Naguilian struggles to save native brew
Seeing the vineyards on a trip to Napa Valley in California in 2001, Aurelio Flora flirted with the idea of marketing the renowned sugarcane brew of his hometown of Naguilian in La Union, whose production had declined steadily over the years.
Flora knew it had promise. He had tasted imported wines and he knew that all these paled in comparison with Naguilian’s “basi.”
But Flora, the municipal agriculturist, knew only too well that the town lacked financial resources to start such a venture.
Mayor Reynaldo Flores, who saw the California vineyards with Flora, agreed to support his plans to save the industry.
Flora wanted to consolidate the homebased basi and vinegar production to keep the recipe consistent, to make it easy for government inspectors to assess the sanitary conditions of operations (inspectors visit every household selling basi, which means that they must check almost every home in Naguilian) and to present exhibits for tourists. (Flora said local officials had to ask families to clean their surroundings before tourists arrive.)
And then there’s the basi itself. No two people have the same interpretation of a brew and in Naguilian, residents differ in interpreting the perfect brew.
Ludovico Pulmano’s basi has been the face of Naguilian. All others in the Ilocos region take second spot to his brew, a consistent winner in competitions in municipal, provincial and regional trade fairs.
Pulmano, the only surviving basi brew master, has been making it for 75 years now. To this day, he continues to do so the way his grandfathers taught him—a natural blend of the sublime flavors of the earth nourished by the sweat from his brow.
He agreed to share his recipe to the local government on the condition that his sons be employed in the agriculture office.
A son, Dominador “Ador” Pulmano, now oversees operations in the processing plant built in Barangay Cabaritan Sur in 2005, where most of the basi and vinegar are made.
In the same year, municipal officials called in inspectors from the Bureau of Food and Drugs (now Food and Drugs Administration) to assess the operation.
The inspectors said the facility needed blinds to keep the dirt out from brewing areas, window screens to prevent birds from leaving droppings, and casings for lights to keep shards from falling into open vats if they break, among other things, Flora said.
On packaging, they said the wine should be in unused bottles, wrapped with a label and sealed with aluminum caps, he said.
In 2007, the Department of Trade and Industry sent a Canadian wine connoisseur, Kelly Wilson, to Naguilian. Flora said Wilson was impressed with the wine but like the BFAD inspectors, he was not keen about the facilities and the packaging.
Flora said he could not get enough money to improve the facility because there was too much red tape in the government.
“In a wine facility in Bacnotan, for instance, the decision rests on one person only; hence investments are made quickly. Here, you have to persuade several people and a lot of things have to be considered before they decide,” he said.
The municipal accountant, for one, discourages local officials from investing because it might not yield enough returns, he said. “This has a negative impact on discussion. The industry should be allowed to become self-sufficient first before they bring up the issue on returns,” he said.
But much of the local government’s budget is allocated to barangay development projects and employees’ salaries. “Basi is not really a priority,” Flora said.
As with all agricultural industries, typhoons have also posed a serious problem. In 2009, Typhoon “Pepeng” caused widespread flooding in the town, destroying major sugarcane plantations and almost stopping basi production.
Apparently, sugarcane production had been declining in the years leading to 2009.
In 2001, irrigation systems were introduced for rice crops. Since sugarcane does not sit well with water, production was cut significantly.
Only Barangay Tudingan is left to be cultivated with sugarcane since its land is not ideal for rice. To this day, this plantation has yet to be revived following Pepeng’s destruction.
Basi used to be an important part of Naguilian men’s lives, many of whom would wake up next to basi kegs after a drinking spree. Today, the menfolk prefer bottles of commercial gin and beer.
“If San Miguel products weren’t sold in Naguilian, basi would thrive. But I guess you can’t blame them because beer and gin are cheaper,” Flora said.
He said if only basi, which costs P100 for every 750 milliliter bottle, were produced in large volumes, its price could drop to P50 a bottle.
Out of the question
Tempting as it is to lower the price now to compete with mainstream liquor, Ador Pulmano said it is out of the question.
“It is like saying our basi is not good. We will work on the packaging, and then we can sell it in supermarkets, probably at a higher price,” he said.
Basi has no established “suki” (loyal customers). Friends of former President Ferdinand Marcos often bought some to bring to Malacañang before but since then, only tourists and local officials buy basi as gifts to their friends.
Until basi passes FDA standards, it can’t be exported or sold in supermarkets, they said.
Due to the shortage of sugarcane and its low demand, only 30 percent of production is set for basi making while 70 percent is earmarked for vinegar, which is cheaper to produce.
“Vinegar is selling like mad here. We like to use it as dip and we are quite fond of vinegar-based dishes. In fact, we don’t have enough for the people of Naguilian,” Flora said.
But will Naguilian eventually stop making its beloved wine?
“Naguilian is forever tied to basi. Typhoons and financial woes won’t stop us from making basi … this industry has great potential,” Flora said.
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