Cachaça: the drink that mirrors Brazil’s history and economy

With football and samba, caipirinha is central to Brazil’s cultural identity

A Brazilian football fan enjoys the typical Brazilian drink, caipirinha, while dancing the samba with another fan. Photograph: Antonio Scorza/AFP

A Brazilian football fan enjoys the typical Brazilian drink, caipirinha, while dancing the samba with another fan. Photograph: Antonio Scorza/AFP

Fri, Jun 6, 2014, 07:28

Ieda Dias grew up making caipirinhas in Riba’s, her family’s small traditional bar in São Paulo, and practice does indeed make perfect.

“The trick is to crush the flesh of the limes but not the peel. That way it isn’t too bitter,” she reveals as she works the combination of ice, sugar, fruit and the all-important kicker – cachaça – with a pestle into a glass.

The country’s national drink, caipirinha is with samba, carnival and football a central part of Brazil’s cultural identity, as hundreds of thousands of visiting fans are about to discover when they descend on the country for the World Cup.

“Any of them coming who want a real taste of the country should just order a caipirinha – it is tropical Brazil in a glass,” Dias says proudly, handing over another of the highly praised caipirinhas she serves regulars each day.

Made from sugar cane, the spirit used in caipirinha is as old as Brazil itself and intimately tied up with the country’s history.

Cachaça (pronounced Ka- sha-sa) was first produced in the early 1500s by African slaves working in sugar mills shortly after the Portuguese had introduced cane, the crop that was central to the early development of their new colony.

“Cachaça tells the story of Brazil,” says Milton Lima, owner of the Macaúva cachaça distillery in the state of São Paulo.

“The first thing that was produced here after the Portuguese arrived was sugar but it already existed in other parts of the world. But during the sugarmaking process the slaves discovered how to make cachaça. It was the first thing invented here, the first Brazilian product.”

Domestic market

Rum’s Brazilian cousin, cachaça also acts as a kind of symbol for Brazil’s economy today. Production in Brazil of 1.4 billion litres a year dwarfs that of better- known spirits such as gin and tequila. The demand of its huge domestic market makes cachaça the third most consumed distilled drink in the world – but almost none of it is exported.

In contrast to the global success of the country’s footballers, cachaça is like much of the country’s economy – large but provincial. At just 21.1 per cent, the value of Brazil’s trade as a percentage of GDP is easily the lowest among the BRICS countries (which also includes China, India, Russia and South Africa) and far below Ireland’s at 85.1 per cent.

Cachaça producers say they face many of the same challenges that other sectors of the economy confront in trying to tackle global markets. “Small producer lack access to information, we need more people trained in how to reach international markets and better access to credit,” says Lima.

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