Thursday, June 27, 2013

Rhumerie Du Simon: A Journey to the Center of the Agricole World - part 1

Rhumerie Du Simon

The feeling of traveling to tour a rum distillery is always a bit surreal. In the case of the first of six distillery visits during my stay in Martinique, it was a sugar cane fantasy come true. The excitement building within, while driving by what seemed to be endless fields of sugar cane on the way, was met with sweet aromas of fresh pressed sugar cane juice in the warm air. Harvest time! In the background of blue, sun-filled skies, Rhumerie Du Simon looked picture perfect. It was there I took my first step into experiencing the world of Rhum Agricole first hand. The beauty and tradition of Martinique rhum making is to behold, so I captured a few images, scribbled a few notes and brought back a story to share. Read and rhum on...

Sugar cane being weighed at the scale
As we walked towards the distillery, tractors and trucks full of sugar cane stalks were driving in to stop on-top of the weighing scale. After their weights were noted and samples taken, they deposited their loads in heaping piles in front of a conveyor belt before being moved by a front loader to become cut and finally crushed for their juice (see photos below).


Benjamin Mélin-Jones, Managing Director, Clément USA
Our tour guide is none other than Benjamin Mélin-Jones; a gentleman whose family lineage, most notably Homère Clément, pioneered the making of rhum from sugar cane juice in the later part of the 19th century. This style of rum we call, Rhum Agricole. Ben grew up playing in the sugar cane fields of Martinique. Today, he's chock-full of information on Rhum Agricole from Martinique and speaks proudly, not only his brands, but of the category as a whole. I listen to his concern on the importance of cultivating outside awareness about Martinique's Rhum Agricole sector. Bringing to light the unique and diverse variety of rhums on the island is the first step to ensuring success and continuing family traditions. I recall the way many rum-producing lands in the Caribbean and South America have gone; economic forces, which over time, result in distillery closures, corporate ownership with consolidation and/or elimination of brands. In fact, the number of active distilleries has already gone from 13 to 7; more than a 50% reduction just in the past 18 years! You probably haven't heard of a rhum brand by the name Simon, right? That is because there isn't one. However, if you are familiar with the Rhum Agricole at all, Rhum Clément should ring a bell. Rhumerie Du Simon currently produces rhum under the Clément and HSE brands. The majority of the rhum produced (and most desirable rhum blanc) is allocated for Clément. I learn, sugar cane is being cut fresh just prior to transport to the distillery. The amount that is cut and its timing is coordinated with the distillery's current day operation, e.g., only what can be crushed and fermented on that day is cut. I am told approximately 300 tons of sugar cane were crushed on this day. Whoa! 

Sugar cane stalks freshly cut
The sugar concentration is tested in the cane stalks when it arrives at the weighing scale, in the vesou or juice upon crushing and in the vin de canne or wine following fermentation. In addition, pH is also tested throughout the process. These methods are defined under the regulations for production of Rhum Agricole AOC. Continuous monitoring is performed for quality control and to achieve the best flavors for the end product.

Sugar cane being move to the conveyor belt for shredding

Sugar cane being shredded

Here is a look at the engine (recently retired) responsible for running the machinery involved in crushing the sugar cane.

La Machine a Vapeur de la Distillerie Du Simon 

The sugar cane is then crushed three times by larger rollers. Water is added after the first and second crushing to maximize the sugar extracted.

Sugar cane being crushed for its juice (1st press)

Once the sugar cane has been crushed it is re-added to the mix to obtain the maximum yield.

Sugar cane going to be crushed

Fresh pressed vesou (sugar cane juice)

The sugar cane juice is captured and then pumped into vats for fermentation. Fermentation of the sugar cane juice begins on the same day (usually within hours) it is cut. Fresh, indeed!

Sugar cane juice filling a fermentation container

Fermentation occurs in open air containers using the natural occurring yeast on the sugar cane stalks. In addition, Belgian yeast is added as a control. It is fermented between 24-72 hours and results in a vin de canne (sugar cane wine) of 5-7% ethanol as per required under the AOC decree. I also learn that each container will ultimately yield 2000 liters of distilled rhum at 55% ABV.
Fermentation container
Close up!


The furnace doors were visibly red hot and the heat radiating off of them was impressive. The bagasse (dried, crushed sugar cane) is the fuel source for the furnace.

Furnace doors

The sun dried bagasse is fed into the boiler by an automated conveyor belt system from above. The opportunity to view the bagasse being automatically pushed into the fire rising from the deep within the furnace was amazing. This provides a consistent input of energy and output of heat for the system.

See it live by watching the video below!

Holy Bagasse!

Bagasse drying in the Martinique sun

Onward to the column stills!

Column stills (ground level)

There are four column stills present. Three stills were actively distilling during our tour. History is significant here as Rhumerie Du Simon acquired several of the legendary Martinique stills from distilleries long past. In 1989, the J. Bally copper column still was moved here from their distillery in Carbet after its closing. Later in 1994, when distillation ceased at Habitation St. Etienne, their copper stills were also added on. Production of Clément Rhum was moved from Habitation Clément to Simon in 1989. This move included one of the original stills (see photo below & still furthest right in photo above) being used to make Clément Rhum. Ben tells us the distillate from all the stills are combined for most of the Clément expressions. However, for their single varietals, like Clément Canne Bleue and Clément Single Cask, the original Clément still is used exclusively.

Take a look at her, she's a beauty! 

Original column still from Habitation Clément
Distillation of Rhum Agricole is also regulated under the AOC decree. In addition to the heat application and the number and type of plates in the column still, the distillate must be between 65-75% ABV. In addition, it may be distilled once only to receive AOC labeling.

Column Stills (upper level)

We visit the lab to see a variety of chemical analyses performed real time and learn from the quality control people some of the rationale behind the extensive testing performed. Even the bagasse is tested for humidity before going to the furnace to prevent damage! It is here I begin to see quantitatively the terrior's influence on Rhum Agricole. Certain qualities like sugar content (measured in Brix) can vary significantly from day to day depending on sunlight, rainfall and harvest location. The terrior influence on the sugar cane, its juice and the distillate becomes even more clear during our qualitative evaluation; taste testing a few different samples at 70-72% ABV, straight off the still. Gotta love quality assurance!

Gas Chromatograph
Despite the visible European Union stickers throughout, it still feels like island time in the Caribbean.

Following the tour, refreshments were served. The view inside isn't bad either. We see some of the fine HSE Rhums that have been produced from this distillery after the brand re-opened.

Vintages of Habitation Saint-Etienne (HSE)

A sincere thank you to Ben Jones for providing a very informative tour of Rhumerie Du Simon and insight into the history and production of Rhum Agricole in Martinique in general!

The next part of this journey is coming soon...
For now, 'Ti Punch and stay tuned!


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