“We believe that positivity spreads, perhaps even exponentially”. Interview with Dragos founder of Novo Fogo

Novo Fogo distillery
The distillery is a modele of no waste, zero carbon facility. Courtesy Novo Fogo

Novo Fogo means litteraly « new fire » . In many ways this naming embodies the monumental project carried and turned into reality by Dragos Axinte. Facing the environmental doom there are those who speak on social networks and those who act. Dragos, native from Romania, pure product of the American dream is definitely an inspiring leader in the second category. We believe he and his project can not only serve as a modele but also raise up the awareness of Cachaça this unknown galaxy within our sugar cane spirits category.

Cyrille Hugon : Dragos, nice to meet you. You are the owner/founder of Novo Fogo, could you let us know quickly what brought you to Brazil and into that project of Cachaça ?

Dragos Axinte : I was born in Romania and became a fan of Pelé and Brazilian soccer when I was 8 years old. This caused me to make a mental note that someday I should go to Brazil and see this magical country for myself. After my family’s move to the USA in 1991, we became entrepreneurs and eventually our business took me to Porto Alegre, in the south of Brazil, in 2005. During the course of two magical days there, I fell in love with Brazil, Brazilians, and cachaça. Over the next few years, I watched the cachaça category struggle to establish itself in the USA and eventually decided that I should get involved.

There was such a plethora of beautiful cachaça products in Brazil, yet very few had arrived north of the equator. I have entrepreneurial blood, so I saw that as an opportunity, which eventually led to the creation of the Novo Fogo brand. We launched it in my home town of Seattle, state of Washington, in 2010.

CH : You claim that your products and company are both organic and carbon negative. Let’s start with the organic aspects of the project. It is something super rare in our industry and most rum producers we know insist on the difficulties of growing organically in tropical environments ? How do you deal with the so many nuisances that one can meet when growing cane ?

DA : The environment is key and thus this is not an universal question and answer. First, we are organic because we respect our people and our land. We grow our cane on our property, very close to the Atlantic coast, in the mountains, in the rainforest, so the air is super clean. There is a very clear Morretes terroir here – sea salt, banana, lime blossoms, rainforest flowers, grass – so our cane is sweet and salty, tropical and savory. We want to preserve the cane’s original identity all the way to the bottle, hence the impetus to process it minimally and add nothing to it. We also don’t want to use chemicals, because the first victims of that decision would be our own field team, who would have to inhale those poisons. So we depend on nature to help us grow the cane. We are in the rainforest, so we get a lot of rain and sunshine; these are our fuels.

Novo Fogo - brazil crop sugarcane
Organic cane harvest with Emerson and Othero. Courtesy Novo Fogo

For fertilizer, we use chicken manure and our own bagaço (bagasse), the dried up sugar cane plant resulted from pressing. We planted fruit trees on the property to attract birds, and the birds eat the insects, so we don’t need insecticides. For weeds, we are clever about the geometries in which we set the cane plants in the ground, to create a ground cover of shade and reduce the sunshine available to potential weeds. We do a lot of pruning by hand; but we pay our entire team monthly salaries and benefits, not by quantity harvested, so they do all the work that is necessary, year round. This model is not perfect and the yield is lower than in other places in the country; but, while our quantities of sugar juice are perhaps lower, our quality is higher than average, and that is the first step in producing exceptional cachaça.

« Consumers and bartenders alike should become more insistent on asking brands for 3rd party certifications »

CH : You said to us that the certification you choosed was investigating beyond the only organic agriculture. Could you let us know more ?

DA : ECOCERT is the organic certifying agent in Southern Brazil for both Europe and the USA and they renew our certifications annually. They certify the source product, the production process, and the final products. In the course of their comprehensive review, they pay attention to more than just chemicals; they inspect our team’s working conditions, their work schedules, our building cleanliness, etc. This is the sort of certification that pushes companies to improve their overall behavior, so I believe that consumers and bartenders alike should become more insistent on asking brands for 3rd party certifications. We are also working with some NGOs to help them develop sustainability certification programs, especially related to the woods used in aging cachaça; this is a longer-term process.

Novo Fogo pot stills
Copper pot preheater, still, and condenser

CH : When it comes to the carbon negative part, you claim purchasing carbon offsets to cover all potential positive CO2 emission. Tell us how this works.

DA : Carbon neutrality means that you remove as much carbon dioxide from the atmosphere as you put into it. Carbon emissions (or greenhouse gases or pollution) into the atmosphere come primarily from the burning of fossil fuels like gasoline, oil, and natural gas, from deforestation and forest degradation, and from animal agriculture. Thus a company like ours can create a lot of pollution, if we’re not careful. Our journey starts with reducing these carbon emissions by evaluating every aspect of our business. We operate the distillery on a zero-waste basis and we try to avoid fossil fuels to the maximum extent possible. For example, we use gravity to move the liquid through the building, rather than motorized pumps; we use the head and tail of the distillate as fire starter, cleaning agent, and fuel for the tractors and cars; we use the bagaço as the burning material for the furnace that creates steam to heat the still; and we use heat from the distillation vapor to pre-heat the next batch. These types of things lead to nominal carbon emissions.

Pure water as it should be … Courtesy Novo Fogo

On the other side of the balance, there are things a business can do to remove carbon from the atmosphere; planting trees carefully and scientifically may be such a solution. On our land we have a lot of rainforest trees, which absorb CO2 from the air; our reforestation project increases the absorptions, as young trees sequester more carbon from the atmosphere than older trees. The calculations of how much CO2 the natural landscape on your property is absorbing is very complicated, and we spent two years doing the math with scientists and local NGOs that have studied the type of vegetation that grows in the area, growth densities, absorption rates, etc.

In the end, we decided that our emissions and our absorptions were in balance, thus our business could be considered carbon neutral. But this was not sufficient for us, as we aspired to a carbon-negative status, which means that we would absorb more CO2 than we put out. So we connected with a group in the USA named NativeEnergy, which manages carbon offset programs around the world. In a few words, through this group, we make cash contributions to specific projects that use this money to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions.

Novo Fogo forest
Atlantic Rain Forest near Morretes not far from São Paulo – Courtesy Novo Fogo

This is all very calculatable, so we can accurately match our carbon footprint needs with specific contributions to specific projects. For the last year, we have been supporting a project at the Seneca Meadows Landfill (a waste management company) in New York state, which transforms methane gas from trash into clean energy for 20,000 homes. In addition, this business has a certified natural preserve that hosts over 200 species of birds, including endangered species, and attracts visitors with similar mentalities. It is a good match for us, and the contributions we make to this project put us well into the carbon-negative status. We also use this type of investment to offset unplanned carbon emissions; for example, if we receive visitors at the distillery from Europe or North America, we contribute to the Seneca Meadows Landfill to offset the carbon emitted by the visitors’ airplane rides.

« The cachaça industry is complicit to deforestation in Brazil »

CH : Could you talk to our readers about the reforestation and endangered tree species protections that you have put together.

Dr Silvia Ziller Novo Fogo
Dr Silvia Ziller is a botanist in charge of the tree preservation project.

DA : The cachaça industry is complicit to deforestation in Brazil by seeking native woods for the aging process. But 300 species of native Brazilian tree species are endangered, including most of those used in cachaça aging. They may have been safe in the past, but the situation is changing rapidly; some distillers make mistakes because they don’t have this information and others don’t care – they just want to sell cachaça. We have been educating our audiences about this issue for several years, but about 18 months ago we decided to do more. The Un-Endangered Forest is our project to remove 30 species of native Brazilian trees from the threatened list. This is very complicated and at the beginning we had no idea how to do it, but we have found our way.

Our project leader is Dr. Silvia Ziller, a renowned conservationist, tree scientist, and invasive species specialist, who also lives in southern Brazil. She has created a list of 30 species that live in our region that are already threatened or at risk of becoming threatened; some of them are used in cachaça production and some of them are endemic, meaning that they only grow in our regions, so this puts them at higher risk. We want to plan a large number of these trees, in the right way so that they eventually increase their populations on their own, but this comes with a lot of problems.

First, we cannot find seeds or saplings (young trees) of these species anywhere, because they are so rare. To resolve this challenge, we have hired botanists to hike through the jungle until they find some of these specimens in the wild. They plot these trees on a map with GPS, so we know where they are, because we want their seeds; this is why we call them “mother trees.” We have a map that shows the location of every tree; so far we have 129 mother trees from 25 of the 30 species that we are looking for. Then we keep track of their annual calendar, especially when they produce flowers and fruit, so we can go back to them during those times and collect some seeds.

Novo Fogo
Planting rare trees is a rare treat. Courtesy Novo Fogo

These seeds are then planted in two nurseries: one of them is at Ekôa Park, our soul sister, a gigantic ecological park that everyone in the world should visit; the other nursery is at the local government environmental office, who are big supporters of this project. The seeds are carefully guided to grow over the next 6+ months, when they become ready to move to a permanent home in the ground. Originally we were planting all these resulting trees on our property, but naturally that is not big enough for the scope of the project, so we have recruited partner properties in the region. Currently we have 12 partners in an area that stretches along a 50-km line, with 7 more property owners ready to receive the young trees in the next round. Our production rate is increasing: originally we were planting a few trees at a time, then hundreds, and now we have thousands of seeds growing in the nurseries, being deployed every few months.

We believe that, within a few years, our project can reach national levels and eventually increase the numbers of these species by millions of specimens, eventually removing them from the threatened list. We are now creating a way to digitally track every specimen from the mother tree in the wild, to the nursery, and to the eventual permanent home. Every tree will have its own identity, just like humans, which causes people to respect them and support their proliferation. This way, we are the organizational epicenter of the project, leading with science and discipline, so that it can scale well beyond our own reach and make a significant difference.

So the way that your readers can think about planting trees as a positive activity is that first you must achieve quality and then you can deploy quantity; otherwise tree planting activities can be in vain and even damaging, if invasive species are introduced to the wrong areas.

“If they hide behind unanswered questions or generic responses, they may be on the wrong track.”

CH : We see more and more desire from producers to use what we call “exotic woods” like Amburana. You have clearly stated several times that a lot of the woods used in the cachaça world come from endangered species. How can consumers and producers make sure they don’t use these woods ?

DA : This is a very difficult question to answer and one on which we spend a lot of time. First, historically there has been no standard table of information about these woods for the cachaça industry, so we spent many months creating the first one. You can see it here. Second, there are ways to source threatened species of woods legally, but the situation is very complicated. You can buy this wood from the government or from a mill that has a management plan approved and recertified annually by the government; in both these cases, a Documento de Origem Florestal (DOF) must exist, certifying the wood source as legal, and the coopers must be able to show this document to distillers.

The distillation team all part of the philosophy of the project .. Courtesy Novo Fogo

The problem is that this document is often misused or even plagiarized; thus a source that falsely claims legality amplifies its lie up the supply chain, involving coopers, distillers, importers, and distributors, all of whom propagate the lie. And how can a consumer verify any of these claims from producers who are so far away? This specific issue is a major topic for our company and we are getting deep into it. We are doing our own research by visiting coopers and mills and inspecting their forests, their management plans, their certifications, and their documents.

Last August, after the Amazon fires, our distillery’s founder and managing director, Fulgencio Torres, drove around the Amazon for two weeks visiting mills, checking the landscape, for an assessment of how this situation is changing; so you see that we insist in acquiring information with our own eyes. It’s also important to us that we look at other issues besides legality, such as actual sustainability and ethics, so we are taking a broader approach to this problem.

We are in the process of organizing all this right now and will soon issue some guidance to other distillers on recommended ways to source Brazilian woods by verifying the verifier. For consumers, I would say that the starting point is to ask questions about the sourcing process; the more questions you ask, the more opportunity you will have to detect if the producer truly understands their supply chain.

It’s very important not to get hung up on the producers’ CLAIMS, which may be for marketing purposes only, but instead judge their TRANSPARENCY LEVELS. If they are willing to talk at length about their business, that means that they are honest. If they hide behind unanswered questions or generic responses, they may be on the wrong track.

CH : In your presentation there is a sentence that often comes back something like « when there is a threat grows an opportunity ». You seem to think without being naive that cachaca could be one of the solutions to help save Brazilian forests. Could you develop that…

DA : Cachaça is one of Brazil’s stewards to the world. In the spirits world, we have a built-in audience that wants to hear about cachaça. We can speak to them about the liquor, the traditions, the caipirinha, the culture of cachaça and Brazil, but we can also speak to them about the environmental impact of cachaça. Your readers in France may have a narrow understanding about these environmental issues that are geographically so far away, so we need to speak about them; I feel that this is no longer an opportunity, but an obligation.

Novo Fogo

In Brazil there are tens of thousands of producers, and many of them are not aware of these environmental issues or are afraid that minding them could alter their economic success. If we show them in concrete ways that you can have both respect for the environment and commercial success, and in fact that the first one may cause the second, then the industry’s negative impact to the Brazilian forests will improve dramatically. So we seek to lead by example and we continue to believe that positivity spreads, perhaps even exponentially.

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