OnTap Magazine

S ugar cane is everywhere in KZN, something I discover less than an hour after landing in Durban. Driving north towards Zululand, stray pieces of plant matter fly through the air, an occasional leaf fluttering across my windscreen. A couple of cars ahead I spot the culprit – a large truck whose open trailer carries something that looks a lot like dead branches. Suddenly these trucks are everywhere, carrying what turns out to be freshly harvested sugar cane up and down the N2. It is a time-sensitive task. Sugar cane is a seriously perishable product, its high sugar content causing it to start fermenting within minutes. This goes a long way to explaining why rum distilleries aren’t found throughout the country like gin-makers or craft brewers are. Surprisingly though, the province has only two distilleries specialising in rum. It is at the oldest of the two, Tapanga, that I begin my education. A PIONEERING SPIRIT Driving the farm roads to reach the distillery I realise I’ve already seen a lot of sugar cane on my way here from Durban – I just didn’t know what I was looking at. Growing to heights of five or six metres, the plant has reed-like leaves and looks nothing like the blackened sticks I had spotted on the back of so many trucks en route. Was it actually the same plant? “Most definitely,” says Grant Galloway, managing director of Tapanga Rum. “We are in the middle of milling season at the moment, which lasts from April to December. The cane is harvested and taken to the sugar mills, but sugar cane has a lot of external leaves and matter, so farmers first burn off the leaves to make harvesting easier.” Sugar cane has been grown on this family farm for a century, although rum is a fairly recent addition. “The farm owner had business interests in Mauritius,” Grant says, “and one day on a visit there he started to wonder why nobody in the sugar cane regions of South Africa was making rum.” The farm sold its first bottle in 2014 and what was inside was a landmark in the South African drinks industry. “What we make is a rhum agricole, which means it’s made from sugar cane rather than from molasses,” Grant tells me. Mainstream rums in South Africa are all produced with molasses, a by-product of the sugar-making process. “There are some legal issues with using the term rhum agricole though,” Grant adds, “so we call ours a rhum Africole. We are pioneering an African spirit that’s very different and new to the market here.” EVER CHANGING AROMAS Tapanga bills itself as a “farm to bottle distillery” and visitors get to experience the entire process. It begins with the crushing of the cane which produces a murky juice that tastes like brown sugar, but with a freshness you don’t find in a spoonful of demerara. From here the juice is pumped into stainless steel tanks where it ferments for about a week. As I pass the fermenters I notice a new aroma, reminiscent of ripe bananas – a sign of much-desired esters being formed in the freshly fermented juice. The juice is then distilled and with production at Tapanga in full swing, I get to see the still in action – a machine that, with a different colour palette, wouldn’t be out of place in a Dr Seuss story. Once diluted with rain water, Tapanga’s rum is sold either as white rum or barrelled and aged for several years. The barrel room is a recent addition to the farm, built during the downtime created by 2020’s multiple alcohol bans. We taste from the barrels and a new wave of aromas hit my nostrils as we sip rums made long before Covid existed in our lexicon. There’s vanilla, honey, a hint of banana and a grassy funk that is the trademark of agricole – or Africole – rums. Freshly harvested sugar cane ready to be crushed Tapanga rum's head distiller David Shongwe takes a sample Grant Galloway samples the goods at Tapanga ontapmag.co.za | Winter 2022 | 37