A stagnating mine and a bit of land planted to sugar cane has opened the way for Malelane engineer, Robert Greaves to use his skills and resources to produce South Africa’s first rum made from sugar cane juice.
The rum, called Mhoba Rum, is made in the agricole method.
There are two categories of rum worldwide: one is mass produced and made from molasses, the other is a more craft rum made from sugar cane juice, called rum agricole, which originates in the French Caribbean.
The Greaves family started mining magnesite just outside Malelane in Mpumalanga in 1985. With an extra 100ha of unutilised land on their hands it was soon planted to sugar cane and leased to an agricultural company to farm.
“We were never really farmers and having burnt our fingers a few times we decided to lease the land and at least be assured of an income,” Robert Greaves said.
However, as the price of magnesite plummeted over the last few years, Greaves spent much time pondering their future and how to remain economically viable.
“I wanted to add value to the sugar cane and we had two options: table sugar or rum. Table sugar was not an option with a huge mill up the road in Malelane, but the idea of making a real craft rum – from farming the cane, to distilling to bottling – got me excited.”
Greaves set out on a vigorous trial and error process, starting with juicing cane in the vice grip in his workshop.
“It took me two days to get 30 litres of juice which I then fermented and distilled in a still that I built. A few weeks later I had the most revolting rum. But I kept trying. I got better and better and as I did I kept building bigger stills and ramping up production.”
Today Mhoba Rum is an established brand with a growing demand in South Africa and in Europe.
The still produces about 220 litres of rum in a month.
And now, Greaves is in the process of expanding the distillery to produce close to 4000 litres each month.
When Greaves first started making rum in 2013 the sugar cane was bought back from the group farming their land. During the last three years Greaves has planted 6ha of his own cane to supply the distillery, that means the end product is a complete farm to bottle operation. “This is the epitome of a craft product. It’s a return to the olden days where things were all done in-house and you have an authentic, old-school craft product.”
Being a mechanical engineer has meant that Greaves could design and build everything from an innovative cane juicer to the stills. “This makes my equipment easy to repair if something breaks and I don’t have to wait for parts because I make everything myself. I’ve made about four versions of the still already, tweaking everything as I’ve gone along so it’s just right for what we are doing.”
The process starts when the cane is juiced and then filtered. Bread yeast is added to start the fermentation process.
Greaves said he initially imported an expensive yeast from France but found there was no difference in flavour between the French and local yeast.
The fermenting time depends on temperature and the climate vastly affects fermentation. In winter it takes two to three weeks to reach 8% alcohol. In summer it only requires one week. “If it’s too hot it ferments too quickly and produces unwanted flavour characteristics. Rum production is sweaty, tropical stuff so our climate in Malelane is ideal. Hot cellars also aid the aging process.”
After fermentation the juice is pumped into the stills.
Mhoba Rum uses a reflux still so Greaves can control how much rum he takes off each cycle. Whatever is not taken off is refluxed back down the column so it’s circulated and distilled more than what is being taken off.
This means the rum is distilled multiple times within one circulation. The more liquid removed at once results in a rough, bold tasting flavour and the more it circulates, the more flavour is removed resulting in a smoother, lighter rum.
The spirit then goes into big glass bottles as a clear spirit.
“Each batch differs in alcohol content and flavour. I taste each batch and allocate the bolder batches to blend for the European market and the lighter flavours for the domestic market. The European market likes strong smelling rum, referred to as funky rum. This is how rum originally tasted before the big brands toned the flavour down.”
The spirit is diluted with water to get a 43% alcohol content and is sold as white rum. The dark rum is aged with wooden staves and in barrels, which then colours the white spirit to the amber colour.
“We buy American white oak timber to age the rum. The wood is split into staves and toasted on hot coals like you would braai a piece of meat, turning it over with a braai tong. Our barrels are also toasted. That was a huge learning curve in the beginning; to get the toast just right so that it imparted the right flavour. A large component of how good a spirit is, is in the aging so it needs to be just right.”
White rum takes a year from planting the cane to bottling. Dark rum can take up to ten years as it is aged.
Mhoba Rum employs six permanent workers and production takes place year-round.
Greaves said that one of the challenges of being a small batch distiller was keeping consistency. “The different batches need to be blended to achieve a certain flavour profile. The bigger you are the more batches you have to blend. We split our spirits into 6l batches with which we blend as the smaller amounts allow more control.
“It’s an art to blend the batches and age them for the right amount of time with the right number of staves or barrel contact. It’s even trickier if you are using barrels you are toasting yourself like we are. In the beginning you do a crazy amount of learning and now we only have to make small changes here and there. It is a never-ending learning curve,” Greaves said.
When Greaves started making rum his intention was to produce a good, but affordable rum aimed at the mass market. “But it has naturally taken a different course and there is a better appreciation for our rum in the higher end market, so we have started changing some of our production lines to funkier rum, enjoyed by this market.”
Greaves admitted that his own palate has changed as he has been exposed to European rum connoisseurs. “I’ve started moving more towards the robust, funky rums. I believe since our rum is made from sugar cane it must retain some of the flavour of cane otherwise it might as well be vodka.”
He said marketing was his biggest challenge. “In South Africa we are quite uneducated when it comes to rum and the range of what the average guy drinks is small, compared to what is available on the market. We therefore make two different kinds of rum, one for the domestic market that likes s softer rum and a bold rum for the European market.”
Greaves is in the process of building a tasting room on the farm so tourists en route to the Kruger Park or Mozambique can stop for a tour of the distillery and a guided tasting.
“I believe that rum will see a revival just a gin has and I would like to introduce the diversity of the spirit to local palates.”
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