Novo Fogo: mountains, sugarcane and cachaça
During my early twenties, I was never one to drink much, but I could never say no to a thirst-quenching caipirinha. Once I moved to Miami, all I could find were mojitos and other extravagant cocktails, but not a lot of Brazilian flavors around. Much to my surprise, during a road trip to Saint Augustine in the beginning of 2020, we stumbled upon a bar that had cachaça based cocktails on their menu. The bar in question was Odd Birds. I asked the bartender about the brand of the cachaça that they used, and he showed me a bottle of Novo Fogo Silver Cachaça. I was very surprised and curious about it, as I never heard of the brand until that moment and the bottle had an image of a tree that is the symbol of my home state, the Araucaria or Pinheiro do Paraná. Needless to say, I had to look them up and to my disbelief their “alambique” (distillery) is located in Morretes, only an hour and a half from my hometown (Curitiba).
As I was reading through their story and core values, it pleased me to see their efforts taken to curb the decline of rare trees that grow in the Atlantic Forest. Through a program called Un-Endangered Forest, with the guidance of Dr. Silvia Ziller and Ekôa Park’s assistance, the company collects seeds from those endangered tree species. Once collected, those seeds will be raised by the 600-acre ecological park’s team, until they are mature enough to be planted at Novo Fogo’s property or distributed to other landowners that wish to participate in the project as well. Suffice to say, this year Novo Fogo acquired the staple of being Carbon-Negative, after two long years of research and partnerships with multiple individuals and NGOs.
With so many positive initiatives coming from this company and being so close to my hometown, I could not pass up the chance of getting in touch with Novo Fogo for a visit, and I’m so glad that I did. Morretes is one of those towns that look like they are frozen in time. It’s very charming, has a lot of character, and any restaurant you go, you will, most definitely, eat amazing food. Especially the typical “barreado”, a beef stew cooked for more than 24 hours in a clay pot underground that has been covered with banana leaves. Aside from that, if you avoid driving on the main highways, you will be graced by the beauty of nature, as you drive through the middle of the Atlantic Forest along the “Estrada da Graciosa”, a narrow and winding two-way road that used to be mostly made of cobblestone. After living in Northern California for more than a year now, the drive to Morretes from my hometown reminded me of the times that Alex and I drove through some of the National Forests near Sacramento.
Since I wasn’t driving this time in Curitiba, I invited over my mom and cousin, as my possible designated drivers to go on this little adventure, just a fun girl’s road trip. We left Curitiba around 8:30 in the morning and headed straight to Novo Fogo, where we were greeted by Gisele Busnardo (Operational Director) and Bruna Gomes (Distillery Manager). Just like the roads we were just at prior to arriving in Morretes, driving through Novo Fogo’s property felt like we were in the middle of the Atlantic Forest still, until we got to this big opening where we could see a two-story red building and sugar cane all around it, and of course, mountains as well.
Before I go into more details regarding the tour, first I need to give you a little bit more context and background about the company. When I had found out about Novo Fogo’s location, I was quick to ask some of my friends that live in Curitiba and Morretes, if they ever heard about this awesome cachaça brand, and I was very curious when none of them really knew about it. During the visit, I was explained that there were two companies, one being Novo Fogo, which has its headquarters located in Seattle and it’s owned by Dragos Axinte, and another being Porto Morretes, owned by Torres, his wife Gisele and Dr. Agenor Maccari Jr. The partnership was created some time around 2010, after Dragos had felt in love with Brazil and cachaça. Prior to creating Novo Fogo, he decided to visit some of the national distilleries that had an organic production line, and that’s when he met with Torres and his partners and they started working together. But it was only in 2015 that both companies decided to merge in together.
Back to the guided tour… After all the proper introductions were made, Gisele and Bruna apologized for anything out of place we might see inside the main building, as they were in the middle of a set up change due to the International Organization for Standardization, better known as, ISO 9000 certification. And since Mrs. Busnardo was the one in charge of that, Bruna was our tour guide for the day. Before taking us to the sugar cane processing station, Gomes explained to us that they run things with a small crew that can vary between 16 to 17 people at times. In total, they have 8 hectares of land and all the work done in the property is basically manual, especially during the harvest season. All the weeds are sowed by hand and no chemicals, or pesticides are used in the field, 100% organic and carbon neutral.
Bruna also enlightened us that because of the weather (lots of rain and almost no cold days) and the high humidity, the sugar cane used “Havaianinha” does not contain high levels of sugar. The “Havaianinha” is only found locally, as it has adapted well to the Atlantic Forest environment. The main difference to other types of sugar cane that are usually ripe by the beginning of winter, this one becomes ripe at the end of the winter. Since this exemplar of sugar cane was easily found in Morretes, the city became known by the rest of the country for its cachaça, but due to changes on the legislation after several cases contamination and toxicity levels, all the local stills would have to upgrade from wood barrels to stainless steel tanks for the fermentation process.
Even though the “Havaianinha” does not produce high levels of sugar (less sugar, less cachaça), it’s terroir is unique and completely different from other varieties of sugar cane. Because of that, Bruna told us they are working with the INPI (a trademark institution) to differentiate the cachaça produced in Morretes from the rest of the country. I’ve questioned her about the use of other types of sugar cane, and she explained to us that she had been experimenting with other varieties, but none had really adapted to the local climate or had the same flavor qualities and characteristics as the “Havaianinha” has, which would end up altering the final product.
While we walked to a higher ground, where all the sugarcane processing is done, we were told that all the harvest usually happens one year after the last harvest. Once all the sugarcane has been cut and placed in a truck, it then goes through the “moenda”, a sugarcane mill that extracts all the juices from the sugarcane, leaving behind the bagasse. Instead of being simply thrown away, the leftovers from the juice extraction are then divided into two piles, one that will be reintroduced to the fields as an organic fertilizer, and another that will be used in the boilers to heat up the water used in the distill process. Since the bagasse is still damp, they also use wood chips to speed up the burning time, otherwise it would take longer for the boilers to achieve its ideal temperature, resulting in delays inside the distillery.
Once extracted, the sugarcane juice goes through an industrialization process. From the mill, the juices will be sent to stainless steel tanks, where it will go through a process of standardization. As explained by Bruna while we walked back to the main building, each batch of sugarcane juice has different levels of sugar in it, going from 15 to 20%. The process is done by adding water to the juice until everything reaches 15% of sugar level. That mixture of water and juice is known “mosto”, or sugarcane must. Each tank has a capacity of 1200 liters, and once standardized, that must will be transferred to a fermentation chamber, where the natural occurring yeasts will feed on the sugars for the next 18 to 24 hours, creating a liquid with 7-8% alcohol.
With the fermentation process done, we now have a sugarcane wine, that will be transferred to copper distilling tanks. One thing worth mentioning, is that all the pipes that carry the sugarcane juice and its byproducts work without a pump, only using gravity to reach the tanks, one after another. Before walking us through their distill method, Bruna apologized for not having the copper tanks polished by the time of our visit. Like other distill methods, their main goal is to extract the heart of the cachaça, setting aside the head and the tail. For those of you unaware of the process, the first part of it involves heating the sugarcane wine until it becomes a vapor with a high concentration of alcohol, once 75% percent of the wine has been transformed into vapor, that vapor gets in touch with cold water, going back to the liquid form, as cachaça. Since the vapor has a stronger alcohol concentration, about 10 to 15 liters of the cachaça is taken away and put into big plastic containers. Known as head, this section of the liquor has about 70% alcohol and contains methanol, which is highly toxic for consumption. The head will later be used either for cleaning or as an accelerant in the boiler. Once there’s a change in color and smell, technicians, that are always watching the process closely, will stop removing the head from the cachaça and start extracting its heart. The section has between 65 to 45% of alcohol, after that the liquid will become oily and milky, and that’s the tail, which also goes to a separate container, just like the head. Bruna explained to us that this final portion can later be reutilized during the distill process in case there’s a shortage of wine to begin with. Besides the color and texture, what also differs the tail from the head is that it contains higher alcohols, instead of methanol. According to her, these higher alcohols are the ones responsible for headaches and the hangover feeling.
In total, they collect about 150 liters of cachaça at approximate 50% alcohol level, after each distill, which will then be filtered for any copper particles in the cachaça and pumped to stainless steel tanks until they reach full capacity, 1,200 liters. Once in the tanks, the cachaça will spend at least 6 months before heading for quality control and bottling, or for barrels. As we walk towards the end of our tour, Bruna showed us their main barrel-aging room, which was extremely dark and had a very sweet and fragrant smell, very different from the malt I’ve smelt in the breweries Alex and I have toured. The room was also full of American Oak barrels, and 3 stainless steel tanks. She then continued to explain that their classic cachaça is not aged, and for that reason is known as Silver Cachaça. It goes from the stainless-steel tanks straight to the bottles. For all the other styles, the cachaça must stay for at least a year in the barrels. Most part of the barrels used by Porto Morretes are made of American Oak, but they also work with Brazilian woods for a special series called Two-Woods (American Oak + Brazilian Woods), created exclusively for Novo Fogo. The woods used for this project are Araribá (Brazilian zebra wood), Castanheira do Pará (Brazilian nut wood), and Amburana (Brazilian teak).
When we thought we were done touring the distillery, our tour guide took us outside the building and opened another door to what she described as her favorite place. It was, yet, another barrel-aging room. Not as tall as the previous room, this had a much more alcoholic smell in the air, but just as sweet. Here they keep the barrels made with Brazilian wood, such as the Amburana barrels, and some other small barrels that Bruna uses for experiments. That reminded me about some breweries in the States experimenting with wood chips made from Amburana in some of their stouts, which still gives a rich nutty and spicy flavor to the beer. Much to my surprise, Bruna mentioned that one of her biggest partners in getting those barrels was a brewery known to us, Way Beer. The brewery has a barley wine, lager, and stout, all aged in Amburana barrels in their repertoire.
After salivating from the sweet smells of alcohol and cachaça, Gisele and Bruna then brought us some of their bottles for us to try. It never crossed my mind how cachaça could have so many different flavors, just as with beer. From clean and dry to floral, sweet, nutty and spicy. Unfortunately, we were not able to buy any of the bottles at their location, since they are moving things around, they don’t have a shop set up yet. But they both were kind enough to point me in the direction of local establishments that had at least Porto Morretes bottles. Lucky for me, our local grocery store here in Sacramento has Novo Fogo bottles. Now our “beer closet” is not only filled with beer bottles that we’ve been reluctant to open just yet, but also with cachaça bottles. After realizing all those barrel-aged flavors create such a huge opportunity to create other drinks, I’ve been currently experimenting with crafting other cachaça-based cocktails rather than just your traditional caipirinha.