What do you think of when a Vietnam Central Highland tour is mentioned? The mountain, ethnic minority, wild people? For most Vietnamese, a Vietnam tour of Central Highland either means Dalat or Tay Nguyen (The Western Land of Central Highland) and that also means “tube wine” – or rượu cần in Vietnamese. The image of cheerful ethnic minority people joining hands, dancing around a round tub of wine with dozens of bamboo straws sticking out of it has long become a staple of Tay Nguyen tourism. Yet a lot of tourists, after many Central Vietnam group tours, still are not aware of what rượu cần is and the simplicity, yet beauty, in the making of this special product. Today, in the chilly autumn air surrounding Hanoi, one craves a spicy sip of the mountain’s wine and so, the tube wine’s story is told.
Rượu cần – a staple in Vietnam Central Highland culture (Source: Internet)
What is rượu cần
Unlike popular belief, tube wine is not wine in a jar with a tube. To talk about what tube wine is, we have to know what wine is in Vietnamese culture. In Vietnam, there are three types of wine: rice wine, fruit wine and herbal wine. Rice wine is made of rice, fruit wine is made of fruit and herbal wine is the category of our tube wine. Traditionally, wine is considered tube wine if it’s: 1. made of wild herbs picked fresh from the Central Highlands’ mountains, and 2. fermented and served in ché, big heavy pottery tubs, that sometimes, are even passed down from generation to generation for its value. Because tube wine is made of herbs, there isn’t just one type of it.
Tube wine is something to be passed down to many generations (Source: Internet)
Wherever the jars go, the ingredients going in it are different. Each community and household has a different recipe for their wine, and each type of herb also gives a different aroma, taste and health benefit. That’s why you’ll never taste the same tube wine twice. The distinguished tub of wine then turns into the pride of each ethnic minority family. Now, you might be thinking, “if it’s so valuable, then making it must be super complicated!” Yes and no - read on to find out!
How rượu cần is made
Those who have seen rượu cần being made on their Central Vietnam group tours would actually claim that it’s fairly simple to make. To begin with, tube wine, unlike fruit and rice wines, requires a starter. This starter is made from powdered cereal. But again, this is a vague definition as it varies from maker to maker and sometimes year to year as it totally depending on what is seasonally available. The meaning of “cereal” in Tay Nguyen can have many meanings: from arrowroot and pearl barley (a very popular cereal of Vietnam Central Highlands) to maize and the finest and whitest rice. Of course, the more valuable the cereal is, the better the wine will be. For instance, one of the best winemakers in Tay Nguyen, Co Tu factory, (a must-visit on Central Vietnam group tours) claims that their wine has got its reputation thanks to them using a purple glutinous rice, of which grain is left out in the field for at least eight months before harvesting, which gives the wine a distinct natural sugar without any additives! Such treasured cereal is then cooked smashed with unique herbs plus galangal and ginger! (These are two indispensable ingredients, responsible for the unmistakable spiciness of genuine tube wine.)
Rượu cần starter seems simple enough to make (Source: Internet)
The mixture is finally rolled into balls and left to ferment for at least 12 hours at room temperature, on a layer of very dried husk to avoid sticking. From there, the starter can be left in ché (the tub) from 4-5 days to a year and many years to ferment and become wine. Similar to regular wine, the longer it’s fermented, the stronger the taste and the darker the color it will take on.
It sounds simple enough but as Western winemakers would say, only the masters know the struggle! Cheap ingredients such as corn and ginger must be omitted if one wants to make the finest wine. He must have the finest ingredients and to obtain those is not at all cheap. White glutinous rice can be bought in the market, at a high price, but purple rice, for example, is not always available. Choosing the cereal also doesn’t necessarily decide the wine’s outcome. If the temperature is unexpectedly too high or if the husk is not dry enough, the whole batch of wine will have to be thrown away! Because of this, many people in the Central Highlands making rượu cần to sell ended up going bankrupt and quit their profession.
How to enjoy rượu cần
It sure does sound strenuous. But wait, that doesn’t seem right! Fermented balls cannot become 8 liters of wine by themselves. Where is the liquid in this process? This is where people find out how tube wine is a totally different beverage from normal wine, because water is only added when served! Specifically, when the host wants to serve the wine, he will prepare it like so:Take a bunch of lá tranh (a type of long grass mainly used in Vietnam’s roof making), roll it to fit the small opening of the jar, press it down tightly (this is to prevent the starter from floating on top), then pour in water (to the brim of the jar), stick down a long straw and enjoy!
Preparing tube wine is no simple task (Source: Internet)
Enjoying rượu cần, is no less an art than enjoying red wine. Those who don’t know how to prepare it won’t be able to drink a clean, strong wine. Speaking of which, you know you’ve got the wrong type of wine on your Central Vietnam group tours when your tube wine tastes too strong of alcohol and is clear in color. A genuine tube wine is one that’s either a honey-like golden brown (Vietnamese honey that is) or a reddish earthy shade. Its taste is a mixture of sweetness from the cereal and a spicy, strong aroma of wild herbs and is especially easy to drink, but also incredibly easy to get drunk on!
It is said that tube wine’s starter is better left out over a year, but once water is poured in, the wine must be consumed within 2-3 days, and yet wine tubs in the Central Highlands are consumed like tea! After finishing the first round of liquid, people can put in more, until the flavor and alcohol in the wine fades and disappears. So if you buy or make an 8 litre tub of wine, you cannot enjoy it alone but usually with the whole village.
Rượu cần – the wine of people
Rượu cần – the wine of people (Source: Internet)
While villages in Vietnam are mostly founded for agricultural reasons, villages in Tay Nguyen are made by families. Small families link together to make big ones, and big families together create ancestries and villages. So a treat for the whole village means a treat for the family and once a tub of wine is brought into the family, especially on special occasions like festivals, weddings or funerals, the whole family has to drink, regardless if they’re women or men, young or old. In certain regions, people even play drinking games in rotation; no one is to be spared for the night and the wine not being finished is even considered a sign of bad luck for the next harvest.
Because it is usually consumed in the family, if rượu cần is offered to guests, then that guest must be very loved, and for them drinking also becomes something of a ritual. The host prepares the wine and has the first sip, then the guest has the next sip, spits it out, then finally everyone drinks! This is because they have to test for poison in the wine. Of course, such rituals nowadays rarely exist. Nevertheless, it shows how important tube wine is in the ethnic minority’s culture.
It is said that people are most beautiful when they own everything they make and I think that’s absolutely true for Vietnam Central Highlands. From colorful brocades to the people-binding tube wine, Tay Nguyen people express themselves, their beliefs and life through the creation of their beautiful heritage. Hopefully, centuries from now, this will be passed down to many more generations , transferring the mountain people’s ingenuity to many regions in the country and hopefully, to the world as well.