G. Saussine— Rhum in Martinique,1900

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SAUSSINE (G.). — Le rhum a la Martinique. Rev. des Cultures Col., mars 1900 p.165-170.

This is one year after Saussine’s previous paper where he focused on the work of Percival Greg in Jamaica. In this next paper, he reflects on C.J. Wray so the focus is still Jamaica. This is all prior to the mount Pelèe eruption in 1902 and it is possible that Saussine was among the 40,000 that perished. The purpose of these papers is to re-orient the Martinique rum industry to quality because there was less of a demand for sugar from France. Saussine notes that Jamaica made premium rum because it used premium inputs in the form of more cane juice and less depleted molasses which at one time seemed a bad economic proposition. Martinique already made a spectrum of rums but was now in a position to more closely mimic Jamaica by producing more heavy product. As best I can tell, the eruption forced plans to change and instead of producing heavy rum from a combination of fresh juice and richer molasses, Martinique opts to pursue more rhum agricole with column stills. Saussine makes it seem like Martinique never had technical problems with achieving heavy rum, but is it possible that the eruption lead to a brain drain where chasing Jamaican style rum was no longer possible outside of a few firms? There may have been a brief period where this was true before the economic situation changes again and a quota system favors smaller competitive agricole distilleries.

The entire industry finds itself in Martinique’s position as depicted by Saussine. There is less demand for sugar, but there is an increasing demand for fine spirits globally. There is tons of anti competitive behavior but no quota system. The path to quality may be using more fresh juice in combination with less depleted molasses. An open question is whether there are any technological problems that remain to be resolved.

Rhum in Martinique

The manufacture of tafia in Martinique dates back to the beginning of cane cultivation, but at that distant time people sought to obtain an alcoholic beverage rather than alcohol itself and the juice of the cane was not the only material subject to fermentation. P. Labat left us recipes, some of which have been forgotten but are nevertheless worth reporting in a note like this.

The most common drink of its time was onycou, a by-product of the cassava industry. Waste that could not be put through the grate was dried in a frying pan and pounded in a mortar or else kneaded into a large flat cake which was cooked in the ordinary way on an iron plate. We then took a large crock, a sort of earthen vase with a capacity of 60 to 80 pots, about 150 liters, it was filled with water up to 5 6 inches from the edge and we put two large cassava pancakes in it, a dozen potatoes cut into pieces. three or four jars of coarse cane syrup or instead a dozen cut and crushed canes finally a dozen very ripe crushed bananas. That done, the crock was covered and left to itself, we skimmed it from time to time and after two or three days we had a very alcoholic reddish liquor.

The maby of yesteryear is no longer the one of today. We put in a large crock 20 or 30 pots of water 2 pots of clarified syrup 12 red potatoes called maby potatoes and 12 sliced sour oranges. The liquid fermented in less than thirty hours it looked more like cider while onycou was a beer.

The name of grappe is given to the liquid fermenting in the vats of rum distilleries. The primitive drink of this name was cane juice taken from the second boiler, it was taken hot, flavored with lemon juice.

At that time, large quantities of wine were imported from which liqueurs were made by introducing the spices of the country. The sang-gris was then made with Madeira wine, sugar, lemon juice, a little cinnamon and clove powder, a lot of nutmeg and a crust of toasted and even slightly burnt bread was added. After a sufficient maceration time, we filter through a fine cloth.

English lemonade was made with wine from the Canary Islands to which sugar, lemon juice, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves and a little essence of amber was added.

Ponche was prepared with tafia, the same spices were added as in the sang-gris, but replacing the lemon with an egg yolk, it was diluted with water or milk.

I am not talking about drinks prepared with the various sweet fruits of the country, a fairly large number of them are prepared today and the exhibition in Martinique will make them known better than this note. I will also digress from my subject and come back to manufacturing rum.

The word rhum does not appear in the old authors and was imported from the English islands. One finds in the illustrated editions of P. Labat and Dutertre drawings of primitive stills. This distillation process obviously did not give the first pass a very strong alcohol, but the product distilled the first five days was redistilled on the sixth to give the tafia. Equipment for the vinaigrerie included a few vats or wooden boats for fermentation, one or two boilers with capitals and coils, a few jars and pots. Boilers were made of copper with one opening for loading and another for draining. The coil was most often made of pewter.

[Vinaigrerie is a Labat era term and possibly used for distilleries because operators were members of a vinegar maker’s guild.]

Thanks to these two successive distillations, the tafia was of a very high degree, probably not fit for consumption; it is necessary to believe that the rum of the English was of a lower degree since F. Renouard marquis de Sainte Croix (1820) gives the following definitions:

“The first water that presents itself for distillation is rhum: maintained at 23°, it is commercial. The tafia comes next; it is delivered commercially at 28°. We call “petite eau” all that arrives outside this degree and which is more or less weak; it is used by re-distillation to make spirit.”

The rum maker made a good use of the substances supplied to him in syrup, when he delivered a gallon of tafia for a gallon of syrup.”

Assuming that these are Baumé degrees, we would have had 64 GL for rum and 71 for tafia. Be that as it may, this alcohol was first of all of very inferior quality. Without the restrictive measures imposed on its manufacture, the devices that Cellier Blumenthal and Baglione had just invented would perhaps have been introduced. But the main reason is given to us by Guignod who wrote in 1839, in his Treatise on the manufacture of cane sugar:

“It should be observed that a circumstance, special to the English metropolis, has always made its colonies care little about the reduction of sugar by low boilings: it is that the richer and more considerable molasses by low boilings, is of such great benefit to them, used in the manufacture of rum only if all possible crystallization had been removed. There was thoughtlessness in the criticism that we were made of not imitating the English in the manufacture of superior quality rums, and it is a prejudice to believe that our colonies cannot manufacture such good ones. We know that English rum distilleries are produced at great expense, and that not only are their molasses richer than ours, but also that they put a lot of cane juice in their fermentable mixtures and use more suitable ferments than ours. Also, we can call their rums alcoholic vesous, naturally having an aroma which one tries in vain to give to inferior rums by various aromatic infusions. Superior quality spirits must always have been rare in England in proportion to the lack of native vines and wines, while superior brandies were too common in France for its colonies to find advantage in making superior rums, at great expense and at the expense of the amount of sugar.”

[What a statement! Guignod is from Martinique. Its the year 1839 and he is basically saying, yes Jamaica makes good rum, but they are fools and spend too much money doing it. He calls their rum alcoholic cane juice (“vesous alcoolises”) because it is full of fresh cane juice, a primary ingredient, whereas it should be mostly molasses, a salvage ingredient. On top of that, their molasses was overly rich in sugar relative to Martinique. The cane juice naturally gave it an intense vesouté aroma. It never made sense for Martinique to produce these rums even though they believed they could.]

Let us add that the measures taken against this product were less severe in Martinique than in Guyana or on Bourbon Island and that Martinique was thus able to equip itself at a given time to follow the example of the English and conquer a more brilliant reputation in this industry.

[This is interesting and means that Martinique was a little more liberal in letting the sugar slip into the rum to increase quality and therefore their reputation was ahead of other islands. It was economics more so than technology at this time. Before the eruption, the reputation of Saint-Pierre was excellent and Martinique maintained a few grand arôme rums afterwards. Bourbon island is Reunion.]

Let us leave Martinique for a moment and see what the state of this industry was in the middle of this century in its true home, Jamaica. It is Wray who will inform us about this production. Wray was imbued with Liebig’s ideas like most chemists of his time.

The inhabitants of Jamaica had found a large quantity of nitrogenous matter in the dunder and recommended its use, identifying it with the ferment. When Pasteur’s work began to spread, there was a long confusion between the notion of yeast fermentation, as Pasteur understood it, and that of gluten fermentation, as it was understood before. Confusion still maintained by the struggles that Pasteur had to sustain. So we see good minds like Wray fighting the idea of bringing in foreign yeast, claiming cane gluten is enough. Even today, it is not uncommon to hear that dunder brings yeast because chemists were able to say that it brought nitrogenous matter.

[This is an incredible paragraph! If you go back to their texts, it is clear the W.F. Whitehouse and Wray worshiped Liebig. Liebig was the father of nitrogen science and the Planters were interested in that on many levels. (Liebig-Pasteur dispute). The thought back then was that decomposition of nitrogenous bodies brought fermentation. It wasn’t quite realized yet that the nitrogen fed the yeast. The planters ended up with practices that were coincidentally good for growing yeast. Some eccentric practices such as Wray adding okra were searches for usable vegetable sources of nitrogen that could more strongly induce fermentation. They don’t make sense through a Pasteur lens, but seem promising if you only knew Liebig.]

If the rum industry has been established and maintained despite these misconceptions, is that the conditions of a fermentation had been recognized early, if not good, at least fast, and that worked independently of any theoretical idea. In addition to fermentation tanks and dunder tanks, Jamaica had the skimmings tank. All the waste from the various operations of the sugar refinery, the bottoms of the containers, the washing water, the apparatus, etc., formed a fairly large volume of liquid which was collected in a basin with bagasse. This liquid fermented and clarified: it is the clear part that was added to the dunder under the name of “skimmings”.

[Many sort of coincidences add up here and a major one dovetails with a modern concept in growing yeast that may have given Jamaica an advantage in bringing healthy yeast populations to their ferments. I will not elaborate because myself and my colleagues use the modern idea successfully.]

It is obvious to us today that these skimmings were a very nutritious sweet medium having collected all the fermentables of the factory. It was therefore an energetic leaven whose use had two advantages:

1) Cleaning the appliances was not a question of cleanliness and taste; but of utility, it was therefore done regularly and reduced the chances of invasion of foreign ferments.

2) All the sugar entered at the factory in the canes and that which did not come out in the form of sugar was converted into alcohol.

Wray insists on the importance of these skimmings and it is curious to see the recommendations he gives regarding their use, as they are in line with our current ideas on yeasts and the role of yeast starters.

[What is interesting is the Jamaica rum traditional claims no deliberate starters.]

Skimming tanks are around 1,500 litres, while the fermentation tanks are 4 to 5,000 litres. It is estimated that 10 liters of skimmings contain as much sugar as one liter of molasses. According to these proportions, if we want to load a 4,500 liter tank at 12%, we will take 10% molasses and 20% skimmings, i.e.:

Melasse: 450 liters
Skimmings 900 liters

The mixing is done in stages. First pour in the 900 liters of skimmings, and add 225 liters of molasses with 450 liters of dunder. When fermentation is well established, add another 225 liters of molasses with 900 liters of water; let more time lapse and pour enough dunder to fill the vat. The proportion of dunder employed was therefore considerable, i.e. 80%, whereas today it is hardly more than 60% or even less. Wray goes even further: he claims to have often found it well to use the dunder alone without water. A good dunder, according to him, should be light, transparent, slightly bitter, free of acidity (?) and fresh. We hardly find all these qualities in our current manufacture, especially after distillation via columns with trays; as for that of not being acidic, we must believe that we were not looking very closely.

[That questions mark belongs to Saussine. Wrays comment may refer to the idea that they kept boiling & evaporating their dunder after all the ethanol was gone with the idea of driving off volatile acids which they thought antagonized their yeast. Distillation via column as opposed to pot would leave more long chain volatile acids in the dunder. They were also aggressively liming things and still following the ideas of Bryan Higgins. Acidity had yet to be embraced for sanitation.

Another property was attributed to the dunder which requires verification. It would contain aromatic principles which would have the effect of slowing down and regulating fermentation. Unfortunately, they were not isolated; we have therefore never been able to experience their effects, and we are no more advanced today than fifty years ago. Perhaps even the concern to ferment quickly to ensure continuous production with large-sized devices has caused some good traditions to be forgotten? The slowest fermentations are the best from the dual point of view of aroma and yield.

[I don’t concretely know how to interpret this. My only thought is that the most effective dunder may have an amount of aromatic rum oil and that may be correlated with a pH, a concept they did not understand, which may have lead to success. Rum oil may have been the tell that the dunder was useful and not something with a massive TA or VA.]

About yields Wray gives the following figures:

100 kilograms of molasses containing 65% sugar give 33 kilograms of absolute alcohol which, to be brought to 70°, requires 16 liters, 5 of water; altogether 49 kg. 5 of an alcohol with a density of 0.88, i.e. 56 litres. But this is a theoretical calculation and we are not informed about the yields obtained in current practice. As for the distilling apparatus, they consisted of a double retort and a coil condenser; the first was heated over an open fire and the vapors passing through the second were enriched in alcohol; the most perfect were equipped with a condensing lens. [lentille de condensation.]

After this quick look at old English manufacturing, let’s see how this industry developed in Martinique. Simple stills are still referred to as the Labat system, although P. Labat did not invent the form they are given today; but, in short, this form has varied little in agricultural rhumeries, except by the adaptation of a few trays and, in certain cases, by the use of steam for heating the boiler.

I have indicated the conditions under which the industrial rum industry developed. It would perhaps have been interesting to look, in the annual production figures, for the share that goes to each of these two productions: we can hardly conclude from this, however, that one or the other is excellent. Everyone knows that with a given alcoholic liquid the aroma of the distilled product varies a lot with the mode of distillation. With all the more reason, if one brings in raw materials as different as sugar cane molasses, battery syrup or raw cane juice; moreover, this question of aroma is a matter of personal appreciation. It would be more important to know which of the two manufactures works under the most economical conditions; but it is obvious that the answer to such a question cannot be absolute, because it depends for each on the material they have.

There is a point on which it is not superfluous to insist. It is that at the current price of rums, if no unforeseen circumstance comes to disturb the markets, we can say of our industry what Guignod said, in 1839, of the English sugar refinery. The manufacturer of sugar has no great interest in perfecting his manufacture if his molasses, converted into rum, is more profitable to him than his excess sugar. This is how some houses were able to cope with very serious crises with tools that seem a real anachronism: Labat crews and a simple still.

[The Labat “crew” here is the battery of old fashioned small scale sugar evaporators.]

It is therefore not from a single aspect of production that we can conclude, as has often been done, that colonial manufacturers are resistant to scientific and industrial progress. The reproach, although very old, is still fashionable. If the law of 1894 did not have the same effects on the colonial sugar refinery as on the indigenous sugar refinery, the reason must be seen in several circumstances and, in particular, in the development of the rum industry.

[I’m not sure what this pivot in 1894 was.]

No more than for the sugar factory, we did not want to make here a treatise on manufacturing. The rum industry can be considered from many points of view which it will suffice to enumerate to show that a complete treatise requires the cooperation of several specialties. In fact, we can study:

1) Commercial point of view, i.e. the relations established or to establish the necessary or useless intermediaries between the consumer and the producer.

2) Point of view of fraud: compare the quantity of rum that is drunk in France with the quantity actually imported to find the means of detecting and repressing fraud.

3) Point of view of the tax office: exit rights, right of consumption in the colony; entry fees into France: customs, warehouses, etc.

4) Industrial point of view: richness and cost price of raw materials, vesou or molasses; fermentation yield; columns and stills, etc.;

5) Scientific point of view: composition of sugar cane and molasses; study of the different races of yeast; influence of raw materials, yeasts and appliances on the bouquet;

6) Hygienic point of view: comparing rum with other natural spirits and fantasie compounded spirits.

Of these different aspects of the question, it can be said that those which are of particular interest to science have not been sufficiently studied. Few works have been published so far. Some observations are reported in the Bulletin of the Association of Chemists, but do not constitute a set of data against which to judge this industry.

However, it must be recognized that efforts have been made in recent years and that research is continuing today on several sides. Thus it is worth remembering that G. Landes was the first in Martinique to propose the use of selected yeasts in a device for which he had taken out a patent. But this proposal has not, at this time, caught the attention of manufacturers.

With regard to the reform of the drinking regime, hygienists, through the organizing of Dr. Lannelongue and several deputies, denounced the excessively rapid progress of alcoholism. The relative value of natural and industrial alcohols, and the quantity and nature of the impurities of each, were discussed. As almost always happens, it was an unfortunate word that threw people’s minds into confusion. The term impurity, applied to a chemical product means: what should not be there; it has a very clear meaning when it comes to rectified industrial alcohol, that is, chemically defined ethyl alcohol; it no longer makes sense when it comes to an eau-de-vie which owes its bouquet precisely to substances other than ethyl alcohol; these substances are no more impurities in an eau-de-vie than phosphoric acid and potash are impurities in the soil. We did not agree either when we spoke of pure alcohol, because for practitioners any alcohol that is not defrauded is pure and the taste of their clientele interests them more than the opinion of chemists.

Physicians who have carried out physiological experiments, and I will cite in particular the long and meticulous work of MM. Joffroy and Servaux, have ended up concluding, as M. Duclaux had already made clear, that the culprit is the alcohol itself, however pure it may be, the impurities that make up its bouquet being in too low a proportion in good quality alcohols to modify their effects on the organism.

Everyone would therefore agree in saying: when the rate of materials other than ethyl alcohol rises a little too much above a certain average that the analyzes will reveal, there is reason to wonder whether some of these substances are essential to the bouquet and do not result from faulty fermentation. A well-conducted fermentation, in order to raise the alcohol yield to its practical maximum, must provide a minimum of foreign matters, retaining only those which are necessary for the aroma which one wishes to obtain.

We are thus brought back to laboratory problems and we can hope that the research that is continuing in Martinique and in the various producing countries will bring new progress to the rum industry.


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