There is no scorn more profound, or on the whole more justifiable, than that of the men who make for the men who explain. Exposition, criticism, appreciation, is work for second-rate minds. - G.H. Hardy
The above quote has been resonating with me in my personal and professional life for some time now, ever since I came across it in 2013 while building a presentation related to the day job. It's a harsh and cranky statement from the famous mathematician, perhaps, but a reminder that it's somewhat easy to be a critic. It's a far more difficult matter to engage the mental and physical faculties required to bring something valuable into the world.
After about seven years of writing about cachaça and its potential in North America, I decided to immerse myself in what it takes to make a truly artisanal, handmade product. This journey led me to Rio das Flores, Brazil, about 3.5 hours away from Rio de Janeiro. My destination: Cachaça Werneck and its proprietors Eli and Cilene.
As readers know, I have visited many distilleries in Brazil—many more than the ones you find in this special section. To be perfectly honest, no other site aside from Werneck was considered.
It was absolutely not a question in terms of where I wanted to have an apprenticeship. (Read an early email interview with Eli Werneck.) First and foremost I felt that Eli and Cilene would be excellent teachers—their passion for their craft and level of care for the final product were very evident. Eli's earlier background in industry (as the former president of Volvo Penta Brasil) was also impressive to me and it gave me a sense for how he ran both the craft and business aspects of the company. When I earned a sabbatical from my employer after ten years of service, I knew that I wanted to spend time learning about cachaça at Werneck.
Since it was early in the season, I was able to participate in the following activities within a small but very busy distillery:
- Harvesting, cleaning, and crushing sugarcane
- Evaluating and diluting the resulting juice
- Evaluating the progress of fermentation
- Helping to manage the distillation process
- Submitting to the occasional press interview, PR person that I am
- Pitching in for various backroom tasks (e.g., bottling, capping, boxing, labeling, etc.)
Obviously this leaves out processes like aging, standardization, and so on. Alas, I only had two weeks and even the least-rested product in the Werneck catalog stays in its vessel for three to four months. Also, the timing meant that producing distillate was the highest priority. Good cane, rich juice, and happy yeasts wait for no one.
Work and life has made this blog somewhat moribund, I know. I would bother apologizing if 1) I was able to make this hobby a priority in my public life, and/or 2) people were hanging on my every word here. Nevertheless, the backchannel conversations I've been a part of—emails, phone calls, and discussions that don't really have a place here on the site—have been illuminating and encouraging.
I foresee that the immediate future of this blog will largely focus on sharing bits of my apprenticeship at Werneck. Some aspects of that experience will be appropriate here, others perhaps in a different forum. I have pages of notes and well over a hundred photos.