“DATES, JAGGERY?” asked the grocer, offering the main ingredients for brewing palm wine. His client bought the two, put them away with his onions and lentils before disappearing into a narrow alley in the suburbs of Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka.
On March 21, the government closed all bars and liquor stores as part of a series of restrictions to curb the spread of Covid-19. The intention, he said, was to prevent “drinking parties” during which the virus could spread and to reduce unnecessary purchases. No wonder: when the government started to introduce nationwide measures to slow the spread of the disease, “wine merchants” – ubiquitous little shops selling mainly beer and alcoholic beverages – were assaulted (social distancing damn) by customers who were frantically making reservations.
Since then, alcohol has been difficult to obtain. Supermarkets remain open, but few have a license to sell alcohol. For some time, enterprising distributors organized home deliveries, until the authorities clearly indicated that they were also prohibited. A black market emerged, but sellers were difficult to find and the prices prohibitive. Bottles of “gal”, which are distilled from coconut sap, sold for almost three times its normal price of around 1,850 rupees ($ 9.75).
The obvious solution, although illegal, was home brewing. The desperate Sri Lankans looking for a mixture mixed everything from beetroot to pineapple with sugar, water and yeast, and left the cocktail to ferment. The result can be cloudy, sparkling and sweet, but at least slightly alcoholic. The more ambitious have tried to distill these beers into something stronger. A home distiller describes pushing back the inquiries of the man who delivers cans of cooking gas, who wants to know why his consumption has exploded. The next wave of hospital admissions, a common joke, will not be victims of the virus, but of alcohol intoxication.
The police have set up five special units to hunt down the Moonshine distilleries. On April 13, authorities arrested two men who made alcohol in 36 barrels in a swamp. Amateur brewers are more difficult to catch. The government has asked the telecommunications regulator to find a way to stem the sharing of YouTube tutorials and revenue on social media. Police have promised to prosecute anyone who encourages home brewing. “They use scientific knowledge from the sixth grade to make alcohol at home,” complains Kapila Kumarasinghe, spokesman for the excise department. All the same, he admits: “We can’t go very well from house to house, raiding the kitchens.”
Fortunately, he won’t have to. The government recently announced that liquor stores could reopen this week, as long as customers stay away from each other. Maybe Sri Lankan leaders themselves needed a drink. (Economist)