Cachaça: A chance to protect Brazil’s Biodiversity
The satisfying crunch of ice blended with sugar, lime and Cachaça (ca-sha-sa) is perhaps why Caipirinhas (kai-puh-ri-na) have been surging in popularity as of late. The Brazilian Cocktail’s secret ingredient is Cachaça, Brazil’s answer to Mexico’s Tequila. The spirit is available in two forms, unaged ‘Silver’ and aged ‘Gold’.
Cachaça’s smoky, rum-like flavour comes from sugarcane.The production process involves extracting and fermenting sugarcane juice, then distilling the liquid either in tanks or wooden barrels.
The spirit originated from slaves who worked in sugarcane mills in the 1500s. Cheap and easy to reproduce, it gained popularity within lower income families, and became known as ‘Pinga’. As Brazilian culture spread across the globe, so too did the love for Cachaça. The spirit quickly traveled around the world, with chefs from New York to Australia creating unique blends with Cachaça.
Back in the spirit’s home country Brazil, in a zero-waste distillery located at the heart of the Atlantic Rainforest, Novo Fogo’s Cachaça distillers are working to protect Brazil’s endangered trees. “The Cachaca industry is complicit to deforestation in Brazil by seeking native woods for the aging process”(1), said Dragos Axinte, Founder of USDA certified organic Cachaça brand Novo Fogo.
Romania born Axinte discovered Cachaça when he moved to Brazil in 2005. He took an entrepreneurial leap five years later, launching Novo Fogo in Seattle, Washington. From the get go, Axinte committed to producing Cachaça that is organic and carbon neutral, “We don’t want to use chemicals, because the first victims of that decision would be our own field team, who would have to inhale those poisons.”(1)
According to Novo Fogo’s website, the two key steps in Cachaça production that can adversely impact the environment include sugarcane farming and barrel aging.
Sugarcane farming is notorious for its adverse impact on surrounding environments. Farmers burn sugarcane before harvesting because it makes processing the crop easier, by removing leaves and stalk. This is found to devastate biodiversity, impacting carbon and water balance in surrounding areas, which ‘could take centuries to offset’ (2). The large quantities of ash produced ‘blankets’ surrounding communities — the communities call it ‘black snow’.
Brazil is the world’s top exporter of sugar and sugarcane. A 2015 study observed that the increase in the number of burning outbreaks is associated with higher respiratory related hospital admissions for children and elderly in Sao Paulo state (3). In 2019, Brazil’s President Jair Bolsanoro took an unexpected move, signing a decree which abolished the zoning regulation for the sugarcane industry. This meant that sugar plantations were allowed to advance into areas of high biodiversity such as the Amazon Rainforest and the Pantal Wetlands.
On Novo Fogo’s plantation, farmers take a low-tech and organic farming approach to farming. Instead of pre-harvest burning, the farmers cut off unwanted foliage with machetes.
After crushing sugarcane to extract fresh juice and fermenting cane juice to produce ‘cane wine’, the wine is distilled in a copper pot. During this process, alcohol in the mixture evaporates, leaving water and organic compounds. After capturing the alcohol, Novo Fogo reuses the remaining liquid (sugarcane ethanol) as fire starters, cleaners and fuel to power its trucks.
The next step, the aging process is critical to Cachaça production, this is what distinguishes Silver and Gold Cachaça. Traditionally, Cachaça was aged in wooden oak barrels. Even today, “About 50% of all Cachaças in Brazil today are aged in Oak”, explains Luke McKinley, Marketing director of Novo Fogo.
According to Brazilian legislation, to be labeled aged Cachaça, at least 50% of the spirit must be aged in a wood barrel no larger than 700L in capacity, for at least a year.
Oak barrels used to age bourbon whiskey are repurposed for Cachaça aging, because it inundates the spirit with notes of aromatic toffee, vanilla and spice. While this is the traditional approach, modern distillers use over 30 types of Brazilian wood to age Cachaça.
Although different types of wood can infuse Cachaça with distinct flavours, most of this wood originates from endangered Brazilian tree species. Axinta explains,
“300 species of native Brazilian tree species are endangered, including most of those used in cachaça aging.” (1)
Some of the most popular native hardwood used to age Cachaça, such as Jequitiba Rosa and Brazilwood, are endangered species on the IUCN’s Red List of Threatened Species.
The demand for native hardwood to age Cachaça has further fuelled deforestation, which is already rampant in Brazilian rainforests.
Wanting to explore the aromas of Brazilian wood without contributing to deforestation, Novo Fogo collaborated with eminent distiller and barrel aging expert Dr. Agenor Macciari. This resulted in their ‘Two Wood Series’, where the Cachaça aged in legally sourced wood. For example, ‘Graciosa’ is an expression aged for two years in repurposed oak and finished for 18 months Brazil nut barrels’.
Taking their environmental initiatives one step further, Novo Fogo launched their ‘Un-Endangered Forest’ Reforestation Project. True to its name, the mission of the project is to remove 36 native species off the endangered species list by sourcing seeds species and nurturing them in their local nursery.
The story of Cachaça production is one that has parallels to many types of food, from cashews to chocolate. The destruction of nature that comes with the production of some of our favourite foods is devastating, yet, in the moments of indulgence, is something we tend to forget.
Axinte says, “We have a built-in audience that wants to hear about cCachaça. We can speak to them about the liquor..the Caipirinha, the culture of Cachaça and Brazil, but we can also speak to them about the environmental impact of Cachaça.”
Cachaca is a celebration of Brazilian culture; let it also be a chance to celebrate and preserve Brazil’ rainforests and biodiversity.