Making ‘tuak’ a prominent fine-dining feature


Trial and errors have resulted in Teo and her team producing 20 tuak flavours.

LOCAL entrepreneur Evelyn Teo has a vision – to make ‘tuak’ an exquisite variety of wine that deserves a prominent place on a fine-dining table.

She knows that the common impression of this traditional alcoholic beverage is that it is made from rice, it is produced by the indigenous people of Sarawak and usually, it is consumed during festive occasions.

Her intention, however, is for tuak to be more than what people would enjoy during Gawai festivals and weddings, or what the tourists would sample during their visits to the longhouses in Sarawak.

She wants to rebrand tuak and have it in the same cellar, so to speak, with the other varieties listed on the fine wine list.

She believes that a way to do this is through food-pairing.

“I see it as a good way to expand tuak’s reputation, and at the same time, to break it out of the niche.”

By niche, Teo is referring to the ‘pigeonholing’ of tuak as ‘an exotic drink associated with the indigenous people of Sarawak, served to foreigners visiting Sarawak’.

“I want to break this impression of tuak and introduce it to the bigger market.

“Food-pairing helps us identify the dishes that go well together with certain flavours of tuak, just like food-pairing with the conventional wines,” says Teo, 37.

Birth of Tuak Atelier

For this vision, Teo established the Tuak Atelier in 2020 as a platform for ‘contemporary, artisanal wine of Borneo’. The concept was borne from Work and Training (WAT) – an academy founded by her in 2016.

Teo herself was born and raised in Sibu, went to study in Australia for eight years and after that, worked in Peninsular Malaysia for six years before returning to Sarawak, where she decided to settle down in Miri.

Teo describes the many creative young talents in Sarawak as ‘hidden gems’ that need to be polished to unleash their full potential.

“My father sent me to Australia to experience high school and university education there.

“My eight years in Australia had changed my perception towards learning.

“I mixed around with peers who had critical thoughts, who would confidently ask questions whenever there were doubts, and who would openly voice out their opinions – definitely contrary to the education system in Malaysia.”

Entering the working world after that, Teo felt that Peninsular Malaysia was the only option at the time because there were not much opportunities back in Sarawak to begin with, especially with her Degree in Design.

“I knew I had to gain experience first, so I worked in the peninsula and changed different jobs throughout my years there, which involved the management and education sectors.

“Such an experience was very precious because I got to deal with difficult bosses and clients which, I believe, helped toughen me up in a long run.”

It was when she came back home to Sarawak for the holidays that she actually saw the real picture.

“I saw what was happening in Sarawak and that made me realise that something must be done, and that someone must initiate that effort.

“I saw that there were many creative young talents in Sarawak – the ‘hidden gems’ that needed to be polished for them to unleash their full potential.

“Yet, lack of opportunities forced them to conservatively change paths, or just simply put aside their dreams.

“WAT would want to give them that platform to realise their dreams; to provide a safe space and ecosystem for these talents to explore and grow,” she explains.

Teo regards herself as a strong advocate for alternative and inclusive education and in this respect, she says all her efforts in WAT are meant to facilitate the marginalised youths into accessing this line of education.

“Unemployment issue is real, and one of WAT’s objectives is to help the students, who may have been failed by the education system, find their interests and in the process, become skilled workers and able to secure jobs later on.

“We hope that upon having secured a stable career and life, they would, in turn, become the guide to the next crop of local talents,” she stresses.

Apart from skills-based courses, WAT also runs an apprenticeship programme, where the students get paid, on-the-job placements in relevant industries such as food and beverage.

According to Teo, WAT receives lots of support from companies in Peninsular Malaysia and also some from overseas, which have been scouting for good talents from Malaysia.

“I am just so proud to see many of our students have excelled, becoming among the best in the things they do, and having good careers.

‘Taking the road least taken’

Teo loves asking ‘what ifs’, and is not afraid of taking risks in her line of work.

It was while training the students in the food and beverage programme that she came up with the idea of producing drinks meant to be a part of the course.

“It was costing money to purchase drinks just to be used for training, so it was from that the idea came up.

“We did a bit of research – that was when tuak came in. We found that it was ‘surprisingly’ easier to produce than the conventional wines, despite having no proper framework.”

However, Teo did not want to make just any ordinary tuak.

Her team, comprising people with different heritage and backgrounds, began to go beyond the traditional rice and experiment with local fruits and ingredients such as ginger, roselle, pineapple, local wild tomatoes, and ‘Terung Dayak’ (sour brinjals).

One can always go old-school with this sweet and medium-bodied Rice Tuak, which is a splendid accompaniment to spicy dishes such as this hearty beef stew with ‘roti’ (unleavened Indian bread).

Trial and errors were unavoidable throughout the process, but they resulted in the production of 20 tuak flavours.

“I admit that I have no idea how to replicate some of the flavours.

“Still, it’s interesting because now, tuak isn’t just a rice wine anymore; it has become something so interesting with different colours and flavours.”

Teo’s design background was put into good use too, as she designed the labels and packaging.

For the entrepreneur, she feels strongly that WAT and Tuak Atelier are closely related, and both play significant roles in her life.

Visitors get to enjoy some samples of Tuak Atelier Series during an event held at Coco Cabana in Miri.

“I endured quite a turbulent time many years back, and was on the verge of having depression, but a simple gesture from a friend saved me.

“Till today, I have so much respect and appreciation for that friend.

“I had friends back in Sibu who made bad choices in life and ended up facing the consequences; one was sentenced of death, and another still in prison.

“It still saddens me tremendously to think that they could have led different lives, if there ever was a person who could help them then.”

Potential tourism product

The Tuak Atelier Series are currently being promoted via social media, where potential clients are often drawn to the sophisticated and colourful outlook.

Teo does look forward to the product generating incomes to support WAT.

“WAT’s tuition fees are not that costly, but they only manage to cover just a part of the total operating cost.”

An Iban traditional dancer holding a bottle of a ‘Passion Keling’ from the Tuak Atelier Series, during a photo-call at an event hosted by Sarawak Trade and Tourism Office Singapore (Statos) in Pullman Miri Waterfront Hotel, in June 2022.

Nonetheless, Teo is very pleased to see that the demand for Tuak Atelier products has grown in recent years, thanks to extensive coverage via lifestyle bloggers, online news portals and the sharing by netizens.

The ultimate goal would be exporting the tuak, but this has to be put on hold for now, she admits.

“We do lack the tools to facilitate exports, primarily due to some documentation issues, which are near impossible to be resolved in a short time.

“Looking on the bright side, though, I believe that promoting our tuak as a tourism product can possibly attract foreign visitors to Sarawak to personally experience it and, of course, purchase the items.”

Teo says she has received various offers of engagements from tourism agencies to promote her products, and in this respect, she hopes that Tuak Atelier could break the barriers and become among the best representations of Sarawak to the world.

To know more about Tuak Atelier, go to