Of aging and waning: the passion of a Boholano bahalina maker

DAVAO CITY (MindaNews / 08 April) — A famous bahalina maker in Davao City, spent more than half of his lifetime making and aging the popular local wine whose unique process he learned from his elders who were reputed masters of their craft.

Septuagenarian Hedo Arcay left his native town of Alicia in Bohol in the 1970s, in search of the proverbial greener pasture in the “Land of Promise,” finding work for a trader in the streets of the southern Mindanao city.

Bahalina, which has the usual appearance of a grape wine, comes from tuba or coconut toddy that undergoes a long process of fermentation, natural distillation and aging.

BAHALINA KING. Hedo Arcay in this 2019 photo taken while working at the cellar of his house in Agdao, Davao City. Arcay has spent more than half of his lifetime making and aging bahalina since the early 1980s. MindaNews file photo by ROMMEL REBOLLIDO

The aging process mellows the wine, gives it a better taste, aroma and color, the 71-year old Arcay said. As for the one who made the wine, “age not only mellowed, but also slowed me down,” he quipped. 

Arcay was in his 30s in the 1980s when he decided to give a shot at what he does best – makingbahalina — while employed with a soft drink giant. He would later quit the cola-selling job and focus on making bahalina, hopeful then that he could earn more in spirits than in selling colas. 

Bahalina king

Forty years later, a wheelchair-bound Arcay realized in his old age that he already sold thousands of liters of bahalina to loyal customers and friends who jokingly call him the bahalina king of Agdao, a place in Davao where he built a multi-story concrete house, with a basement, courtesy of his bahalina earnings.

If there is one person in the world’s largest city (in area) who keeps a basement packed with jars upon jars of bahalina, that’s Hedo (Arcay), photojournalist Keith Bacongco said of his bahalina-maker friend.

Bacongco said Arcay had been aging bahalina for years in his basement which he turned into a bahalina cellar. “There are about 2,000 gallons (jars) of bahalina in that basement,” Bacongco said.

Arcay’s bahalina, which comes in different ages, presently sells at P150 a gallon, up three fold from a decade ago. “He sold me an eight-year old bahalina before, but rarely can you buy any older than that now because his bahalina is highly in demand,” said Bacongco who buys Arcay’s wine not to drink it but use it for cooking.

FRIENDS. Now on a wheelchair, Hedo Arcay strikes a pose with friend, photojournalist Keith Bacongco, a loyal customer who visited him, March 25, 2023. MindaNews photo by ROMMEL REBOLLIDO

The earnings from bahalina provided for Arcay’s family and allowed him to send his children to school and earn their college degrees, the youngest to Ateneo, an exclusive school.

During the pandemic lockdowns, and almost a year of liquor ban in Davao sent Arcay’s bahalinasales plummeting, but the winemaker was quick to point out that the ban contributed to the bahalina’s aging process.

Arcay’s bahalina were aged in glass jars, not in plastic, to ensure better quality wine. A clean glass jar is a must in making bahalina which can be tricky at times, he said.

“A bit of a wrong move in the fermentation process, you end up with vinegar instead of bahalina,”he pointed out.

Tiresome process

Making bahalina needs patience to ensure that the tuba is really tuba and no contamination, properly strained to remove sediments and impurities, then placed in air-tight glass gallon jars, he said. 

In storing the bahalina, the jar must be filled to the brim, sealed to prevent molds from forming which can turn the bahalina into vinegar. 

Before he got sick, Arcay spent most of his time on a rattan chair, his throne of sorts in his cellar kingdom, carefully straining tuba and bahalina. 

The straining process must be done every day for weeks before the wine is put in jars to age. Miss straining and the toddy turns into vinegar, Arcay said. One of his children admitted there were times before, they ended up selling vinegar instead of bahalina.

EMPTY THRONE. A worn out rattan chair remains at the basement where Hedo Arcay used to work to make bahalina as thousands of glass jars sit at the basement of his house in Agdao, Davao City, some already empty while the rest are still filled with bahalina that continue to age. MindaNews photo by ROMMEL REBOLLIDO

Aside from his skills in making bahalina, Arcay also has an admirable method of keeping tabs of his thousands of jars of bahalina, like which one is filled with a day old, a week old, three months old or a four-year old bahalina.

The thousands of four-liter glass jars are piled and arranged  by Arcay according to age in shelf-like layers at his basement cum cellar.

Aging and waning

Now that age has caught up with Arcay, he no longer visits his cellar even for a glimpse, said his daughter who revealed that her father is suffering from a liver disease.

The ailment began to set in when Arcay’s wife died from stroke a year ago and so his health deteriorated.

FOUR DECADES. Now on a wheelchair, Hedo Arcay can no longer go to his cellar and no one is sitting at the cellar throne for a time now. His family is just waiting for the remaining stocks of bahalina to be sold so they can close the business that was started in the 1980s. MindaNews photo by ROMMEL REBOLLIDO

The bahalina king said not one of his children is keen in continuing the business he made to flourish, as they are not familiar with the bahalina-making process. Besides, they have their own families to attend to, he added.

No one is sitting at the cellar throne for a time now and the family is just waiting for the remaining stocks of bahalina to be sold. Arcay is not in a hurry to sell, though. 

An emotional Arcay said the bahalina can still age further, before they vanish. (Rommel Rebollido / MindaNews)