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Geeking Out About Sugar Cane - Montanya's Karen Hoskin

Updated: Oct 16, 2019

Can you please give a short introduction to who you are and how you gained all your rum knowledge and experience?

My love affair with premium rum has lasted, without flagging, for more than thirty years. My tastes weren’t always very evolved, since my first introduction was to Old Monk Rum in India in January of 1989. I went through a Matusalem phase, then a Ron Zacapa phase and so on, until I really began to understand how to discern beautiful rums.

Much of my exposure was determined by the availability - or lack thereof - on liquor store shelves in the US years ago. It took detective work and international travel to find better and better rums as my tastes evolved. All I knew for sure during these years is that I love sugar cane spirits with a wild passion, and I deeply appreciate that I don’t get a hangover the next day. I typically only have a cocktail or two, but any other spirit will make me feel terrible even after one or two.

In 2008 when I was considering a career change, I knew I wanted to learn how to make rum. I started with a lobster pot on my stovetop at home - I am from Maine and came of age pulling pots in Penobscot Bay with my uncle and cousins. The domed lid of the pot created natural condensation. It wasn’t tasty, but it was a start. Then I began to learn from expert distillers like Jake Norris at Stranahan’s and Davy Lindig at Peach Street.They and their colleagues answered every question I ever had.

Over time, I have been educated on the frontier of rum, forging my own path, making what I like to sip, educating myself obsessively, and not always following the rules. My love of the spirit has not wavered. In addition to drinking it, I have loved reading about it, listening to experts talk about it, and visiting rum distilleries. It is a great joy to me that the conversation about premium rum has elevated so much over the last decade.

Karen Hoskin

What are the major strains of cane and do they produce significantly different product?

There are many species of sugar cane worldwide, not all in commercial use. They all share the family of Poaceae and genus name of Saccharum. The species names vary, with the most common ones including Officinarum, Edule, Spontaneum, Barberi, Ravennae, Sinensae, etc. Officinarum, which I remember by thinking of a Harry Potter spell, is the most commonly used in the making of sugar, molasses and rum.

Many of these are regionally specific. Officinarum hails from New Guinea, Barberi from India and Senensae from Taiwan and China. Some are richer in sucrose and more widely planted - like Officinarum. Spontaneum is more naturally disease and pest resistant but has a low sugar content and smaller stalks. Barberi is more resilient to changing temperature and moisture conditions.

Within genus and species, we also classify by strains and variants. Specific cane variants are identified by numbers rather than scientific names. The sugar cane I source directly from the growers is 299, although they are newly experimenting with variant 12-201, which promises higher sucrose content and more natural resilience to pests. I stay very on top of what is being grown because GMO sugar cane has snuck into the supply chain so quietly and quickly since 2017. I need to stay vigilant to avoid it.

Why is GMO even an issue? The one thing that is well established in the literature is that heavier pesticides are terrible for the land, especially in a monoculture practice without crop rotation. The only reason farmers introduce GMO strains is to be able to use heavier pesticides. Brazil, as the largest world producer by a factor of 2x, is converting their crops to GMO at a rate of 1.5 million hectares every 3 years. The US recently approved the import of sugar and molasses made from Brazilian GMO cane. I call this infiltration “the Morning Glory effect”. In American sugar cane fields, the Morning Glory vine creeps in and takes over, strangling the baby cane plants. GMO cane is doing the same, only to the end products we use to make things we love.

Unlike many plants, sugar cane grows in a variety of soils from acidic to alkaline (pH 5-8.5), clay to bauxitic, mollisols (well-drained), vertisols (heavy cracking), oxisols (acidic), histosols (loamy and peaty), and andisols (rocky). Cane benefits from a drier period in the last 3 months of its growing season, prior to harvest, to product the highest Brix. The plant is amazingly resilient in the tropics and subtropics to a variety of temperatures and moisture conditions, probably because it is a grass. It can survive being laid down on the ground by a hurricane, still harvestable. Because of these characteristics, we can reasonably assume that terroir is affected from year to year by all of these factors.

Most sugar cane stalks contain about 12% molasses, which is separated by milling, boiling, crystallizing and spinning in a centrifuge. The remainder – crystalized cane - is usually sent to the refinery for the making of table sugar. The refinery provides additional treatment with chemical flocculants, making the sugar crystals uniform in shape and color, as well as free of bagasse and impurities. Although this refining process adds nothing to the process of making rum, uses a ton of extra energy and removes natural flavor, the products are used, especially outside the Caribbean, as a base ingredient in rum.

How important are different strains in agricole vs molasses rum?

I don’t think this is a factor. I could be wrong but the way I understand it, molasses just sort of “is”. It is not made better or worse, more or less flavorful by strain. Terroir would need to be pretty robust to shine through the flavor of molasses.

How much does the location of the cane impact the final result in molasses rum? Country A buys molasses from country B, but then has to switch to buying from country C. Will it be much different?

It depends on the rest of the production process. If a producer is adding sugar, flavorings or caramel to their rum, the subtleties of the base ingredient will be harder to detect behind the additives. The type of yeast, the type of still (aka potstill) and the freshness of the barrel may contribute a dominant flavor profile that would also hide the shift. Many producers are blending from a number of origins, so a shift in one origin would probably be hard to detect.

But if a distiller uses a single source of cane, avoids additives, uses minimal or no filtration, distills in a column and ages in an older barrel (or does not barrel age), I believe the change to a new sugar cane source might have a significant impact on the flavor of the liquid in the bottle.

In my case, I changed from Hawaii to Louisiana and found a detectable but subtle shift. I use Alembic copper pot stills, age all my rums in freshly dumped whiskey barrels, and add a minuscule trace amount of honey at bottling time. The change in profile was noticeable mainly on the finish of the rum, but it still tasted like Montanya rum to us.

How important is terroir in cane? When I began making rum in 2011, I was using cane grown and milled on the Hawaiian Islands. I would hear all the time that people tasted coffee notes in the rum. This came up in many product reviews between 2011 and 2014, but it rarely comes up anymore since we changed our cane supply to Louisiana. I suspect this was partly due to the terroir in the cane from the Kona coffee growing regions that were alongside the cane fields. It is a much less prominent flavor now in Montanya Rums now that we use Louisiana cane.

One of the great misunderstandings of terroir in rum is that Demerara rum gets its unique flavor profiles from the Guyana sugar cane sharing the same name. These rums are not actually made from Demerara cane, but evoke the name of the eponymous river near the distillery. It is their Port Mourant and Enmore Coffey stills that give these rums such a unique profile.

The best example of terroir in cane may be Clairin. If the stories are true, the Clairins from Haiti are made from wild species of sugar cane that are also wild fermented, which explains their unique flavors. These rums are grassy like agricoles, funky like Jamaicans and earthy like Mezcals. Part of this has got to be the sugar cane terroir.

It can be hard to sort out what is terroir and what is the individual variety of cane itself, regardless of where it is grown. The best test of this may have been undertaken by Yves Assier de Pompignan of Martinique. He grew two varieties of sugarcane: called “red” and a “blue”, both on a single organic sugarcane plot. He produced two rhums using the same techniques from harvest to fermentation to distillation. The only difference was the original cane, but the two rums were incredibly different – one light and floral while the other was more robust. If this were terroir, the soil and context would have forced these two rums closer in flavor. Not so.

So I think terroir is complicated and not a term I toss around very lightly.

Can a cane species be developed that isn't primarily used for sugar but more for rum (flavour)? How would it be different?

The answer to this question would vary by the distiller. A distiller making rum from molasses would want a strain that had a higher content of molasses in each stalk than the typical 12%.

A maker of Agricole, Cachaça or Clairin would want taller stalks containing more juice, so they could mill out more juice per acre,especially considering the high value of the ground in the islands.

Brazilians would like to eradicate the Cane Borer, an insect that costs them $1.5b a year.

In my ideal scenario, I’d also love to find a sugar cane plant that could grow high in the mountains the way bamboo does, so I could cultivate my own crop. I would also love an opportunity to apply something I learned from tea growers in Darjeeling. I would find the “loving caring plants” that provide natural pesticide, herbicide, fertilization and soil stabilization “services” to the cane plants and I’d interplant them. Then cane could be grown without chemical treatments.

Scientists take on challenges like these every day to create new strains of sugar cane and more resilient growing conditions. They select for more sucrose, more height and girth of plants, more capacity to resist pests. But I don’t think the scientists are thinking much about robustness of flavor in rum. Maybe we need to call a meeting…

What's the challenge, or what's the difference in result when you use cane sugar instead of molasses/juice/syrup?

The main differences are related to yeast, fermentation, congeners, esters and phenols that are unique to each source. I’d refer to your great interview with Maggie Campbell rather than delve too deeply into this.

What's the process of making a syrup and why would you do it?

This technique is mainly used by rum producers who want to preserve all the flavor elements of the original sugar cane juice while slowing down or controlling wild fermentation. Most rum makers use only the molasses, which is 12% of the juice or syrup. The rest goes into the making of table sugars. Some makers value the first press of the cane, which is believed to be the least grassy. Others value the grassy notes most.

I learned long ago that molasses-based rums bring along a sulphur component from fermentation into the bottle. Much of it can be absorbed by copper in pot distillation but column stills don’t always absorb it. Many consumers associate this flavor with a great Caribbean style. I personally love the rums made from the entire cane plant, whether fresh juice or syrup or the way I make it, with crystalized unrefined cane and molasses in the same proportions as in the original plant. Every rum fan has their favorite profile. I feel strongly that there is no right or wrong as long as the liquid is made with care - just what you like.

How abusive are cane crops to the soil? How much do they have to be rotated? Cane crops are almost universally a monoculture, ie: rarely rotated, much like corn in the Midwest US. The abuse relates mostly to two factors: whether the cane is pre-harvest field burned and what chemical fertilizers and insecticides are used. I talk more about the impacts of burning at the next question.

Insecticides and pesticides leach into the water table and streams and kill lots of things farmers aren’t trying to kill. We are only just beginning to understand the impact of glyphosate on human health, but the first punitive damages case was recently won in California by a landscaper who successfully established in court that his cancer was caused by Round Up, the main ingredient of which is glyphosate. I really want to study the wild sugar cane in Haiti and find out how it is succeeding without cultivation.

What's the reason behind burning of the cane fields?

There are a number of reasons behind burning. It removes the leafy extraneous material of the sugar cane stalk (about 25% of its mass) that does not contain any sugars. Green, unburned cane is much harder to cut by hand, so the burning process speeds up harvest time and reduces the physical burden on hand harvesters.

Burning eliminates the snakes, scorpions and bees from the fields, which bother and injure hand harvesters.

While it is possible that burning contributes nutrients back to enrich the soil, there is less scientific evidence of this than the known pollution that burning contributes in the form of nitrates and organic acids to soil and waterways.

The practice of burning has been very controversial in the US, especially in Florida where cane is still hand harvested and pre-harvest burned. Neighbors object to the air and water pollution, specifically the heavy particulates from burning the leaves of the plant. Brazil, which grows and mills more than twice as much sugar cane as any other country in the world, has converted many farmed acres from soy etc to growing sugar cane over the last decade. The smoke cloud cover over massive areas of the country at harvest time has increased by 70% since 2007.

Machine harvesters cost millions of dollars and must be used over thousands of acres to earn their “keep”. They rarely make sense on islands and in smaller, more boutique growing areas. However, they eliminate the need for pre-harvest burning and address concerns for human wellness by providing an air conditioned cabin for workers.

Sustainability is very important to you, how does sustainability affect/impact cane growing, harvesting and milling practices.

First, to have this conversation, we should define sustainability. It’s a term that can irritate me because there is no shared definition and it is very in vogue. I have yet to find a better term except maybe “stewardship”.

I believe, as a business owner and a craft distiller, I have an ethical obligation to do more than just avoid causing harm. I must be a force for good for the communities in which I operate. This philosophy extends from farming, harvesting and milling of sugar cane to distilling, bottling and shipping rum. It includes taking care of my employees and workplaces; operating my bar and restaurant responsibly; and avoiding leaving a trail of trash.

The first question I ask when I am buying or making anything is “what is the impact?”. I had to go deep on this question with rum when I started this company, and many of the answers were hard to accept.

Everything in rum tracks back to sugar cane, which has been - and in many cases still is - a “dirty” industry for 9 millennia. I could write an entire book about the lives that have been ruined by the sugar cane industry. Starving kids in Papua New Guinea routinely ate fresh cane, which was a little like eating fiberglass insulation. Slaves were forced to harvest and hand mill cane, which became the currency by which their human value was later calculated – a one bushel slave, a two rum barrel slave. High mortality rates have plagued cane harvesters in Nicaragua, probably because of rising global temperatures and lack of access to shade and hydration.

Burning sugar cane in the fields just before harvest, which is a common worldwide practice in more than half of total production, causes renal dysfunction, asthma, pneumonia, allergies, low birth weights, and other health outcomes among workers and people who live near the fields. Cutting and handmilling cane was found, in 52 different studies, to cause physical and mental overload, thermal overload, exposure to pollutants, respiratory distress, dehydration, genotoxicity, and a variety of musculoskeletal, cardiovascular, and renal problems. Since 2017, GMO strains of sugar cane are becoming more prevalent, leading to greater use of pesticides like glyphosate on the crops.

This is the legacy before we make a drop of rum.

Every rum distiller should care deeply about the conditions that surround their sugar cane crops and mills. Yet we talk about sugar cane and its impacts so seldom in our high level conversations.

It took me five years to find the right supplier relationship. I buy my ingredients from family farmers in a single co-op in Louisiana. They grow non-GMO cane in fields renewed by Lake Ponchatrain’s eluvial soils during flood cycles. They harvest without burning, using air-conditioned machines, and mill in a 100% bagasse-operated mill, generating excess electricity for their community. They return water to the stream flow and air cleaner than it came into the mill. They hire a diverse and well paid worker and management force, unlike many co-ops outside the US. They are able to continue these practices long term without ruining lives and the land around them. To me, this sourcing defines sustainability.

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