Beyond Oak

Katie Mather looks to South America, for a different approach to barrel ageing


The ancient rainforests of Brazil and Atlantic South America are special. They are the living lungs of the planet, inhaling our toxic fumes and recycling them into clean air. They are beautiful – unbelievably beautiful. And they are homes; the Amazon alone is the ancestral home to more than one million indigenous people, with 30 million people living within the wider Amazonian region. It’s a gorgeous world of unique plant and animal species, and its flora has been used for thousands of years to create and flavour tinctures, teas and alcoholic drinks. It’s these ingredients that have caught the eye of brewers in Brazil.

Native Brazilian woods, traditionally used to make barrels to age and flavour Brazil’s national spirit cachaça, have incredible aromas to impart. By using the aromas within their resins, local brewers are producing beers with locality and a sense of place. Some brewers are going beyond barrel ageing and toasting wood chips and studying the differences in taste and aroma; others are smoking the woods or using small planks dropped into barrels to further infuse their beer. But before we get into Brazil’s thriving beer scene, it’s important to learn about the traditional uses of aromatic woods to create cachaça. To understand any story, you’ve got to start at the beginning.

Brazilian Spirit

Speak to Felipe Jannuzzi, a cachaça expert and founder of Mapa de Cachaça, and you start to understand just how much of an impact the Brazilian rainforest has had on drinks made within the vast South American country.

“Using woods like amburana, cabreúva, jequitibá, ipê, and bálsamo started as a necessity,” he explains. “Originally oak barrels were brought to Brazil in the colonial times to age and ship sherry and cachaça, but as people began to move inland from the coast, cachaça moved with them. There was not enough European oak being shipped to Brazil to make the number of barrels that were needed to keep up production. This became a big problem, so they used Brazilian wood to keep up with demand.”

Originally oak barrels were brought to Brazil in the colonial times

“Because of this we’re seeing many beer producers ageing in cachaça barrels or using Brazilian woods now. It makes sense because these barrels are made from good, dense Brazilian wood that can be made to hold up to 10,000 litres — because they have little to no evaporation.”

There’s more to using Brazilian woods than convenience though. “Culturally we use a lot of local botanicals in our drinks because fresh hops were hard to come by, and this includes the wood we use to store them,” he explains. 

“In fact, brewers and cachaça makers are starting to use small pieces of wood or specially made spirals for an infusion effect. In cachaça there are more than 30 types of wood that can be used to give the flavours of the drink. The trees this wood comes from are local and usually are only found in Brazil. This gives these drinks even more cultural value and adds to their identity.”

Nate Whitehouse of Avua Cachaça was one of the first people to bring cachaça made using amburana wood out of Brazil. A Texan who moved to New York to pursue his career in music, Nate discovered Brazilian culture in his new backyard. 

“The most welcoming people around me in New York City were the Brazilian people in my neighbourhood. I started going to Brazilian clubs and restaurants and many of them had cachaça. I got into the culture. I wanted to know more.”

“When I went to Brazil I realised how big cachaça is. There are around 4,000 legal producers of the spirit over there, but about 40,000 illegal producers. Everyone has their own style thanks to the aromatics they use, including the type of wood they use to barrel age.”

The most welcoming people around me in New York City were the Brazilian people.

These 30 woods range from widely available to rare and restricted, and ecological concerns around the decreasing number of acres of rainforest hardwoods mean that brewers need to be especially sure that their wood is coming from a reputable source — and that damage to the forest ecosystem isn’t being caused in the felling and distribution of their woods.

“The Brazilian government controls the farming of these woods pretty well,” says Nate. “You have to know where to source them from and do your research so you know it’s being sourced responsibly.”

This vital point is why brewers are linking with cachaça makers and cooperages. Wading into new territory is always a risky business, but if there’s even a slight chance you’re hacking through potentially dubious black markets to get the ingredients you want, you need to be doubly careful. Working with people who’ve been sourcing local woods responsibly for decades is the safest way to make sure you’re not causing harm to your environment, or getting yourself neck-deep in the illegal timber trade.

Immigration and innovation

German immigrants to Brazil have made a large impact on the country’s beer-drinking heritage. Mostly settling in the southern region of the country, they brought bottom fermented beers to cities like Curitiba, São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro in the early 1800s. Rio de Janeiro itself has decent claims on being the home of Brazil’s oldest brewery.

Such a solid grounding in beer brewing has made Brazil a perfect place for craft beer innovation to take off. It’s the third largest beer market in the world behind China and the US. Almost everyone who drinks alcohol drinks beer in Brazil. Combine that engrained beer culture with a strong sense of national identity and pride, and it’s no wonder breweries are looking for ways to make otherwise non-local beer styles like IPAs and imperial stouts with flavours from their home.

At Blend Bryggeri in Criciúma, about 550 miles down the coast from São Paulo, head brewer and owner Rubens Angelotti makes a huge and diverse range of worldly styles — from marzen and witbier to a bretted wee heavy and Laélia, their “Caterina” sour, named after the State of Caterina where the brewery is based. 

“I love British bitter,” he says, “And our Caterina sour is very popular too. It’s a Berliner Weisse made with Brazilian fruits. Santa Caterina is known as the German state. German culture is very present here. We have the second largest Oktoberfest in the world here actually!”

Ruben’s career as a filmmaker and director of photography, is what got him interested in British beers. “I was working on a brew workshop with Brewlab and I made a video of breweries in the North of England as I travelled around. I loved the beer there. I tried bitter and mild in London first but I don’t know why, I just loved drinking it in the North. I loved the people and the atmosphere. And the beer.”

“We have two bitters now in our brewery, one made with organic cocoa nibs grown on our family farm.”

While Rubens was travelling around the North meeting brewers and drinking bitter, he got talking to Simon Miles, owner of Newcastle’s Anarchy Brew Co.. Simon asked Rubens if he’d like to work with Anarchy on a collaboration beer. Rubens said yes, and insisted on having the team over to brew at Blend Bryggery. 

“The first beer we made was “deadly milk”,” Rubens says; “A lactose IPA made with mango and “cumaru”, or tonka beans.”

“The name comes from a local legend that if you eat mangoes and then drink milk, it turns to poison in your stomach and you die,” he explains. “The slave owners used to tell the slaves this to stop them from eating food from the plantations.”

Deadly Milk rings out a harsh reminder of Brazil’s colonial past to those who understand the reference. Like the oak barrels and wood-ageing techniques that were imported here hundreds of years ago, there are reasons beyond taste for the way they became part of the cultural landscape. Imperialism brought them here, but Brazilian brewers and cachaça makers are using them to create something meaningful to them, with a sense of identity and ownership.

I loved the people and the atmosphere, and the beer.

When the team at Anarchy Brew Co. returned the favour, Rubens headed back over to Newcastle with a suitcase full of amburana wood. The wood, which is normally used as cooperage for cachaça barrels, has a warm natural aroma, similar to cassia bark and tonka beans. Rubens was keen to introduce his magic ingredient to an imperial stout, and brought 8kg in total to test out recipes with head brewer Les Stoker.

“I love amburana, it rounds the beer,” he explains. “It brings about an aged flavour and takes the edge off the alcohol quickly, in around 10 days.”

Les really enjoyed working with amburana too. “It was absolutely amazing for a couple of reasons,” he says.

“It’s got a really unique character, like cinnamon and tonka, but it’s also got this really great depth and delicious, rich sweetness too. I got stick for saying it was like a waffle cone.”

“One you start infusing your beer with it, amburana has also got these deeper notes of liquorice and coffee that help to tie everything together. It was shocking how quickly it worked.”

The finished beer they created together was an 11% imperial stout called Immenso — not the first amburana-infused beer in the country, but potentially the most widely available. They chose to add liquorice root and cinnamon to underline the flavours and aromas the amburana wood brings to the brew. I tried some to see what I could deduce. Rich and smooth — like all good impy stouts — a tingle of spice leant into cinnamon but instead of the cloying sweetness this usually announces, it rounded off into a chocolate-carraway cosiness, reminding me of a German Christmas lebkuchen. It was delicious. It also showed me, even though it was brewed in Newcastle, that the flavours of Brazil are wide and nuanced, and influenced by the constant changes it has faced, and the people who call it home.

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