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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

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.

Such problems allied with better-known ones, such as rickety infrastructure and crippling bureaucracy, are holding back Brazil’s wider economy, argues Paulo Dutra, economics professor at FAAP University in São Paulo.

“The economy needs structural reform in order to boost performance and productivity especially in trade, but the flipside is that should we make these reforms, the upside potential is huge.”

Failure to exploit

Brazil’s failure to fully exploit the potential of cachaça is also partially the result of the country’s long struggle with the shameful legacy of slavery.

“Because cachaça was discovered by slaves there was always a prejudice towards it,” says Manoel Agostinho Lima Novo, a consultant to the cachaça industry. “For a long time it was a drink for the poor. The word cachaça was pejorative for many.”

Such attitudes are now changing. Milton Lima set up his Macaúva distillery after an epiphany 20 years ago. “It was when tequila arrived in Brazil and they marketed it as an expensive luxury drink for playboys – and it was a big success. I thought ‘why do we value tequila rather than our own national drink?‘ which I think is even better.”

Today quality artisan producers like Macaúva are carving out a space for themselves in the domestic market among imported brands and taking sales from the cheaper mass-produced cachaça. Sipping it is no longer the preserve of Brazil’s working man.

The next step it to tackle the global market where many drinkers only know the rougher industrial version that must be turned into caipirinha to become palatable. This segment is already being eyed by international companies such as Diageo, one of several foreign buyers of big local producers in recent years.

The real quality in cachaça is to be found among artisan producers whose product can be consumed neat like whiskey.

There are an estimated 40,000 cachaça producers in Brazil, 98 per cent of which are micro-producers. Even among commercial artisan producers, there is an amazing level of variety, with 4,000 registered cachaça brands, according to the Brazilian Cachaça Institute.

“Wonderful world”

“For foreigner drinkers, it is a wonderful world waiting to be explored,” says consultant Lima Novo, who helps elect the top 50 brands in the country each year as part of the Brazilian Cachaça Commission.

“It is produced in over 20 of the 27 states in Brazil. You have different types of sugar cane used. There are then the different types of wood used in the ageing process and on top of that, you have blends of cachaça that were aged in different woods. The world of cachaça is as rich and as varied as Brazil itself.”