The Bielle distillery on Marie-Galante experiments with forgotten varieties of sugarcane to produce agricultural rum – A conversation with Jérôme Thiery

The Bielle distillery on Marie-Galante experiments with forgotten varieties of sugarcane to produce agricultural rum – A conversation with Jérôme Thiery

Jérôme Thiery: The Bielle distillery site has been here since 1726 and has had a series of owners. In 1975, my uncle Dominique Thiery took over management of the distillery from his great-uncle, Paul Rameau.

The Bielle distillery does not grow its own sugarcane. We work with multiple growers on Marie-Galante. Of the 100,000 tonnes of sugarcane produced annually by 1,300 growers, Bielle processes 6%.

Since 2015, we have been studying the typicity of sugarcane varieties grown in the past on Marie-Galante. We are currently focusing on three varieties – grey sugarcane, ‘Baltazia’ sugarcane and ‘genou cassé’ or ‘broken knee’ sugarcane.

We are also working on the dynamic maturation produced by transportation on a sailing boat. The tossing of the sea enhances contact between the wood and the spirit, and the sea air also adds a faint iodine touch.

Thierry Heins: Tell us about your work in safeguarding heirloom sugarcane varieties

JT: The three varieties we are experimenting with were all found in locations belonging to private individuals. These heirloom varieties do not have any prickly parts so they are easier to farm and can be cut by hand. We work with three passionate growers – Richard Chelza, Georges Damblade and Rudy Hamousin – who are fighting to protect these ancient varieties. They identified the ‘stock’ plants and propagated them in their fields to supply us with a little more sugarcane every year. Our 5 white rums – including our two rums from red and blue sugarcane – are fermented with the same yeast and bottled at the same ABV, namely 59%. This allows us to compare them and to highlight the DNA of each variety. It requires a lot of preparation work to ensure that all the other conditions are the same.

Picture @SpiritsSelection

TH: We actually met them when we were shooting our videos in March 2022, and they certainly are passionate about their work as custodians.

JT: In addition to being custodians, they also pass on to us their passion for growing sugarcane. All three of them will spend hours talking about the varieties and the care needed to look after the blocks of sugarcane to produce quality rum, with no weedkillers or pesticides for example. This calls for constant upkeep to prevent weeds from taking over. They regularly clear around the base of the sugarcane to air it and promote ripening. They leave straw on the ground to retain dampness and protect the soils.

“Working the land is a labour of love”, Richard will tell you. “It is important to take good care of the fields”.

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TH: Grey sugarcane rum is a speciality of the Bielle distillery. Can you tell us more?

JT: This is the first of the three heirloom varieties we experimented with. The first ‘grey sugarcane’ rum was released in 2015. On Marie-Galante, it is traditionally used by producers of sugarcane juice, or the cane honey obtained through evaporation/concentration. We had noticed that they pre-sold all the grey sugarcane syrup they produced, so we thought that maybe it was an interesting avenue to explore.

It is a hybrid variety of sugarcane that originated in Barbados. It is fine and very rustic with fairly mixed colours and it grows straight. It requires minimum upkeep from growers. It is fairly easy to harvest because it grows nicely upright. It is now sought-after by growers. Yields are low but it is so resilient that you are sure of getting of crop, come what may. Rudy played a significant role in propagating this variety.

In terms of flavour, the rum delivers very smooth, very rounded notes driven by fresh sugarcane and white fruit with some pastry notes. When you savour rum, what matters is that it strikes a chord with you – you may have different reference points or a different vocabulary.

Picture @SpiritsSelection: From left to right, Jérôme Thiery and Rudy Hamousin & Gautier Heins

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TH: How about Baltazia sugarcane?

JT: This is a very pretty variety, with purple, green and yellow stripes, which grows straight. It is easy to farm. This is a food-grade sugarcane which – just like grey and ‘broken knee’ sugarcane – was and still is used as it is, for sharing among friends and with children. This is not a type of sugarcane used to produce sugar or in distilleries.

In this case, you can feel the smoothness, the slight sweetness. It is very fruity and liquoricy, and very refreshing on the finish.

Picture @SpiritsSelection: From left to right, “Baltazia” and “Broken Knee” sugar cane varieties, and Georges Damblade

TH: ‘Genou cassé’ or ‘broken knee’ is a strange name for sugarcane. Where did it come from?

JT: This is a mysterious type of sugarcane, which is also food-grade. We have found nothing about it at CIRAD* or the CTCS**, nor in the literature. And yet, it is easily recognisable because it can have one, two or three breaks at the knots. This makes it grow uncontrollably, all over the place and even along the ground. All the older generations on Marie-Galante are familiar with it. It’s quite amazing – it must have come from somewhere, it must have been used for something. It is, however, difficult to plant and harvest and is fragile. We provide all our growers that are interested with the white ends – the part of the sugarcane that is discarded when cut – so that they can propagate it.

We have produced a few litres of rum from it on an experimental basis. The resultant rum is totally unusual. It is really very vegetal, very herbaceous, mineral and liquoricy – that is its signature style.

Thierry Heins

Picture @SpiritsSelection: Richard Chelza and the “Broken Knee” sugar cane

*CIRAD is the French agricultural research and international cooperation organisation working towards the sustainability of tropical and Mediterranean regions.

**CTCS is the technical centre for sugarcane and sugar.

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