Cachaça Education, Part 2: Processing Sugarcane

Cachaça Education, Part 2: Processing Sugarcane

Last week, I spent time discussing the differences between cachaça and rum, as a baseline for interested readers to understand why the two are not the same, despite both coming from sugarcane.

This week, I’d like to talk about how cachaça is produced. For professionals or people who know a lot about spirits, much of this will reflect what you already know. Others who spend more time enjoying spirits rather than studying them or their production may find this more interesting.

In this post, I don’t believe I will be able to touch on all aspects of production. So look for a follow-up next week to complete the overview.

Making a distilled spirit

All distilled spirits follow a similar pattern of production:

1.     Collection and processing of plant materials to create a sugary liquid.

2.     Fermentation of that sugary liquid to produce an alcoholic liquid.

3.     Distillation of that alcoholic liquid to concentrate the alcohol.

4.     After-distillation storage or processing.

Cachaça, as you know, comes from sugarcane. Distillers of cachaça are very likely to be sugarcane farmers. As the Portuguese discovered centuries ago, sugarcane grows very easily in Brazil. In most places in the country, it requires very little attention.

In some locations, sugarcane can grow year-round, allowing distillers in those regions to produce cachaça year-round. In other locations, sugarcane growth is limited to particular times of the year, meaning that a given distillery can only produce for a small part of the year.

During my travels in February, on the first leg of my journey, I visited distilleries not more than 80 miles apart. One distillery grew sugarcane year round because its microclimate is favorable, while the other could not. So, even within regions, there can be great differences in sugarcane production.

Organic Production and Small Producers

I don’t have a handy percentage of the number of distilleries producing organic cachaça. What I can say is that most sugarcane production does not require petro-chemicals. Laws in Brazil are very specific, however, about what constitutes an organic product. One of the requirements is that if a producer does not use harmful chemicals, their farming neighbors also must not use them. Thus, even if a distillery doesn’t use petro-chemicals when growing sugarcane, it still may not qualify as organic because its neighbors do use them.

Harvesting Sugarcane

At this point, it’s important to distinguish between alambiques, the Portuguese term used to describe small distilleries, and industrially produced cachaça. I am far less familiar with the process of creating industrially produced cachaça. So, I’ll focus here on how alambiques harvest their sugarcane.

 I’ve said this elsewhere, but it’s worth repeating: all sugarcane used in small-scale cachaça production is harvested by hand. Mechanical harvesting damages the cane too much and could impact the taste of the product. Thus, harvesting is extremely labor-intensive, particularly in more hilly or mountainous areas where sugarcane grows.

Processing sugarcane

Once harvested, sugarcane cannot sit for long. The juice must be squeezed from it within hours. In most distilleries, the sugarcane is washed to remove dirt and bugs, which may still be attached. The cane itself is then inserted by hand into a small mill, which squeezes out the juice and leaves the fibrous material. Often, this fibrous material is used for other purposes during the distillation process, as we shall see.

I want to end on the last step of the pre-fermentation process because it is, perhaps, the most crucial part. The sugarcane juice, in the best distilleries, is filtered through a series of tanks, where impurities are removed. No one wants to produce cachaça, which has been contaminated because the sugarcane juice was not well-filtered, and thus must be thrown out. It’s safe to say that distilleries not taking this process seriously often produce lower quality products.

All this, and we still have not reached the alcohol creation process. Next week, I will talk about fermentation, distillation, and hopefully the post-distillation processes.

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