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High in Spirits

High in Spirits

Cachaça, the Brazilian national liquor, is gaining status.
Drink boutiques specialized in the sugar cane distilled spirits and cachaçarias
have been spreading throughout the country. There is a pro-cachaça movement going
on and a national campaign to market the alcohol abroad. The down side it that alcoholism
continues to be a serious problem in the country.
By Jamie Sundquist

The word cachaça (kah-shah-sah), a translation of an African term for liquor,
originated in the tribes of Northeastern Brazil where the beverage was first discovered. Cachaça
is known by many aliases—garapa doida, pinga, parati, cana, caninha and others
as any Brazilian knows—but, only true, artesian cachaça boasts the rich,
earthy taste similar to that of tequila and aromas of balsam, cinnamon and oak.

Cachaça can also be distinguished by its varying golden hues and regional
potency, between 50% and 70% proof, depending on the distillation process. Cachaça,
extracted from the heart of the sugar cane plant, distilled in the artesian tradition and
then preserved in oak barrels, has not always been processed in such a civilized manner.
Until the early 16th century cachaça in its undistilled form was fed in open
wooden troughs to livestock and slave workers on sugar-cane plantations (The Natural
History of Brazil, 1640.)

When the liquid sugar fermented in the sunlight the resultant alcohol eventually became
known as garapa doida (crazy sugar-cane juice.) During the same period that garapa
was introduced in the northeastern state of Bahia, stills were being constructed in
the south by European settlers with their refined tools and engineering knowledge. The
liquor became most popular in the states of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo as an export
commodity for slave traders although conflict with the Native Brazilians and new settlers
made their attempts more difficult.

Today, the state of Minas Gerais, nationally known for its cachaça and
collective farmers group, Ampaq, produces 120 million liters and sustains the 180 million
liters consumed annually with additional reserves in Northeastern Brazil and the State of
São Paulo. Providing jobs to more that 100,000 people through all stages of production, cachaça
is a staple for national economic stability. Since the Pro-cachaça movement took
charge in Brazil at the end of 1997, efforts of the Minister of Industry, Commerce and
Tourism and various government agencies have sought to export $100 million by the year
2002. Although a conflict exists between the historical plague of alcoholism and current
popularity, this beverage is of great importance to Brazil’s economic prosperity.

Currently, there are hundreds of cachaças on the market with the surge of cachaçarias
(bars that only serve or specialize in cachaça) and export activity. "Drink
boutiques" throughout Brazil are elevating the once class "C" beverage to a
class "A" status as sales continue to increase since the pro-cachaça
movement which began last year. This recent surge in cachaça consumption has not
only caused more restaurant and bar owners to take an interest, but the resultant economic
success has become the focus of a national campaign to market the alcohol abroad.

The Mineira Association of Producers of Alcohol (Ampaq) in the state of Minas Gerais
and various government programs such as the Program for Brazilian Development of
Sugar-Cane Alcohol (PBDAC) and the Agency of State and Federal Promotion (Apex) in a
collaborative effort have developed a plan to increase sales through worldwide promotion.
The past year has been only the beginning for the pro-cachaça movement.
Representatives from the two states most affected economically by the sale of the liquor,
Pernambuco and Minas Gerais, have become advocates also for the agrarian movement.

Quality controls and seals of approval have been developed by Ampaq that satisfy the
taste, color and alcohol content requirements established by the Technological Center of
Minas Gerais (Cetec), the Agriculture Institute of Minas (Ima) and the Institute of
Industrial Development (Indi). The coveted seals signify the guaranteed quality of a cachaça
which proudly bears the approval markings.

Not only a favorite in Brazilian cachaçarias, cachaça is becoming a
popular beverage in Europe as Brazilian producers privately seek opportunities at trade
shows and other beverage competitions to market their "blend", in many cases
competing with the infamous Scotch whisky. With continued interest and support, sales are
expected to triple internationally by the 2002 deadline.

Although undocumented, the evident problem of alcoholism has become the focus of
studies in Brazil by the World Health Organization (WHO). The Brazilian Department of
Health and Human Services has been slow to develop a national program to combat the
disease that recent statistics show results in abuse, accidents and even death. However,
various options for treatment and prevention are beginning to surface on the local level
as a result of increased public knowledge. In 1995, a report identifying the seriousness
of the problem was the first attempt at alerting the Brazilian population of the effects
of alcoholism. Interest in the issue later produced various reports in 1996 documenting
the death of over nine million people as a result of alcohol-related physical abuse and
traffic accidents.

In more recent studies, medical specialists determined that the fastest growing group
of alcohol users are adolescents ages eleven to twelve. Although there has been minimal
support by the Department of Health and Human Services, statistic and reports such as
these have resulted in various programs and government restrictions on promotion and sale
of alcohol produced in Brazil. The World Health Organization has concluded that the focus
of intervention efforts in Brazil should continue to be a public matter noting that
politicians have the loudest voice among the masses. Suggestions such as educational
campaigns and projects directed at schools, decreasing the legal drinking age and raising
the price on alcoholic beverages are changes that WHO specifically prescribed for Brazil.

Such recommendations have inspired the State of São Paulo to decrease the legal blood
alcohol content allowed on state highways and now prohibits the sale of alcohol in
roadside convenience stores. Communities have established chapters of Alcoholics Anonymous
in response to the increased occurrence of domestic abuse. Employers continue to sponsor
programs which curb problems related to abuse such as productivity and safety. Government
restrictions on the alcohol producers has caused the President of the Association of
Alcohol Producers in Brazil to become a major advocate for the responsible promotion of
alcoholic beverages, specifically cachaça, which has the most restrictions because
of its availability and price.

Cachaça is a liquor to be enjoyed in moderation and appreciated for the
tradition in which each bottle is preserved. Cachaça is centuries old with many
obstacles and turning points in its rich history and the renewed interest in Brazil’s
national passion is gaining momentum. Predictions made regarding the future prosperity of cachaça
by successful bar owners, producers and government officials alike is causing the world to
also take notice.

The impact of promoting cachaça on Brazil’s economic success remains to be
seen, but with government support, the agrarian movement can continue lobbying for a
national effort to create a more responsible image of the beverage at home and abroad.
Time and government restrictions will determine whether the image and reputation of the
leading cause of alcoholism in the country can overcome one more obstacle and maintain its
new found "A" status.

Jamie Sundquist, the author, can be reached at jmsund@mailexcite.com

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