A Geographer’s Take On Kervegant. Guy Lasserre (1949)

Lasserre Guy. Un chapitre de la géographie des boissons : rhums et eaux-de-vie de canne. In: Cahiers d’outre-mer. N° 5 – 2e année, Janvier-mars 1949. pp. 79-83;

This was quite the book review to find and, though brief, is a geographer’s perspective on the importance Kervegant’s ultra rare epic, Rhums Et Eaux-de-vie De Canne, which I’ve been translating. The question is: if we take this book from obscurity, make it accessibly by translation and digitizing, how much value will be unlocked for the rum industry? A single important lost text. A public work that you can build private enterprise on; how valuable is it? How many ships will it launch? We are continuously finding that there is much to be reconciled in the rum world.

Un chapitre de la géographie des boissons : rhums et eaux-de-vie de canne
by Guy Lasserre

Senior engineer of Colonial Agriculture, head of the Department of Agriculture in Martinique, Mr. Kervégant has accumulated a first class documentation on sugar cane and industries derived from cane. His five hundred page book on rum is the most comprehensive treatise on the subject to date (1). It is based on a bibliography of two hundred and two books and eighty-four journals minutely stripped for information. Mr. Mariller writes in his preface: “From the history to the sale of products, nothing is missing in this masterful study and the attention is drawn from the first to the last line, the most scholarly reader finding at each instant unpublished information and line documentation without gaps “.

(1) D. Kervegant : Rhums et eaux-de-vie de canne, 512 pages in-8° Vannes. Les Editions du Golfe, rue Porte-Poterne 1946. Préface de M. C. Mariller.

The book, written by an engineer, is primarily intended for distillery technicians. Many pages, devoted to fermentations, to yeasts, to the distillation of fermented musts, are only of interest to the specialists of the rum industry. Nevertheless, the reading of this treatise is fruitful for a geographer. Our discipline, located at the crossroads of all sciences, requires extensive information and is enriched by the incessant contribution of all researchers. Such a problem of localization of distillery, manpower, habitat, way of life, finds its solution in the choice of such raw material for the fermentation, of such method of distillation. In addition, Mr. Kervégant is not only a chemist. Some chapters of his work are the work of a historian (chapter I), a hygienist (chapter XII) and even a geographer (chapters XIX and XXV). Hence the interest attached to reading this book which is not a simple distillery treatise.

What is the general plan? It is controlled by the concern of the author to leave nothing in the shadows about rum. The first chapter is devoted to the generalities, to the etymology of the terms alcohol, rum, tafia, etc., to the origins of the brandies and to the history of rum from the beginning to the present day. Chapter II deals with the raw materials used in the rhummerie. Then comes the technical chapters: fermentations in distillery (III), yeasts (IV), preparation of musts (V), fermentation of musts (VI), distillation of wines (VII), aging of rums (IX), purification and artificial aging (X), preparation of rums for sale (XI), composition of rums (XIII), analysis of spirits (XV), organoleptic examination and the appreciation of rums (XVI), the analysis of distillery materials (XVII), the control of manufacture (XVIII). Chapter VIII is devoted to arrack and cane wines and enriches our knowledge of the geography of beverages. Very interesting too is the reading of chapter XII: rum in food and medicine. Finally, chapters XIV (main types of rum), XIX (main producing countries of rum) and XX (rum consumption in France, England and USA) are particularly rich in geographical conclusions.

It is impossible to give an account in a few lines of the richness of Mr. Kervégant’s work. We will confine ourselves to presenting here some of the themes developed by the author and which are the most interesting for the geography of sugar cane and rum.

The methods of making cane brandies in use in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries varied considerably. The quality of the products obtained was generally mediocre or frankly bad, which was due to the inferior quality of the raw materials used, to the little care given to the fermentations and especially to a faulty distillation. At the same time, the “rums” of the English islands, especially those of Barbados and Jamaica, were far superior to the French colonies’ guildives and tafias. Rums and tafias were first consumed on the spot by the poorer classes for whom wine and wine brandy were too expensive. It was the English who developed the export business. Soon the rum of barbados, the rum of Jamaica and New England gave rise to an intense commercial movement. We know what role this spirit plays for the traffic with the Indians, for the slave trade, for the supply of the metropolis poor in whiskey, and for the exchanges with Spain and the countries of the north of Europe. France, on the contrary, for a long time hampered the development of rhummeries, competing with French distilleries “in order to sacrifice all the important trade in wine spirits, which is done both inside and outside the Kingdom” (Declaration of King of January 24, 1713).

The trade of this spirit was at first clandestine and it is only at the end of the XVIII century that the rum acquires rights the the cities of France. With the generalization of English distillation methods, the quality of the product improved and the word rum was universally used. It is curious to note that, from the nineteenth century to the present day, French rum took precedence over English rum: “originally thwarted by the application of the colonial pact, the rhummiere industry was able to take in the French colonies when this application had been softened, a splendid development, while in the English possessions it gradually diminished in importance as the increase of excise duties in Great Britain and the rise in customs barriers in foreign countries”(page 25).

“Since the beginning of the nineteenth century, profound changes have affected the structure of the rhum industry and manufacturing techniques” (25). Until about 1865, a rhummerie was an annex of the sugar factory: “The average sugar plantation of the French West Indies consisted of one hundred squares (130 ha.) of land of which about sixty were planted in cane, a sugar factory with two or three “crews” (batteries five boilers for the clarification and cooking of syrups) and a “purgerie” for the de-watering of raw sugars, and finally, a distillery working with the defecation foam and waste syrups (molasses) of the sugar factory. Rum having a limited outlet, many of the most important houses did not have distilleries, they sold their molasses for export or, more rarely, in the same colony, to distillers installed in the cities”. This organization has continued to this day in Jamaica. Elsewhere, sugar houses have been absorbed by central factories or have abandoned cane cultivation. In some countries, special distilleries, known as industrial distilleries, are set up to process molasses from sugar factories. More often, however, the sugar plants add distilleries for the processing of their by-products. At the same time, agricultural distilleries were set up carrying out the direct alcoholization of the cane. Several factors explain that many growers have directly processed their cane into rum: the sugar obtained by themselves was of poor quality and the plant was often too far away and bought the cane at a low price; the price of sugar dropped from 1883 and especially from 1914-1918. This explains the importance of agricultural rhummeries. They provide 100% of the rum of Guyana, 50% of that of Martinique, 35% that of Guadeloupe.

It is therefore conceivable that in the French islands it is the manufacture of rum of raw vesou (cane juice fermented and distilled) which prevails. It is easy to obtain by spontaneous fermentation and its light bouquet appeals more to the credulous consumers. Called grappe blanche, it is mostly consumed as an aperitif. The rum of cooked vesou and syrup, is obtained from a must defecated by boiling or liming and concentrated. The aroma is more full-bodied. This rum made only for export, is still produced in small quantities, but seems likely to develop. The rum of molasses (residue of the manufacture of sugar) is the great rum of export. Its aroma is less fine, but more full-bodied than that of vesou. It is the most popular of the big commercial markets. Finally, there are grand arôme rums obtained from very aromatic molasses, used only for blending and intended especially for Germanic Europe.

One can imagine, if one takes into account the various methods of fermentation and distillation, aging, to which variety of rums one ends up. The chapters devoted by Mr. Kervégant to the analysis of rum crus are particularly significant: “More than any other spirits, rums have considerable variations in their composition and bouquet… The manufacturing methods are very heterogeneous; the raw materials used to prepare musts are variable; the duration of fermentations ranges from thirty-six hours to two weeks; distillation is done high or low, in intermittent or continuous apparatus, etc. (page 357). Country by country, the author analyzes with astonishing erudition the types of rums delivered to the market, white or colored rums, light, semi-full-bodied or grand arôme, coming from vesou, syrup or molasses. With the same skill, he analyzes the manufacture of other alcoholic or fermented beverages (arak and cane wines), leading us to the Philippines, Java, Reunion or Congo. Nothing is missing in this remarkable study.

It ends with a table of the main rum producing and consuming countries. Rum is produced wherever sugar cane is grown. It is therefore almost impossible to know precisely the world production of this spirit. Mr. Kervégant considers that the quantity of alcohol extracted from the cane and by-products of cane sugar manufacture must not be less than 2,500,000 hectoliters (at 55°) per year. While the number of producing countries is very large, the number of rum exporting countries is quite limited. For the period 1930-1939, total exports were in the order of 500,000 hectoliters (at 55°) per year, or one-fifth of the production. That is to say the great role of local consumption: twenty-four liters per year per capita in Martinique, fifteen liters in Guadeloupe, etc …

The only major rum exporters are the French West Indies, British Guiana, Jamaica, Puerto Rico, Cuba, Reunion, South Africa and Java. Some average figures for the period 1930-1939 locate their relative importance. In the French West Indies, Martinique produces twenty to thirty million liters of rum, and exports fifteen to twenty million. Guadeloupe furnishes fifteen to twenty million, and dispatches ten to twelve million. In the British West Indies, Jamaica produces four to seven million liters and exports three to four million, Trinidad has an average production of nearly three million liters and exports only five hundred thousand to eight hundred thousand liters, Barbados exports nearly five hundred thousand out of two million liters produced. The West Indies and the Greater Antilles play an increasingly important role in the rum market. The Virgin Islands, which exported six hundred eighty-five thousand liters in 1939, reached the record level of ten million fifty-five thousand liters in 1944; Puerto Rico, whose first rhummeries were not established until 1935, exported in 1944 twenty-four million forty-eight thousand liters against two million six hundred fifty-one in 1939. Cuba exported twenty-one million seven hundred and seventy-five thousand liters in 1944; Haiti produces nearly ten million liters a year, but is a weak exporter (twenty thousand to forty thousand liters). As for the Dominican Republic, a major sugar-producing country, rhum production is almost insignificant, molasses being sold directly to U.S.A.

To the big West Indian producers, we must add the producers of continental America: the United States (nearly ten million liters); Demerara (eight million liters including four for export); Dutch Guiana (three hundred thousand liters, half of which exported); French Guiana (six hundred thousand liters, one third of which for export). It is finally in Oceania, in the Far East and in Africa, not insignificant producers. Queensland (Australia) supplies more than two million liters, the Dutch Indies export one million liters of arak; Indochina exports more than a million liters of rum. Reunion has a real importance: with a production ranging between eight million and ten million liters, it exports, despite a high local consumption, between five and eight million liters. Mayotte, Nossi-Bé, the Comoros Islands and Madagascar follow quite far, with a production of about two million liters and an average export slightly over one million liters.

Rhum production is subject to astonishing variations according to the years. The figures above only serve to situate the producing countries roughly. Customs legislation, the state of war or peace, vineyard crises, the price of sugar, the congestion of the world market, make the export figures vary from single to triple in a single year. We refer the reader to pages 24 and 25 of Mr. Kervegant’s book, in which he analyzes the fluctuations in rum production in Guadeloupe from 1850 to 1922.

The last chapter of the book is devoted to the big buyers of rum: France, England, U. S. A. Chapter nuance, which allows to understand how much the political and economic imperatives (prohibition, excise duties, customs taxes, laws of quota, etc …) command the markets of the rum which is far from obeying the simple law supply and demand.

The work of M. Kervégant is one of those which imposes itself by the seriousness of the documentation and the wealth of the developments. This real thesis devoted to rum makes a useful contribution to the study of the geography of beverages, of which so many chapters still remain to be written.


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