Sugarcane is a large perennial herbaceous plant that is cultivated in tropical and subtropical regions of the world, and it is also one of the most efficient crops in the world in converting energy from sunlight into chemical energy.
This tall grass looks rather like a bamboo cane and grows 3-6 m high with stems 20-45 mm in diameter in which the sugar concentrates. Its thick and smooth bark goes from yellow to purple according to the varieties.
Sugarcane is primarily cultivated for its juice from which sugar is processed. Most of the world’s sugarcane is grown in subtropical and tropical areas. The plant is also grown for biofuel production, especially in Brazil, as the canes can be used directly to produce ethyl alcohol (ethanol).
The extraction of sugar is several centuries before the manufacture of ‘cane brandy’. Various countries such China, Indonesia, Philippines or India are cited as countries potential origin of sugar. According to Néarque, Alexander’s lieutenant in 325 BC, India was already producing honey from a reed without the need for bees.
So, if nothing specific about the first sugarcane crops is established, one thing is certain, the sugar cane is native to the Asian continent.
In the first century of our era, sugar is known in Persia and Arabia. The taste of sugar will spread through the trade routes of the Mediterranean in central Europe. During Antiquity and the Middle Ages, sugar was a rare and expensive commodity, as with spices such as saffron and nutmeg.
The Portuguese, who settled in Madeira in 1420 and the Spanish who completed the conquest of the Canaries around 1480 established on these islands important cane plantations. Sugar will be actively traded throughout Europe as early as the 14th century. Neither in the 14th nor in the 15th century is there any mention of ‘cane brandy’.
During the sixteenth century, sugar production was booming and gradually became a consumer product in Western Europe.
From the late 15th century, shortly after Christopher Columbus’ first voyage to America, sugar cane plantations developed in the West Indies, then South America, particularly in Brazil.
From 1505, Hispaniola produces sugar and the first shipment to Spain takes place in 1516. In the following years, sugar cane plantations were established in the other islands occupied by the Spaniards. Cortes introduced the cane to Mexico in 1519, Pizarro did the same in Peru in 1533. The Portuguese settled in Brazil produce sugar from 1520.
When the Dutch were forced to leave northern Brazil where they had settled since 1630, they were accompanied by Portuguese Jews, some of whom settled in the 1650s in the Lesser Antilles and brought their sugar techniques.
The development of plantations in the Lesser Antilles leads to the organization of the slave trade and blacks from Africa will form the bulk of the labor force. Sugar became the top colonial commodity. It was at the root of the ‘triangular trade’, where European shipowners exchanged trinkets for African men, who were then sold as slaves in America. The ships then returned to Europe with products from the colonies, including precious sugar.
It was towards the end of the seventeenth century that planters looked for ways to improve the profitability of the molasses. Transformed into alcohol, molasses provides a better investment return. For this alcohol, Spaniards will call it berbaje or aguardiente, the Portuguese of cachaça, the English of kill-devil or rumbullion.
From 1880, agronomists began to create hybrids between noble cane and other species. Modern varieties are all from these crosses.
The sugar cane stalk reaches 2 to 5 m in height for a diameter of 2 to 4 cm. It does not branch off above the ground, but the underground eyes give rise to other stems. A well-cut cane can have 10 to 15 stems.
Each stem is a succession of nodes and internodes: each node carries a bud and a ring of root blanks. Under the hard and waxy bark, the marrow stores the sugar. These stems, cut into cuttings of a few knots, are used to replant the fields every 5 to 10 years.
Sugar cane needs sun, water and heat. It is a perennial, which regrowths after each harvest. After five or six “regrowths”, the old plants are torn off and a “virgin cane” is planted.
The sugar cane is planted by cuttings of portions of stems that are buried horizontally.
As the growth progresses, the sugar accumulates in the stems up to a maximum called “maturity”: it is the optimal moment for the harvest. Harvesting involves cutting the stems leaving the lower part, the “stump”, to allow the plant to grow again.
In very hot climates, it can be harvested 9 to 12 months after planting or regrowth, while in less warmer areas, such as Hawaiian Islands or South Africa, it takes 18 to 24 months.
Once cut, the stems must be brought to the plant within two days, as the sugar content drops rapidly.