Sugar cane stretches as far as the eye can see; rolling hills dotted with rondavels and small homesteads. The bumpy dirt road tests my little rental Ford and we slow down to avoid potholes and dongas, following far enough behind Tapanga Rum's 4x4 to avoid eating dust.
Stopping periodically to pick up workers waiting for a ride to work, the Tapanga vehicle turned into a compound with several buildings and we drove in through the security gates.
Mathias Wessels, the Director of Zululand Distilling Company aka Tapanga Rum aka Afrikole pulled his vehicle under the eaves, "This is where the cane is dropped" and we got out of our car, stretching our legs.
This vast building houses Tapanga Rum, a rising star in the craft distillery industry in South Africa.
Tapanga, the name comes from the name for the panga or slasher used to cut the cane, is the first distillery in South Africa to produce Rhum Agricole, created from freshly-crushed sugar cane juice in the classic Caribbean style. A single estate rum, all the cane fields are in close proximity to the distillery, keeping critical transportation times to a minimum. In the heat of Zululand, temperatures soar and cane will begin to ferment within just a few hours, so getting it to the crusher and into the tanks is probably the most time-and-temperature sensitive operation in the scheme of things.
Entering the still house, my eyes adjusted from the harsh Zululand sun and were immediately drawn to the spectacular 300 litre Arnold Holstein copper still, called Nandi, and the 8-plate column reaching high to the ceiling! Then I took in the four stainless steel jacketed fermentation tanks lining the wall and the stack of aging barrels resting in front of the office.
Inconspicuously but strategically placed, the manual sugar cane crushers were quiet but Mathias said despite initial problems with the Chinese-made machines, after a South African rebuild, they are each capable of crushing a ton of cane in two hours, producing about 1,000 litres of juice. Surprisingly, the juice is fed into the fermenters without any sort of filtering. Bits of leaves, a little dirt and bits of pulp all go in. "At the beginning, we asked our consultants whether we shouldn't be filtering the juice. They told us no. All those bits are exactly what the yeast needs, all the nutrients to convert the glucose to ethanol."
Due to high summer temperatures, the fermentation tanks are cooled down to an optimum 25C by chilled water from a large dairy vat, repurposed for the task. In winter, the fermenters are warmed by steam from an enormous wood-fired boiler, used in an essential oils business, also on the property.
Sustainability is a key component in this business and almost every action within the whole operation assists or supplements another. For instance, the bagasse (fibre remaining after crushing the cane) is used for compost, which in turn is used on the essential oil plants that include tea tree, rose geranium and rosemary. And the compost is also used on the macadamia trees being planted in place of sugar cane. The sugar industry is not as robust as it used to be so farmers are exploring ways of diversifying.
Mathias and his partners in the business, Greg Hill and Grant McMurray, are keen to expand the awareness of rum distilling as a viable option for sugar farmers. Mathias said that a lot of local sugar farmers are stopping in to see what they are doing.
With plans to create a Rum Route in the area, the additional buildings on the property will be converted into a tourist stop. "Between Durban and Hluhluwe on the N2, there is nowhere to stop or things to do. We hope to create a place people can just pop in." The little complex will most likely house curio shops and a cafe.
Tasting was a real treat. I love rum and many years ago, while sailing in the Caribbean, discovered Mount Gay. Since then, I have refused to drink plonk! The Tapanga white and gold rums lived up to and exceeded my expectations. Melissa Peter, the head distiller who is also the main tour guide and tasting room host joined us. She has done the Master Distilling course at Distillique in Centurion, South Africa she works closely with Mathias, developing the product.
Currently there are no formal tours or tasting room hours, but Mathias encourages people to phone or email if they would like to stop in.
Zululand Distilling Company (PTY) Ltd
Windermere Sugar Estate
PO Box 189
KwaZulu Natal 3800
Phone: +27 35 004 0007
Cell: +27 72 466 7900