Palm Wine: the Drink of Millions of People, and Some Chimps, Too

Palm wine is pretty fascinating.

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Jun 11 2015, 10:00am

Image: Sherry Ezhuchatchan/Flickr

Chimpanzees have now been spotted seeking, sponging and sipping palm wine being collected in Guinea—the first time that voluntary alcohol consumption has been recorded and measured in a wild ape. But besides its significance in the study of genetic predisposition to alcoholism, this discovery sheds light on something else: the undersung wonders of palm wine, a naturally fermenting beverage that has long been enjoyed across the tropics, from Mexico to India and especially in West Africa.

Palm wine starts fermenting as soon as it's out of the tree, thanks to natural yeasts in the air and the container, and is alcoholic as weak beer within hours, so it's perhaps no surprise the chimps started behaving like frat boys. (Researchers observed the chimpanzees passing out and swinging furiously around on trees after they should have gone to bed for the night, after sneaking sips of palm sap that locals had been collecting for palm wine.)

Given its pan-tropical appeal—it's consumed by 10 million people in West Africa alone—palm wine is prepared many different ways and known by many names: tombo, palmy, nwoko onye obi ocha, which means "large-hearted man," uzunma "epitome of beauty", and mmiri Ara umu mbe, "breast milk for the orphan"—and those are just names for it in Nigeria. Under the name "toddy," palm wine is served fresh in India as the sweet drink neera or padaneer, or left to ferment longer to form the sour, alcoholic kallu.

While other beverages have gained a foothold in many places, palm wine doesn't seem to be in danger of falling out of fashion

Depending on who you talk to, palm wine will occasionally have cultural significance. As one palm wine tapper from Senegal explained to the BBC, "palm wine is an important part of our lives. We drink it as part of all of our ceremonies—funerals, weddings, family gatherings—and just when we fancy a drink."

Human palm wine tappers use ropes made from palms to shimmy to the top of the tree where they make a hole in the tree and set up a container to collect the sap, which they then harvest in the morning or evening. If left alone, the palm wine will turn into a palm wine vinegar, so people in some places such as Nigeria add things to the already-fermented sap—more natural yeast, or herbs—to make the wine more potent. While other beverages have gained a foothold in many places, palm wine doesn't seem to be in danger of falling out of fashion.

"Nowadays, some people drink red wine or beer but only if they can't get palm wine," the Senagalese tapper said. "I can't get enough to keep my customers happy."

The chimpanzees in this recent study, who were watched for more than 17 years, were just as thirsty. They drank palm wine with an ABV ranging from just over 3 percent to almost 7 percent by chewing up leaves that humans used to cover the collection containers, and using them like a sponge to soak up the contents—quite a bit of work for a tipple. Palm wine is collected from different types of palm trees, but the chimps were sampling sap collected from raffia palms, which is usually sweeter than oil palm wine.

Chimps aren't the only animals that have been observed getting drunk, but they may actually be some of the most responsible. Moose in Sweden have been observed chowing down on fermented apples, imbibing to the point where one even got stuck in a tree. In West Malaysia,seven mammalian species were caught drinking the alcoholic nectar from bertam palm flowers every day. Little treeshrews were drinking enough to get a human drunk.

Chimps share 99 percent of our DNA, so perhaps it's no surprise they also share our widely held predilection for sweet palm wine. Now if they could only come up with their own version of palm wine music, I'll be really impressed.