Avuá as a company passionate about the culture, heritage and ecology of Brazil has a strong commitment to sustainability of its products and its supply chain. Regarding the woods of cachaça, we work to ensure replanting and sourcing from sustainable stocks, as well as improving and optimizing our supply chain over time and contributing over time to a larger conversation about sustainability of cachaça.
AGING IS IN OAK. BUT IS IT?
One of the fascinating elements of wood aging in spirits is the use of non-oak woods to age spirits in Brazil. While oak is most well known aging vessel for spirits, in the five hundred year story of Brazil and cachaça, the history is more intriguing.
We can say that most aging is initially a practical question: what is the cheapest vessel which which to transport an unaged spirit. In historical cultures, the cheapest vessel would likely have been barrels made from local forests. French spirits production of grape-based distillates like cognac, Armagnac or marc de Bourgogne would have used French oaks from Limoges, Allier, Nevers, Tronçais or Vosges. That said, historically these distillates may have used other woods like chestnut or ash, as would have Scotch distillates and other spirits produced in Europe.
“A FLORESTA” - THE IMMENSE FORESTS OF BRAZIL
Brazil has two of the largest forests in the world: the Amazon rainforest and another forest called the mata atlantica, a massive forest extending from the Rio Grande do Norte area down to Argentina. Much of the Brazilian woods used to age cachaça come from this extensive forest, which has waxed and waned in its interactions with the human species both pre-European colonization and afterwards. As the Tupi-Guarani ethnic groups descended from Central America into the forest prior to the European invasion, they supplanted other ethnic groups and placed strong ecological pressure on the forest. As smallpox and other diseases introduced by Europeans and Africans caused the death of large numbers of the population and European colonization initially clung to the coasts. Across the Americas, this tragedy exceeded the even Black Death of Europe in the 1300s which killed a third of Asian and European populations. However, due to the reduction of human economic pressure after colonoziation, the forest regrew substantially, growing to an area greater than the pre-Tupi migration.
That said, as the Portuguese mixed with the local population, they kept the swidden type of agriculture, also known as slash and burn. This type of agriculture was traditional in native communities and was arguably healthy for the forest. The Portuguese and mixed communities extended it to a much greater fashion. With the increasing European demand for sugar, wood and then coffee, as well as poor land husbandry caused by Portuguese imperial land grants and poor title protection, the population of Brazil steadily deforested the mata.
Today, while there are substantial areas of the mata still in existence, it has been widely reduced from its peak – currently it is about 85% less in biomass stock than after colonization began in the 1500s. Additionally, there remain small pockets of true old growth forest. While there is an opportunity to improve husbandry of the mata similar to European land management from the 1800s, as well as mitigate climate change using biomass growth, currently the mata has not been substantially regrown compared to its peak.
THE THIRTY WOODS OF CACHAÇA
Cachaça, as a people’s spirit in Brazil, was frequently transported and stored in an immense variety of receptacles. One of the most common was likely barrels from woods grown in the mata, as well imported European oak casks. Over generations, a highly localized and artisanal tradition emerged of using these non-oak woods, and today there are more than thirty different wood species, including amburana, bálsamo, tapinhoã, jequitiba rosa, ipê, castanheira, and many others.
As a producer, Avuá works to preserve the wood stocks and incent producers to plant sustainably. As part of this, we replant these wood stocks on our own farm where relevant to the local ecosystem, and ensure we work with sustainable coopers.
PRESERVING THE HERITAGE OF BRAZIL
The forestation of the mata is of critical concern for a wide variety of reasons, including preservation of the indigenous cultures, climate change as a massive source of biomass storage to offset human activity, and the general health of the ecosystems. Deforestation within the areas has largely been a consequence of mediocre land management, title protection, and laws. Fundamentally, the deforestation was caused over history by wood harvesting, use of trees for fuel, and the substitution of crops like sugarcane and coffee for the forests. The situations of the Brazilian forests is likely analogous to the oak forests of Europe around the time of industrialization, in which the forests were and substantial risk. However, wise forest husbandry caused substantial regeneration of the quercus robur stocks in France, England and otherwhere. While forest protection varies widely dependent on each state’s regulation in Brazil, there is an opportunity to improve the amount of forest present. Cachaça production, for the moment, likely plays a de minimis part of the ecological pressure on these specific wood stocks.
At Avuá, we are proud of this unique gastronomical and artisanal tradition that reflects the land of Brazil as well as the delight of its foodways in these traditions. For these reasons, we take the most efforts to ensure that our woods come from sustainable stocks and we are increasingly working to contribute to conversations about the reforestation of the mata in an uncertain political environment.
Stocks of barrels come from two sources: vintage barrels from trees harvested at Fazenda da Quinta, the farm where Avuá is produced, as well as barrels sourced from a reputable cooper, Dornas Havana.
We ensure sustainability by several different mechanisms. In general, the Brazilian Ministry of Agriculture has a list of permitted woods used for cachaça and updated periodically by scientists. Several of the traditional woods, like castanheira, are prohibited to use in creating new barrels. The Brazilian government audits wood production using its VAT system. The sourcing of wood is traced by the Brazilian government using a chain of invoices using a system called nota fiscal, which is a reliable monitoring system used by the Brazilian tax authorities.
Reputable sourcing cannot only rely on government mechanisms, however, and we attempt to ensure that we understand the sustainability profile of woods that we use, as well as to ensure stocks that we purchase come from sustabinability grown stocks.
In general, there are a massive number of plant species subject to periodic monitoring for sustainability. In general, there are a mixture of governmental and non-governmental organizations which monitor areas of forests, generally using sampling methods and statistical analysis with a variety of data and sampling sources. See below for a specific analysis of each type of wood.
HOW AVUÁ ENSURES SUSTAINABILITY
Amburana is a genus, or grouping of different woods. The wood most commonly used for cachaça aging is a wood called amburana cearensis, which is listed as endangered on the 1998 red list, which is about twenty years old. The Brazilian government continues to list this as a viable species for cachaça if the barrels are sourced from sustainable stock.
Avuá barrels are either vintage barrels, sourced from trees on the farm, a small number of refurbished barrels from furniture, and finally several new barrels purchased from Dornas Havana, which we have vetted for sustainability grown sources.
Amburana barrels will last approximately forty years and each tree takes about fifteen years to grow, which allows sustainable production. There are at least eight new amburana barrels being grown on Fazenda da Quinta currently.
While consumers and producers should be very careful with how and where they source these woods from, we feel that this old tradition, combined with appropriate forestry management, provides an incentive to grow new trees and we endeavor to encourage our suppliers to do so.
Jequitiba rosa is a species of tree with the scientific name of Cariniana legalis. These trees grow throughout southeastern Brazil and are massive, tall flowering trees. Frequently used to rest cachaça for a shorter amount of time (cachaça armenazada), like many trees in the mata, jequitiba has been subject to habitat loss and is currently listed as vulnerable in the IUCN red list.
Avuá has one barrel of jequitiba rosa purchased from Dornas Havana with appropriate chains of title. While this is a limited release item and we are confident it comes from sustainability produced harvest, we will purchase any new stocks from sustainably produced stocks.
Bálsamo is a type of tree with the species name Myroxylon peruiferum, which grows in Central and South America. They are large trees that have a wide geographic area and tend to grow in dryer climates, which is one reason why it may be traditionally used in the cachaças of the Salinas region of Minas Gerais, a relatively dry part of Brazil. It has a very resinous sap which relatives of were traditionally used in fragrances, perfumes, and in medicine. It is listed as near threatened and is not currently a source of ecological concern
Tapinhoã is a non-scientific name used for a variety of types of trees found in the mata. In the most exhaustive scientific compendiums of the hyper-biodiverse mata, at least four different categories of trees were used. Several of these are listed as endangered.
Avuá ages its cachaça in two barrels which were produced from trees harvested on the farm by the master distiller’s father. While it is unclear when this occurred, it was mostly in the late 1960s. As all people involved in the production of the casks have since died, and the word can refer to a relatively wide variety of production, we are not sure of the precise sustainability profile of these trees.
However, what is certain is that production of new barrels is not appropriate. Therefore, these barrels will continue to be used until they no longer give flavor. The master distiller is performing research to try and identify the type of wood to try and grew new trees; however, this is uncertain.
Avuá, and its partner Fazenda da Quinta, have strong mechanisms in place to ensure we are not contributing to the deforestation of the mata. Additionally, as a company passionate about the proper use of its resources, we are taking efforts to encourage the market and the users of the forests to regrow this important forest and the cachaça woods that come from it. As part of this, we replant stocks of amburana and ipê and are working to learn to replant tapinhoã and others.