palm tree. Next you strap yourself in using a vine. Then you use a dagger to make a hole into the main stem, which must have a “V” shape at the bottom to funnel the nectar into a jug. The jug is tied to the tree and positioned below the cut. Finally, the jug and hole must be well covered with banana leaves, otherwise the bees will raid the stash. This entire process is done three times a day, every day. Beginning at 4am, again at 11am, and the final round at 4pm. If you miss a day, the whole tree could spoil.
The technicality of the art digresses. Such as the four “stages” each tree goes through over the course of a few months as it is being tapped. Some stages produce higher qualities but lower quantities and vice versa. Individual trees are bought from land owners by tappers. The tappers do everything but give the trees names. Because there is so much variance in the production for each tree, a tapper can recall that tree which “produced 30 liters a day for three months straight. I would cut a man who ever looked at the tree.” Or, the tree that gave the sweetest wine in recollected Batibo history.
Although the camaraderie amongst the tappers is strong, disputes over tree ownership can occur. My friend Franklin once had another tapper encroaching on one of his trees during the night. He warned the man once, but to no avail. Franklin did what had to be done and slept next to his tree for a straight week, challenging the encroacher to bare knuckled boxing in order to determine rightful ownership of this Palm Tree.
Unfortunately, there is a dark side to the Palm Wine business. Evil tappers who want to a shortcut to make a quick franc will mix their mimbo with water and then add saccharine. Saccharine will make it sweeter so it is difficult to detect that the wine has been watered down. However, the water can be of questionable quality and when saccharine is used this way it is notorious for destroying stomachs. Most often this is the stuff that gets transported from the villages to the big cities, which have no Raffia Palms of their own.
I myself have been victim to this tactic once. It was not fun in the least, as my stomach was in ejection mode for about 48 hours. Moral of the story, know your tappers and take selectively.
I have heard rumors there are places you can try it in the United States, but sources are unknown. Trying for yourself may require a trip to Africa… or I can attempt to smuggle some seeds back home and start the White Mimbo Revolution.