Food & Drink

Agustus Sapen: The Alchemist Transforms Rice Into 'Tuak'

The mark of the yeast.

BY foong li mei | Sep 15, 2017 | News

All photographs by Szetoo Wei Wen

They spend their lives eating until their consumption kills them. Their god, in his spotless white garb, calls them his “minions”.

Agustus Sapen, engineer by day and alchemist by night, explains what hap­pens in the making of tuak, the Day­ak rice wine: yeast cells ferment the natural sugars in rice water, naturally producing alcohol and carbon dioxide. The alcohol build-up will eventually kill all the yeast, but before that hap­pens, they’ll pass out from all the CO2. But let some air into the bottle, and they revive to continue their suicide.

Sapen talks about his minions lov­ingly. He sustains the lively populations that eat, breed and excrete (alcohol and carbon dioxide) just like humans. They’re wilful in the same way; his first batch of tuak decided it would stay “mysteriously cloudy” three months later, rather than being the clear liquid gold it usually is. You could say that like fungi, humans are unique.

Stepping into the minimalist living room of his Kajang apartment (no couch, upturned black pails as stools), we’re greeted by four sentinels: 20l bottles of tuak identified with handwritten labels detailing their dates of fermentation and ingredients. Clumps of rice bubble to the surface, making you feel a bit like you’re in a mad professor’s lab.

Laid out on the table are bags con­taining chalky cakes of various shapes and sizes. They carry labels with the names of East Malaysian towns: Bintu­lu, Limbang, Sibu, Kanowit... These are ragi, culture hosts, which are pounded into powder with pestle and mortar, which is then mixed with the glutinous rice to “release” the yeast and the en­zymes pivotal to the transformative fer­mentation process.

The names of the ragi begin to make sense once you know that they’re named after their places of origin. The French, among others, make great play of a wine’s provenance, which they honour with a strict (some say arcane) system of Appellation d’Origine—just like in East Malaysia. Sapen says no two regions produce the same ragi, the taste of which varies with the spices used to make them. Ragi-making is a trade secret and closely guarded family business. Sapen’s current favourites are “Limbang” and “Kuching”. Tuak made with the former clarifies quicker, while the latter imparts a savoury, nutty kick, overlaid with whiffs of cinnamon, cloves and other spices.

The taxonomy of known yeast cul­tures is dazzling. Sourdough bread, to take just one example, contains yeast and bacteria unique to sourdough cul­tures and is kept alive for decades, if not centuries. The cloudy habitat of the fermenting tuak is probably an ancient virgin rainforest in miniature, and just as diverse in its uncharted richness of flora. It would be fascinating to trace its DNA.

Also on the table is lab equipment: a refractometer to measure residual sugar levels, and an alcohol meter. A graduat­ed cylinder stands a little away. Sapen is trying to take some of the guesswork out of his alchemical process, and aim for consistency and broader market ac­ceptance. He realises that science and alchemy explain each other; in the Miri town of his childhood, his mother used to make the family tuak, but eventually couldn’t abide by the many taboos she needed to follow to do so. He explains: “You’re not allowed to eat sour stuff like lime or oranges when you make it and you must maintain an untroubled mind throughout the process. You cannot make it if you’re menstruating. You can­not keep the tuak near any salt or sour food, and it goes on.

“But ‘taboos’ do make sense—eating lime or oranges may cause the rice to be tainted by juice, and keeping a calm and focused mind ensures you make no mistakes.” As well as not upsetting your minions at work, he might add; new research is starting to show how our thoughts can imprint water and, by extension, the processes of which they are part.

The best rice of the year’s first har­vest was once used to make tuak. But Gawai, the annual Dayak thanksgiving festival, is diminishing in stature as families move away from farming. Har­vest unites the reaping forces of several generations, but tuak evaporates with the disappearance of harvest parties.

“Ultimately, if we don’t begin to bring back pride in farming, you can for­get about all these cultural things,” says Sapen. Preserving tuak-making without the harvest festival is like mummifying the husk, its soul having departed.

Sapen observes that longhouse res­idents now prize western spirits like Chivas and Johnnie Walker, and even name their children after these brands. Conversely, tuak is blamed for drunken behaviour among the Dayak community.

He points out that most tuak-mak­ers are women who silently make it in the kitchen, consuming little or none of it. Perhaps this is why the men on the longhouse terraces, “the main drinkers of tuak”, down it like shots of cheap liq­uor. They don’t have to make it.

Can liquid gold crafted by the wom­en of Sarawak find its way into the clinking crystal glasses of the world’s globalised cities?

Chateau Agus carries hints of white burgundy; there’s no burn or acetate odours. Its maker is an indomitable spirit.

“If I can get foreigners to appreciate tuak, I may be able to show the Dayaks that, look, others are drinking it slowly to fully experience its complexity.

“We own this culture.”


How to make Tuak 


  • 1kg glutinous rice
  • 50g ragi tapai (tapai yeast)—available at most Chinese medicine shops
  • 5L water
  • 1KG sugar
  • Storage container (minimum 7L)


1. Cook glutinous rice with two thirds the amount of water required for normal rice.

2. Once the rice has cooked, thinly spread it across a broad tray and allow it to cool to room temperature.

3. As the rice cools, pound the ragi to a fine powder.

4. Sift the ragi powder onto the cooled rice and mix well. 

5. Store the rice and ragi mixture in the storage container for five to seven days.

6. Close the container with a kitchen towel and seal tightly to prevent insects from entering.

7. On the fifth day, bring 5l of water to a boil and stir in the sugar. Boil until the sugar dissolves completely, then cool the syrup to room temper­ature.

8. Add the syrup to the rice and ragi mixture. Stir well.

9. Replace the cloth covering and seal tightly again. You may put a broad plate on top of the cloth to secure the container mouth.

10. Leave the mixture to ferment for at least four to five weeks or until clear liquid separates from the solids. 

11. The clear liquid, now known as rice wine or tuak, will be easy to scoop or pump out with­out agitating the sediment at the bottom of the container. 

12. Bottle the tuak in glass bottles. Serve cold. 

Tip: Bottling your fermenting and clarifying brew in an airtight container will cause pressure to build up, due to the creation of carbon dioxide as a by-product. At a certain pressure, there will be less yeast activity (no bubbling). Open the container cover slightly to release the pressure so that fermentation continues. Storing pressurised tuak in the fridge gives you a fizzy tuak drink.


This piece is republished with permission from the book, The Food that Makes Us, a collection of stories and home recipes from Malaysia that shows when we make food, food makes us too. Copies are available at Kinokuniya Malaysia and other stores. Find out more on their facebook.