Making Panela at a Colombian Sugar Mill is Still a Low-Tech Affair

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The final cooling tray.

Brown, unrefined sugar is eaten all around the world—Africa and Asia have their jaggery, Mexico has piloncillo, we have our fancy coffee shops with moist muscovado—but nobody consumes it the way Colombians do. Despite having the highest brown sugar consumption per capita in the world and a production of almost a million and a half tons per year, Colombian sugar production is still done almost entirely manually in mills like this one.

Known as panela, the unrefined brown sugar is usually sold in solid blocks that can be scraped and chiseled off to use in dishes like arroz con coco (coconut rice from the Caribbean coast), or dissolved into aguapanela, a drink that at its simplest is nothing more than brown sugar dissolved into hot or chilled water, but often comes flavored with lime. Hot aguapanela with a squeeze of lime is one of my Colombian wife's favorite drinks. We drink it instead of hot cocoa in the winter or in place of coffee after a meal.

There are over 20,000 trapiches—panela production facilities—in Colombia, mostly concentrated in the Western Valle del Cauca department surrounding Cali. I spent New Year's this past year in Quindío, the department immediately to the east, known for the quality of its coffee and panela. The second smallest department in the country, its economy is mainly tourism and agriculture; the mountains and hills are dense with coffee plants interspersed with tall, gangly plantain trees (I always thought they look like the lanky teenagers of the tropical fruiting plant world), cattle farms, and the odd sugarcane plantation. We visited one of these plantations one particularly hot morning, a walk which we expected to take 10 minutes, but was actually closer to an hour in the hot, thin mountain air.

I've discovered in the past that in Colombia, diez minutos is what you say when you expect something to happen within five minutes to one hour from now. Turns out that the same logic applies to directions. When someone tells you to "walk this way for ten minutes then look for the blue house on your left," what they really mean is "walk in this direction for a reasonably long period of time, but start looking immediately for this house which is probably blue, but may actually be green and is maybe not a house but a barn. If you get lost, ask again in five minutes (not really five minutes)."

We finally identified the trapiche by smell: a smoky and sweet cloud wafting out from a driveway crowded on either side by overgrown sugarcane. Workers on break sat in the shade with a few stray dogs and puppies, listening to a 1980s-style boombox playing vallenato, a slow dance beat from the Caribbean coast.

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Gigantic industrial-sized sugar cane crushers.

The vast majority of Colombian sugarcane is harvested by hand, with workers cutting stalks down with machetes and loading them onto donkeys for transport. It's not that Colombia couldn't mechanize or modernize production, but doing so would put tens of thousands of workers out of a job. In the Cauca valley, sugarcane use is slowly shifting from edible sugars to ethanol, in large part due to government subsidies that place incentives for biofuel production, but where we were the mills are still run in the same way they've been run for decades. As you'll see, it's not a particularly high-tech business.

As we went in, there was an overwhelming aroma of fermentation that's especially concentrated near the output tray of the big mechanical rollers that crush the sugar cane. I'm used to seeing the small, hand-cranked sugar cane crushers that cane juice vendors in South East Asia use. This is an entirely different scale. It's difficult to tell scale from the photo, but that big red wheel attached to the belt is about the height of my wife, Adri.

She's a little small for a wife, even a Colombian one, but that's still pretty big for a piece of machinery.

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The sugary juice is extracted.

The machines weren't running the day we visited, but our host, the plant manager turned on one of the rollers to show us how it works, feeding in a few whole stalks of sugar cane. The juice dripped down into a stained tin collection bin that channels it into troughs that run into the concrete structure next door, while the crushed wood pulp gets ejected into a small pile, fruit flies billowing into the air as the pulp falls.

On the day we were there, it was well over 100°F out in the sun, and even hotter inside the open-walled barn housing the piles of spent, crushed sugar cane. There was tons of the stuff, in varying stages of drying. Piles of pulp get moved around the structure musical chairs-style until they wind up near the doors of the furnace that lies underneath the whole structure, adding to the heat.

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Donkeys are no longer used to run the mill.

At one point, before the mechanical crushers were put in place, the entire milling operation was powered by donkey. These days the donkeys are used only for hauling sugar cane up and down the hilly terrain that surrounds the mill.

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Spent cane is used to fire the furnace.

By the time the sugarcane reaches the entrance to the furnace, it's light and dry, burning fast as a worker uses a pitchfork to shovel it into the intense fire burning inside. Our guide let us peek into the furnace before bringing us around up top to enter the shed where the work of reducing the cane juice goes on. While panela is technically just raw, reduced cane-sugar juice, it gets cooked hot enough that some of its sugars caramelize, giving it a slightly bitter background.

If anything, the intense smell of fermentation was even stronger in this area, compounded by the sweet, dark aromas of caramel and molasses. Actually, sparing use of refrigeration and a climate that tends to be hot and humid in the major food production regions leads to a similar fermented flavor in many Colombian foods—fresh cheeses and sausages like chorizo and longaniza in particular—even when they are not intentionally fermented.

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Thin liquid.

Stepping into the room above, it was clear why so much heat is necessary: It's like a swamp inside. Humid and musty, the room is filled with huge wok-shaped pots of cane juice in various degrees of reduction bubbling away and filling the space with sweet-smelling steam. Workers in masks use pot-sized ladles stuck on the end of long polls to transfer the juice from one pot to the next.

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Central reduction pan.

The fresh cane juice comes pouring into the first container in the row where it bubbles down and reduces by about 50% before the workers start transferring it to the second, smaller container. As it gets passed from one container to the next, it goes form being a pale, off-white liquid to a rich, thick, deep caramel brown with bubbles that slowly rise and pop like tar.

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Scooping sugar into the next bin.

There's years of caked-on sugar thickly coating the edges of the containers and everything looks like it's been jury-rigged with sheets of hand-hammered tin and bamboo buttresses holding up the tanks at strategic locations. I wouldn't be surprised if some of the caked-on sugar is actually structural at this point.

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Pulled sugar candy.

Our guide reached out to the edge of the pan where the sugar is cooler and started pulling at it. The sugar stretched out and hardened into fine, thin shards that melt in your mouth. It has some of the bitterness and rich complexity of a Muscavado or Demerara sugar, but with a touch of that characteristic fermented flavor.

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The final cooling tray.

By the time the sugar syrup hits the final pan, it's a hyper-saturated solution that is grainy and chunky with bit chunks of crystallized sugar. The last stage of reduction is dumping the soft, moist sugar crystals into a wide tray supported on either end by metal poles. Workers lift up the trays like a rickshaw and carry them over to tables where they're stirred with long wooden panels.

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Scraping the sugar as it cools.

As the workers scrape the sugar back and forth, it gets cooler and cooler until it starts to form distinct crystals that slowly melt into each other as the mixture settles.

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Removing air.

Once cooled enough, the tray of sugar is passed to this man, who stands by large concrete tables lined with a layer of brown paper. He gives the tray of warm panela a final quick massage with a flat metal panel that forces out any air bubbles.

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Scooping.

He then reaches into the bin and scoops out sugar with twin wooden bowls.

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Dumping the scoops.

Each scoop of sugar gets dumped onto the brown paper where it immediately relaxes, slackening into a fat disk, and starts to harden.

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Branding.

By the time the whole tray is emptied, the disks are almost firm enough to pick up without bending or cracking.

The final step before packaging is to brand the panela with the specific label it's going to be sold under. The factory we visited was small—they produce about 700 crates of 36 blocks of sugar apiece per day—but still, it supplies panela for about a dozen different labels, each with its own brand (and I mean that literally) and its own packaging.

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Heat gun on wrapper.

Even packaging has a low tech solution here as one worker slips the blocks of panela two at a time into a plastic sleeve which is then hit with a heat gun by hand, causing it to shrink tightly around the sugar.

Whenever we visit Colombia, my wife and I pick up packs of panela in ready-to-dissolve cubes. All you have to do is drop them in boiling water, give them a stir, and it's good to drink. Some of them even come pre-flavored with lime, though it's always better to use the lime fresh. Here in the States, you're most likely to find Mexican panela or piloncillo (the terms are interchangeable) sold in block form which you can scrape off with a knife or cheese grater to stir into drinks.

Panela can be used in place of sugar in many baking applications (don't try it in candy, caramel, or other fussy candy-making situations where its grainy texture and impurities will detract from texture). Cakes and cookies made with panela will retain moisture a little better than those made with plain white sugar, giving them a chewier, more rustic crumb and a hint of brown-sugar flavor.

Knowing what's going on in the sugar industry in nearby Cauca, with its far larger facilities and an increased focus on producing biofuels (according to this New York Times story, Colombia is aiming to achieve a 30% ethanol blending mandate on all their fuel pumps), it's not easy to see how small trapiches like this one are going to survive far into the 21st century. The Cauca Valley is already fully saturated with sugar cultivation; it's only a matter of time before that expands into neighboring departments, displacing traditional cattle grazing lands (which, according to the Ministry of Agriculture, are in desperate need of modernization with the introduction of feedlots and other standard methods of production in North America), and replacing the small scale trapiches with larger factories capable of producing both sugar and fuel.

Things have changed considerably in just the seven years that I've been regularly visiting Colombia. Most of those changes have been for the better—there's no denying that the country is safer and more economically stable than it's been in modern history—but there's something bittersweet about being able to catch glimpses of these traditional industries and products knowing that they may not be around much longer. At least not as we know them.