Who you callin sugar? Sugar.
Of the elements in a cocktail (spirit, sugar, bitters, water) sugar is frequently given the least attention, to the point that we often take it for granted when working at our bars. For example at Grand Prize they have many types of sugar, a 1:1 simple syrup; a rich turbinado syrup; two types of sugar cubes; regular granulated sugar; confectioner’s sugar; not to mention other sweeteners like agave nectar, honey, orgeat, grenadine, you get the point. Yet for all of this diversity in their sugar program, until recently, I still felt like, I understood very little about what this sweet and sticky stuff actually is. I could recognize that sugar generally comes from the sugar cane plant, is somehow processed and that the byproduct of what we call sugar is a thing called molasses which is used to make rum and tastes great on pancakes and waffles next to a side of grits. Additionally I could acknowledge how sweetness affects a cocktail in terms of balance, and mouth feel, and that we reach for different sweeteners to gain specific effects just as we reach for different types of acid to balance that sweetness and vice versa. I still felt like I was missing something prior to attending David Cid and Camper English’s “How Sweet it Is” Seminar at Tales of the Cocktail earlier this year. Fortunately for all of us, those two gentlemen understand practically everything about the subject. Here are a few things I took away from that lecture.
Sugar is the worlds largest crop,it is basically a big juicy grass. You can eat it raw, crystalize it to make sugar, use the molasses to make rum and the leftover fibers can be used to heat and power things like refineries and distilleries. Some sugar refineries actually use the leftover power to electrify the town they are in. Sugar can also be distilled to produce methanol to power cars. It also has other uses on its own, as a preservative and in medicine. Dating back to 6000 BC, the sugar cane plant is native to New Guinea, was then transported throughout Southeast Asia, eventually moved by Arab traders to Italy, then north to places like Spain, Canary, Madeira. By 1490 AD we were crystalizing sugar, as it was historically compared to salt at the time. Columbus tried to bring the crop to the new world but failed (man what is it with this guy!). Rum production begins large scale in the 1600’s. “Sugar formed a lot of the world as we know it today” and we don’t give it enough credit. Original European settlers to the Caribbean were looking for gold or China, but they ended up finding sugar and many of the islands were used as weigh stations on the way to Brazil were legends of lost cities of gold were abundant. Few found the gold,but for many, sugar cane became the profit center. The sugar trade shaped the early global economy. This economy brought a large labor force to the Caribbean, through atrocities like slavery and indentured servitude, resulting in the unique blends of cultures we see in the Caribbean and throughout the world today.
Traditionally, to make sugar from the sugar cane plant, it first has to be cut (this would have been done by hand) then it is pressed to get the juice, then the juice is boiled. The boiling lowers the water content and the crystals saturate the mixture and fall out of solution. This substance is then added to conical molds where molasses would drip out of holes in the bottom, and sugar would remain in the pot. This is still the method used for whole cane sugars like piloncillo or panela. Additionally, white sugar would have been possible long ago, with the bleaching done by dripping water over that mold. Today its done differently. Cane is mechanically harvested, fed to a crusher to extract the juice, followed by a process known as clarification where chemicals like lime pasteurize wild yeasts, pieces of stalk, etc. (this is a reality for mass production). Then it goes to a centrifuge, which is very different from the type we are familiar with in the lab or in molecular bars, it actually works the opposite way as the liquid is pushed out and the crystals remain in the center. At this stage, there are two options: refined or raw sugar. If you stop at this stage, you’ll send it to someone else in another country who will finish the refining there. If the decision is made to refine on site, the process basically repeats itself for each stage of refining: heat, cool, evaporate, crystalize, add water to wash, re centrifuge.
One thing I found extremely fascinating is that there is fermentation taking place on the cane as it is growing. Wild yeasts flying through the air will actively begin consuming the sugars from the plant. “That is 100% angel’s share.” According to Cid you can walk through a cane farm in the morning and spot areas near the ground, on the stalks that are bubbling over with fermentation. This is why the first refinement always takes place where the cane is grown.
It is important to keep in mind that we are talking about a food item, remember it’s the world’s largest crop (168 million tons were produced in 2011 alone). As such, the industry is extremely volatile, not unlike the situation with agave in Mexico (detailed in an earlier post) the difference being that the sugar industry has global ramifications. A shortage in one part of the world will affect prices all over the world as it did in the late seventies when the USSR had a shortage of beet sugar and worldwide prices skyrocketed; this still happens today. Interestingly, the average price of sugar remains close to where it was in 1980 (32 years ago!) which means that refineries have to find room for profit by reducing cost, since they cant raise the price. Brazil, India, China, Pakistan and Thailand are the world’s top producers, but Brazil is not in top five for exports, due to the fact that they use most of their production for biofuels at home. When they do export, it is at a high cost. 55% of sugarcane alcohol in Brazil is biofuel. According to Cid, “Cachaca is the number one consumed spirit in western hemisphere.” What does this mean? It means that if anything happens to Brazilian production, the price will skyrocket like it did in the 70’s and did again from 2004-05 when the world saw a 40% increase in price.
So why does this matter if the stuff’s so cheap to begin with? It matters if you drink or enjoy rum, as it affects rum producers directly who often have giant overheads to begin with. “For many brands it can be really hard to make that bottle of rum year to year” and extremely hard to make it with any level of consistency of flavor or consistency in price. And because nations like Brazil and Pakistan dictate costs worldwide, many companies have started buying distillates since it can be cheaper than buying molasses, shipping it, fermenting it and distilling it. Some brands will label this as their own product. Not cool brah.
“Molasses is a beautiful thing,” remarks Cid, “as sugar is refined, many chemical reactions are taking place. Therefore molasses is often much more nutritious at the end of the cycle than the sugar cane juice is when the process begins.” Therein lies the beauty of molasses. “Additionally, grades [of molasses] don’t really matter, what matters is can your yeasts work with that molasses, that’s the very first thing, but there is one you do wanna stay away from.” That substandard grade of molasses, just so happens to be blackstrap, which makes some of my favorite rums, it is important to keep in mind that he is approaching distillation from the perspective of control and consistency from a brand who specializes is a super clean, crisp style, Bacardi.
The Following is an excerpt from David Cid himself regarding the use of the term Blackstrap
“Just to clarify, Blackstrap was the general word by which molasses was referred to in the past. Even Bacardi would say “we use Blackstrap molasses”. What’s happened through the years is that “Blackstrap” has now taken a negative connotation due to some brands’ attempts at enhancing the image of their product. So what we have today is that some brands will say “we use grade A, they use blackstrap”. Hence creating a point of differentiation that did not exist before.
An example of how the same words now men something different:
- 1999: “We use Blackstrap Molasses” (positive: grades B&C, and sometimes even A)
- 2009: “We use Blackstrap Molasses” (negative: use of substandard molasses, never A, B, or C)
In a nutshell, in relevance to the article, some of your favorite rums were probably never made with substandard molasses. They just haven’t gotten around to the new trend of identifying the actual grade used for their rums.”
At the seminar, we all tasted different grades of molasses based on production differences: as a general rule molasses from the first extraction was grade A, molasses from the second extraction was grade B, etc. Anything that is too expensive for producers to extract sugar from would be considered substandard or blackstrap. Grade A is very similar to what you can get at the store. Additionally the grading is based on ash content. Ash is produced from refining, heating and cooling, if this number is too high, you can’t make good rum, yeast also cannot work if calcium and potassium are too high. In some cases nitrogen is added to this molasses to allow the yeast to function. As grades of molasses decrease, solids remain the same, sugar drops, and ash increases. You can easily identify the ash, it smells less like caramel or honey, more earth, and eventually, like campfire and gunpowder.
The different types of sugar are based on size of crystal, moisture, molasses content and number of times it is refined. Those categories include:
- whole cane: comprised of whole cane crystals and molasses together. Examples include: jaggery, piloncillo, panela, and cane juice. Unfortunately the closest we can get to fresh cane juice (without buying big expensive equipment) is preserved cane juice, due to the fact that the juice oxidizes quickly like an apple, and its not good bottled, which is why you don’t see it used in bars.
- raw: The term raw basically denotes that the product has undergone the first refinement and has not been bleached. Types include: turbinado, demerara, muscovado and organic evaporated cane juice. This is a convoluted category, turbinado and demerara offer the most subtle differences, turbinado is generally a finer grain texture. Muscovado has higher molasses good in baking, often found in ginger snaps and is popular in the U.K.
- refined: This includes sugars from the 2nd and 3rd refining, it is common white sugar.
- brown: Brown sugar is pure white sugar with molasses added back to it. Contrary to most (my own included) preconceptions, brown sugar is actually more refined. The difference between white, brown and the various grades of brown sugar is simply the amount of molasses that has been added back to it.
- confectioners sugar: or powdered sugar has corn starch added to it to keep it free flowing, therefore should not used it in cocktails
- the most exciting sugar in the world according to David Cid is a new product called free flowing brown sugar. “This is the coolest thing since sliced bread.” The beauty of this product is the science behind it. When you look at a magnification of normal brown sugar you see the sugar crystals wrapped in the molasses. This product is made through co- crystallization. It is crystalized simultaneously with molasses, the molasses is in the crystal, why is this important? it is a look into the future, this is what you will be consuming in the future.” It represents the potential of having sugar crystals made from multiple sugar crystals. This is already happening with stevia and sugar cane crystals, it is what’s next .