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An Ancient Indigenous Drink is Revived, Illuminating Australian History

Tasmanian way-a-linah, a cider-link drink produced by Palawa people for millennia, has been long overlooked in Australian history, along with all other Indigenous fermented beverages. 

Records of many First Australians’ traditions, particularly relating to drinks and agriculture, were “eradicated early on by colonization, dispossession and the frontier wars,” writes Max Allen in Intoxicating: Ten Drinks that Shaped Australia. “All dreadfully effective ways of erasing a culture. 

“Even where the practices or knowledge did survive and were recorded, those records have often been willfully ignored by the dominant culture over the last 200 years.” 

It was so ignored that the belief that Australia is the world’s lone “dry continent,” that its early Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island peoples were among the planet’s few Indigenous societies to live without learning to make alcoholic beverages, remains widespread Down Under. 

Today, in some Australian Indigenous communities, ancient fermentation practices are being revived, albeit on a small scale.

In 2013, the Tasmanian Land Conservancy, Aboriginal Land Council of Tasmania and Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre purchased nearly 17,000 acres in the island’s central highlands. Way-a-linah, in danger of disappearing, is now made by some Palawa peoples, who use local trees to produce the drink. 

“We have tried [making way-a-linah] a few times as a way to try and bring back the cultural practice, to rebuild that connection between Aboriginal people and those trees and that drink,” says Andry Sculthorpe, land and heritage officer at the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre and a member of the Palawa community. Way-a-linah’s history is evidenced on the trees that produce the sap that is the drink’s sole ingredient. Scars from tomahawks are common on some of the 300–400-year-old Eucalyptus Gunnii trees, commonly known as “cider gums,” which grow almost exclusively in Tasmania’s central highlands.

Similar to how maple syrup is tapped in North America, Palawa peoples and other First Australians would harvest the sap that cider gum trees “weep” every year. The watery, mildly sweet sap could be enjoyed on its own, or they might let it run down the trunk into the tree’s hollows, which they covered with flat stones to protect it from sap-loving insects and critters. The natural yeasts then fermented the liquid, producing mildly alcoholic way-a-linah. 

In an 1835 entry in Ross’s Hobart Town Almanac, a gentleman named Mr. Blackhouse reportedly described way-a-linah as “a liquor resembling black beer, obtained by boring the trunk,” according to an article by J.D. Hooker in The London Journal of Botany, Vol. III. But many other accounts say it more closely resembles a delicately sweet cider with a dry finish.

“As it starts to ferment a bit, it’s quite sweet,” says Sculthorpe. “And then over a period of time, it gets more tangy. You can see how Europeans chose the name ‘cider’ gum, because it actually does resemble the flavor of cider.”

Unfortunately, a revival of way-a-linah is challenged by rapidly changing conditions. The climate sensitive cider gums are dying.

Perched some 3,280 feet above sea level, cider gums are often exposed to the elements in areas too frost prone for most other eucalypts.

Temperatures have risen steadily in Tasmania’s central highlands for the past 75 years.

Combined with industrial clearing throughout the 1980s and ’90s, animal grazing, frequent fires and drought, some estimate that up to 60% of mature trees had died by 2001.

Today, one of the two subspecies of Eucalyptus Gunnii called “divaricata” or “Miena” cider gum, known for its particularly sweet sap, is listed as an endangered species.

Tasmanian cider gum tree that has died because of today's dryer, warmer climate
Tasmanian cider gum tree / Getty

“There’s uncertainty there because the trees are in decline,” says Sculthorpe. “It’s possible, at the current trajectory, they will be gone. There needs to be more focus on the protection of the living trees, and also work done around the understanding of [those] in the landscape that have cultural heritage value. Trees that have had the markings of traditional use.”

There have been efforts to replant cider gums on the island. In Tasmania’s far south, Clive Crossley of Red Sails Cider planted a tree on his property in 1988. It blew down in a gale in 2020, which revealed “serious fungal and insect damage,” he says.

Caroline Brown, cofounder of Brady’s Lookout Cider in northern Tasmania, is currently planting a small number of cider gums. But seeds are hard to come by, and it takes many years before a tree is mature enough to tap.

“We may look to explore using the cider gum for beverages in the future, but this would be a long-term goal,” says Brown. “Our first aim is conservation.” 

The use of Indigenous ingredients in modern Australian cooking and fermentation is on the rise.

Botanicals like wattleseed, strawberry gum and native juniper find their way into beers, spirits and even wine.

As the “dry continent” belief begins to crumble for some Australians, the fermented drinks made by the continent’s Indigenous peoples may rival some of the oldest alcoholic beverages on the planet. But it also leaves their traditions exposed to appropriation.

“I think it’s super exciting to see all this innovation,” says Allen. “Embracing Indigenous ingredients will lead to the creation of some uniquely Australian drinks. But it’s crucial that this is done properly, in partnership with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, fully acknowledging and respecting their ownership of the traditional knowledge and cultural practices.”