“Still” a Very Nice Cachaça Story – Perpetuating Old Methods

Get it? Get it? Well, bad jokes can be made from time to time, but that’s beside the story.

My family comes from a place in Brazil where they are very proud for traditionally producting the best Cachaça (brazilian native spirit drink) in the country, and rightly so! Some places have modernized the production, making everything precise and what not, some other places remains with production just as it was done back a few decades ago. My granduncle used to be one of them.

No, no… my granduncle is fine! Still alive and well, but this still not so much. My grandaunt and himself had to move away from the farm… and people took advantage of that, unfortunately. Since stills are made from now very valuable copper, they managed to beat down an one hundred year old still and take the metal away while no-one was minding the farm. Sad…

Back a few years ago, I managed to take one single photo of the process of fermentation of the sugar cane juice. It was a highly unscientific process which worked I guess, but no-one understood why. After I decided to take up homebrewing, I started to put the pieces they explained to me together in an attempt to perpetuate old methods.

The sugar cane was extracted from the farm itself, which grew organically (very refreshing to drink the ice-cold juice from them!). The juice was extracted from a mechanical mill.

The juice from the sugar cane, without the addition of water, has around 20g of sugar per 100ml. In brewing terms, this adds to around a specific gravity of 1070, with a potential for 10% ABV (Alcohol By Volume after fermentation). The fermenting bin took 1600L of sugar cane juice.

Time to pitch the yeast, right? Which yeast? All I saw was him generously sprinkling unbleached corn flour on top of the juice. I couldn’t understand for the life of me why that was necessary (Hey, I was young, give me a break!). Later I found out that the corn flour, together with the sugar from the juice, acts as a culture for wild yeast present in the air. A somewhat similar process to how lambic beer and sourdough starters are made. (The photo below shows the fermentation at full steam). From day to day, corn flour would be added to keep the yeast going until the fermentation was done, which took about one week.

The most (fermented alcoholic solution) would be tapped into the still, all the 1600L of it, and heated up. I also never understood why they never let the most boil. The point of distillation is to transfer the alcohol with as little water as possible. As alcohol has a lower boiling point than water, keeping the most from boiling avoids a lot of water being fractionally distilled in the final product. Every time the liquid was about to boil, they would cover the fire with a piece of stone, which slid back and forth just under the bottom of the still.

Quick maths now: 1600L of most at 10% has a potential for 160L of 100% alcoholic solution, so any volume above 160L would just be water. If you have 320L as the end volume, your spirit would be 50% proof. Easy!

Alcohol was produced very nicely… but which alcohol??? I saw the first 5L or so being discarded and throw out… why???? I didn’t get an answer from them, apart that the first 5L could impair your sight. Why? Those first few litres of alcohol were methyl alcohol, or methanol. Methanol has a lower boiling point than ethanol (the good stuff) and comes out first. Our body metabolizes methanol into formaldehyde (taxidermist’s dream fluid!), which damages several parts of the body, mainly the eyes. The rest of the alcohol was ethanol and was saved.

The end volume was 250L of Cachaça. This corresponds to about 73% proof Cachaça, who would drink that, right? Well, from there, it would be put in for storage in barrels. They are not completely sealed and alcohol would evaporate slightly, so the end product would have a lower alcoholic content. Still pretty strong, but ah well!

In order for the alcoholic proof to be brought down before bottling, it would be slightly diluted with water. How much alcohol was in the final product? Well, the final product was tasted and green flagged… that’s how much alcohol there was! As you can imagine, this means that the proof was highly variable from batch to batch… but still, it is very nice to have these memories and know that a piece of history can be preserved!

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