We all are here because of sugar
Christopher Columbus, that intrepid traveller, opened the trade routes across the Atlantic to the western continents and the Caribbean isles towards the end of the 15 century. Conquistadors, conquerors of the new lands, followed in search of gold, and fortunes were made.
In the sunny islands, there was no gold, but the explorers who came after the soldiers brought with them many wonderful plants: breadfruit, orange and mango trees, and most remarkable of all the sugar cane plant. It has been suggested that the profits from sugar and rum produced in the Caribbean islands over the centuries have by far exceeded the gold sought by the conquistadors.
The sugar cane plant comes from the far Pacific islands, via China and India to Brazil. St. Hilaire Begorrat, a French creole colonist, introduced it to Trinidad. Interestingly, Begorrat is also said to be one of the main instigators of the Calypso art form.
During the centuries after the settlement of the Caribbean islands by Europeans, sugar was in such great demand in Europe that many of the islands became almost completely deforested to create canefields, for example Barbados, Antigua and half of Tobago. The sugar cane plant was grown en masse. Entire peoples, millions of them, were arbitrarily transported from a world away, from Africa and India, to work in the rolling fields of sugar cane - very much against their own inclinations.
Tremendous energy was poured into the endeavour. Murderous battles were fought over tiny islands in the sun that could grow sugar cane, and produce its basic product. One can say that we all are here because of sugar cane.
For close to two hundred years sugar produced from sugar cane was the primary source of sweetening (besides honey and natural fruit sugar). Then, in 1787, just four years after Roume de St. Laurent introduced a population to Trinidad, Franz Karl Archand developed a process to extract sucrose from sugar, and more importantly, from any sugar-carrying plant. The beet, for example, was one of those plants which oozed sucrose-containing liquid and thrived in temperate climate. It was possible to grow sugar beets in Europe in abundance underground, where the vicissitudes of war could not burn them or trample them down.
“The sugar cane went from being the economic focus of the Caribbean to a crop of far less importance,” comments Edward Hamilton in his authoritative ‘Rums of the Eastern Caribbean’. The wind was taken out of the Caribbean’s sugar economy sails, so to speak.
An essential aspect of the sugar cane industry - and one that was not replaced by beet sugar - was the production of rum. There are many varieties of sugar cane in the Caribbea, various hybrids produced for the varying soil and weather conditions, e.g. the quantity of rainfall. There are as many variations in the rums as there are distilleries. Every island claims a special blending, a unique aroma, a distinctively ‘smooth’, yet startling rich or rough experience to the palate, which could evoke a smile of delight or a shudder as if someone had just stepped over your grave.
“The primary factor affecting the taste of the spirits (...) is the raw ingredients,” remarks Hamilton. And quite so. Rum may be made from either fresh cane juice, cane syrup or from molasses.
Cane syrup is cane juice that has been boiled or vacuumed to remove the water. Molasses is that dark, rich-smelling liquid that is left after all the commercially producible sugar has been removed from the juice.
Sweet juices have been fermented by mankind for years. Thousands of years ago it was discovered that if you were to leave a sweet juice around long enough, a natural yeast would form, ferment, consume the sugar and turn it into alcohol. This metamorphosis of sugar into alcohol and carbon dioxide progresses until all the sugar is consumed or the alcohol produced whips out the yeast.
Then the process of distilling commences. This is to separate and concentrate the vital component. The sugar from the cane is fermented and the resulting alcohol is concentrated by distillation.
Rums may be described as heavy or light, depending on the purity to which they are distilled. Rum produced on a continuous still is considered ‘good light rum’. Rum made on a potstill, in your backyard, bush rum or ‘babash’ may be described as ‘heavy’.
The mixing of rum from different stills, or rum distilled to different purities, and the placing of the mix in barrels for various lengths of time is called blending. This skill is basic to the production of rum. The art of the blender, especially before scientific controls were introduced, made or broke the brand.
In Trinidad, Angostura Limited buys molasses produced by Caroni Limited, and this is where the communality ends. Angostura’s multi-coloured distilling plant may well be the most modern of its kind anywhere. Using their own yeast cultures and distilling methods, Angostura produces the full range from light to dark rums.
In 1918, the Caroni sugar factory started to distill rum in a cast iron still. There were at that time some eight or ten other sugar factories operating, each owning some form of distilling apparatus and producing different types of rums. These rums were bought up and barrelled by various merchants, and then sold to rum shops all over the island. The haphazard blending, either by merchants or the rumshop proprietors, produced amazing one-offs, never to be repeated, and concoctions that sold over the counter in unlabeled ‘petit quarts’.
Over the years, Caroni improved the quality of its distilling process. From the original cast iron still to a wooden coffey still to a single column still, and to the new four-column still.
The rums produced in Trindiad are said to be amongst the best in the world. As Thomas Gatcliffe, chemist and retired chairman of Angostura Limited said:
“Rum is to the Caribbean what whisky is to the high lands of Scotland or wine to France.”
It is much better to drink good quality light Trinidad rums than inferior blends of artificially aromatised products that call themselves whisky, for style sake...