Is the rum industry sustainable?

In the 2010 Gibbs & Soell Sense & Sustainability TM Study the Executive Summary of 304 Fortune 1000 Companies concluded that 78% of the executives polled felt that there was insufficient return on investment for them to engage in a green initiative in their business.

Fortunately most agriculturally based businesses see sustainability as one of the cornerstones of their industry. The sugar cane spirits industry is certainly agriculturally based, but a surprising number of distillers and bottlers are doing nothing to save the environmental impact of their businesses. Certainly there are big differences between these two businesses, distillers generate byproducts that can be turned into methane and used to generate steam for more distillation while blenders have fewer opportunities. When I first started asking distillers what they did with their distillery byproduct streams no one, including me, was talking about environmental consciousness. This was all about money, cost of energy and cost of systems to convert byproducts to energy.  Once in a while the word pollution was mentioned but it was clear that neither the EPA, or any other similar foreign government office, wanted to interfere too much with the status quo when it came to the rum industry. From Puerto Rico to Martinique to Trinidad the general consensus was that it was too expensive to treat the distillation byproducts and at the same time too expensive to build a reliable system to turn these product streams into energy. In Trinidad where energy is relatively cheap, the answer was economics. “It will cost more than we can save in energy costs. Besides waste water treatment isn’t our problem that’s what we pay the municipality to do.”

In Martinique, no one wanted the government to impose anything that was untested and would cost too much money. Bacardi on Puerto Rico had spent upwards of $2 million, at a time when $2 million was considered real money, on a distillery waste treatment and anaerobic digester that failed to meet the expectations of Bacardi or the designer. In the mid-90s, the mantra echoed through the islands was that if Bacardi can’t do it, how can we be expected to?

At a recent Rum Barrel Debate in Oakland, I was joined by David Cid from Bacardi, Martin Cate – Smuggler’s Cove, Gerry Schweitzer from Leblon, some notable press representatives including Camper English from Alcademics and fifty other attendees. After a few minutes talking about the history of environmental consciousness in the sugar cane spirits industry it became clear that this was a topic that everyone felt was important enough to pay attention to. Bacardi, working with a local energy company, now has a wind turbine on their Puerto Rico property that provides all of the electrical energy required to power their visitor center. The last numbers I have from Bacardi are that they are also producing 30% of their energy from distillery byproduct conversion. On the south side of the island, Serralles is producing about 70% of their energy from distillery byproducts. About 200 miles west, on the island of Hispaniola, Brugal is producing more than 75% of their distillery energy from an anaerobic digester installed nearly ten years ago and expanded after the initial project proved to be successful.

It appears that you don’t have to be operating the biggest distillery in order to benefit from distillery byproduct conversion. And certainly in the Dominican Republic where energy costs are higher than in Puerto Rico, which are higher than in many places in the US, there is more of an economic incentive to convert as much distillery byproduct as possible to usuable energy. As Diageo builds what will arguably be the biggest and most modern distillery in the Caribbean, a distillation byproduct recovery system is part of the design that will not only help control energy costs, which will undoubtedly rise during the life of the plant, but also reduce the environment impact of distilling so much imported molasses.

The size of a distillery has a lot to do with how efficiently it can handle all of its byproducts. Small distilleries, like those popping up all over the US don’t produce enough spent yeast to warrant an anaerobic digester and most simply dilute the waste into the municipal waste water treatment system. On the other hand you don’t have to be big to make a difference as Brugal has demonstrated. And then there’s Flor de Caña where distillery byproducts are used to produce all of the energy needs for the distillation, bottling and packaging of the primary product – rum. A couple of miles away, at the sugar factory that makes the molasses used at the Flor de Caña distillery, crushed cane or bagasse, is burned in a modern, high-pressure boiler that provides nearly one quarter of the electricity to power the country of Nicaragua during the cane harvest season. The rest of the year, the power output from this investment provides more than 15% of the country’s power while reducing Nicaragua’s dependence on foreign oil.

Just as sugar mills in the early years of the Caribbean sugar industry viewed molasses as a waste product, today no one throws molasses away but rather distills it themselves or sells it to a distiller who turns it into rum and a tidy profit. I look forward to the day when the spent yeast from these distilleries is viewed with the same eye to the bottom line as molasses is viewed by the companies that produce it.

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