From the lowly sukang irok or sugar palm vinegar that is being peddled in the streets of this town, a couple formerly engaged in the frosted bottling business discovered a gold mine that changed the meaning of vinegar and helped save endangered mammals.
Arengga vinegar from a variety of sugar palm tree known as kaong or irok (Arengga pinnata) is now bottled into frosted bottles sealed with roll and pilfer-proof caps and has already reached as far as Los Angeles and Japan. It was the preferred vinegar of the international chefs who joined the recently held “chefs on parade” in Manila.
But Vie and Basil Reyes, owners of Bote Central Inc., the company that develops and bottles the vinegar, have more and bigger plans to sustain the vinegar business that revives history and could save the endangered palm civets (Paradoxorus hermaphroditus) or locally known as alamid, the musang (Paradoxorus philipinesis) and the cloud rats.
“With Arengga vinegar, we also hope to change the culture of vinegar into a delicious drink that can be displayed on the dinner table like wines,” Vie said, as she finished her glass of vinegar juice.
Arengga vinegar mixed with honey and ice makes a good tasting energy and drink. The juice tastes like a perfect blend of pineapple, orange, mango and passion fruit juice that has been stored for a long time.
“In the morning, you can have Arengga vinegar as a health drink as it really will energize you,” Basil said. “But in the evening, mixed with vodka, it’s now called ‘let’s drink’.”
The couple had been in the frosted bottling business for eight years. In fact, the former company, Braveheart Inc., was the only company in the Philippines that made frosted bottles for a liquor company. A local perfume company also bought the small frosted bottles.
But when the two companies stopped ordering frosted bottles two years ago, the couple started searching for a business where they could still use the equipment, plant and the machines they invested on for the frosted bottling business.
“Last year, we were really in the lowest low when Vie and I passed by Indang and saw a peddler of sukang irok on the highway,” Basil said. “We bought some vinegar and were impressed when we discovered where it came from.”
For two months, the couple studied the vinegar, processed it, and bottled it into frosted bottles.
The couple had found a new business.
Only sugar palm vinegar
Vie and Basil discovered to their amazement that what they had found in town was the world’s only sugar palm vinegar from the kaong tree.
It takes the tree 10 to 15 years before it can be tapped for its sweet sap used in making the vinegar.
The Arenga pinnata tree has a life cycle of about 15 to 22 years. If propagated by man, the tree has a shorter life span.
In Indang, the abundance of sugar palm trees is mainly due to its natural propagators, which are the alamid, musang and the cloud rats.
The alamid climbs up the tree, eats the kaong fruit, goes down and excretes the seeds into the ground. From the kaong seeds that have been exposed to the alamid’s stomach enzymes, the trees grow healthier and longer.
Unfortunately, like the Arenga pinnata, their numbers are diminishing as they are caught for pets, sold, or worse, some local folks would even kill the alamid and cook it for pulutan.
The cloud rat, also an endangered species that is only found in the Philippines, also uses the tree as its habitat.
Price of urbanization
The kaong trees used to abound in the ravines of Cavite — from Carmona to the towns of Mendez and Alfonso. But urbanization has greatly diminished their numbers.
Vie and Basil found a thriving colony of kaong trees only in Indang, where natural springs provide them with water.
The couple started buying vinegar since March last year. At first it was not easy for them to buy the sukang irok but became easier as they made friends.
Another difficulty was the fact that only a few mangangarit (palm tree caretaker) are still engaged in the job of getting the sweet sap of the kaong’s flowers that is used for making the vinegar.
Collecting the sweet sap of the kaong tree is never easy. A mangangarit has to check and rock the flowering stalk once everyday until the flowers bloom and attract hundreds of fruit flies.
Only then will the flowering stalk be ready for tapping and collection, as the mangangarit would cut the stalk where the sap would drip. The mangangarit would collect the sweet sap in the morning and the sour sap in the evening, climbing as high as 7 meters using bamboo poles.
The sap is collected using a bamboo container known as the tukil.
The sweet sap is then placed in vitrified earthen jars or tapayans used for fermentation and covered by a katsa or cheesecloth to keep it clean, and by coconut leaves to keep the temperature low as the vinegar is fermented in the fields outside the house.
According to Vie, they only use the earthen jars from Vigan called Burnay.
Like the kaong tree and the alamid, the craft of making the Burnay jars is also fast disappearing.
Only the Burnay jars are the earthen jars that could be used for fermenting the Arenga vinegar.
Fermentation of the vinegar inside the Burnay jars takes three to four weeks before it is taken to the plant. At the plant, aging takes another eight weeks to the least before the vinegar is finally bottled.
“We use a roll or pilfer-proof cap to seal the bottles,” Basil said. “That’s to keep up with the international standard and to keep the quality of the vinegar.”
“We even monitor the individual samples of vinegar from each jar for microscopic and chemical analysis,” Basil said.
“We do a lot of processing to make sure that every bottle of vinegar maintains its consistent flavor and quality.”
According to Vie, unlike other vinegars, Arenga vinegar is all-natural. “There is absolutely no chemicals added to Arenga vinegar. It’s all natural and pure. Not even water is added to it.”
The vinegar comes in two blends. The first is the classic vinegar, which tastes sweet and sour, and later, the Rosemary, which is infused by rosemary herbs for a more sour taste.
Saving endangered species
Since the couple started the vinegar business, they have also taught the people of Indang the importance of the kaong tree and the alamid.
More aware now, Indang town folk have stopped killing the alamid. They have also participated in the couple’s drive to preserve the kaong trees.
Happy Earth, a local nongovernment organization, recently formed the Arenga conservation initiative.
On Feb. 8, Dr. Domingo Madulid, Botany Department head of the National Museum, and mammologist Dr. Arlene Arboledas, known for her study of the Bohol tarsiers, headed the conservation initiative with representatives from different sectors.
Since the couple put up the Arenga vinegar in market, clients from all over the country, Los Angeles and Japan have started ordering the product.
Using their frosted bottles, Vie and Basil even used the real Arenga fiber as rope tied around the neck of the bottle in the packaging of the vinegar.
“The Vinegar Man who put up a vinegar museum in South Dakota has even invited us to put the Arenga vinegar in his museum after he tasted our vinegar,” Basil said.
“It’s not just any ordinary vinegar,” Vie said.
“Although its perfect for adobo and dips, salads, and pickling, you can also drink it afterward. We use it as health drink mixed with honey. It can also be mixed with alcohol as a cocktail drink,” he added.
The vinegar business is not just a business for the couple. A part of the cost of the product is allocated to the conservation of the kaong trees in Indang and the search for places in the country where the endangered palm tree can still be found.
“When we decided to go into the Arenga vinegar business, our hopes were not entirely on the business side,” Vie said.
“We hope to maintain clean rivers, as well as to save the Arenga pinnata trees and the lives of those beautiful endangered animals that thrive in the kaong tree. And most importantly, we wanted to help the farmers’ financial well-being,” Vie added.
“Our hopes with Arenga vinegar is to make the conservation efforts in Indang successful,” Basil said.
“If we become successful in Indang, we can replicate the project all over the country.”