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How Brazil’s Favourite Booze Is Helping to Save the Planet


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Get to know the Brazilian cachaça distilleries working hard to ensure that drinking need not harm the environment.

In the heat of the little town of Chã Grande, in the countryside of Pernambuco state, the Sanhaçu cachaça factory runs solely on sun and wind power. The owners’ dedication to these energy sources stems from their desire to run an entirely organic production line – meaning they keep their cachaça, Brazil's favourite alcoholic spirit, away from harmful pesticides and chemical fertilisers.

"In 1993, when my dad ran away from his life in the city and bought this property, there was nothing here: no water, no trees and no flora or fauna,” says Oto Barreto, manager of Sanhaçu. The family’s initial goal, he says, was to create an organic vegetable farm on the land in a sustainable agroforest set up. However, the business didn't catch on and, in 2000, with the little money they had left, the family decided to bet everything on cachaça. "My great grandfather had been a sugar cane master in a factory,” explains Barreto, “and so I grew up knowing quality cachaças.” Like any other loyal son of Pernambuco, Barreto is keen to impress that cachaça originated in his home state, on the island of Itamaracá. 

This time round, the family business took off and in 2016, Sanhaçu claimed the overall silver medal at the International Spirits Competition in Berlin. Since then, the land that the factory is sited on has thrived; it’s rich with native vegetation and has become an environmental hub where all the waste from the cachaça production process is immediately recycled. At a national level, the distillery’s success story has encouraged new cachaça producers to adopt sustainable methods at their own factories.

The Sanhaçu factory still maintains a rustic and familiar ambience. Credit: Rafael Martins

Though today it is the most well-known cachaça, Barreto’s product was not the first. The original was Serra das Almas, which is concocted just along the Contas river in a small town just south of Chapada Diamantina, Bahia. Created by Marcos Vaccaro, a hippy who moved to Chapada in search of a different life, Serra das Almas was the first cachaça to be certified as an organic product in 2002. “Being organic doesn’t just have social and environmental benefits, it’s commercially attractive too,” explains Marcos, from the tree-house he's lived in for more than ten years.
 

Sugar cane ready to become cachaça. Credit: Rafael Martins
 

Despite Vaccaro’s trailblazing enthusiasm, his model was only efficient up to a certain scale of production until a few years ago, when the demand for sustainable consumption made it important to verify that all cachaça makers were working in a responsible and organic way. According to Mauricio Maia, president of cachaça appreciation group Cúpula da Cachaça, the drink has always suited sustainable production. "From the small producers up to the bigger ones, everything is reused,” he says, and he’s right: the sugarcane straw stays in the field, where it protects the soil; the crushed cane pulp is used as a boiler fuel and for fertiliser; the vinhoto – a paste left over after distillation – feeds the plants, and the residue of any poor quality cachaça is redistilled into products like ethanol and automobile fuel. The new production methods aren’t radically different from the structures that were in place before – it’s just that now there’s a more official and concerted effort to ensure quality is kept to a premium.

Larger producers are getting in on the act too – the Weber Haus, a premium organic cachaça brand from Rio Grande do Sul, installed solar panels at the end of August, and big market brands like Ypióca, 51 and Pitú have invested in reverse logistics and returnable containers to reduce their environmental footprint.

The award-winning sustainable cachaça. Credit: Rafael Martins 

While cachaça producers reuse almost all the residues of their production, the sugar and alcohol industries that provide much of the raw materials for the spirit have started finding their own ways of minimising their environmental impact. In 2014 and 2015, Brazil reportedly harvested 642 million tonnes of sugarcane – more than any other country in the world. The waste generated in an operation so large is massive and one of the main uses that has been found for it is as biomass, a source of renewable energy. In Brazil, sugarcane biomass corresponds to 80 percent of all produced bio-electricity – an impressive 4 percent of all the electricity consumed in Brazil in 2014.

All process are optimised to be waste free. Credit: Rafael Martins

It doesn’t stop there. FibraResist is a company that uses waste sugarcane straw to produce cellulosic, an agent used in paper production. “We collect 80 percent and leave the rest to protect the soil,” explains FibraResist’s Mario Welber. ”Also, the production of the paste is under cold conditions, leaving it free of polluting gas emissions.” 

At Brazil’s National Nanotechnology Laboratory (LNNano), they are looking into ways of using waste sugarcane pulp to produce a charcoal used in water filtration. Research coordinator Mathias Strauss says there’s a possibility that the tech could be applied to the type of small sugarcane plantations where the raw materials for organic cachaça come from.

After all that, the only thing left to do is sample the cachaça. Pass the bottle!