One staple drink in Colombia, especially in the region where I’m staying, is called agua de panela – literally water and panela. No, I’d never heard of panela either before I met Wilfredo, but now I’m drinking this hot, sweet treat most days. His family is in the business. They have plantations and a factory where panela is produced and then sold on.
Panela is made from sugarcane. It’s picked in the fields that are wild and green with the plants, mountains looming in the background. The cut sugarcane is hauled back to their farm with a factory. We visit most days for an hour or so to check on production, but workers keep it going all night.
When the sugarcane is dumped off at the farm, it is placed a few stalks at a time into a machine where it is ground up. The juice is separated and flows into a big vat through a filter. The remains of the plant are hauled off in a wheelbarrow and dumped into a pit where a man feed it constantly into the massive fire that fuels the production.
The juice in the vat is heated and stirred occasionally, white foam scooped off the top to start the purification process. From there, a knob is turned to release it into another vat and then on to another, each stage cleaning out the impurities.
When the juice reaches the third vat, it boils and starts to change color. The workers monitor the changes and when it is ready, the use a large scoop to transfer it to next vat through another filter. It goes through a few more vats until the end when it has changed from a watery gray to the final desired thick caramel texture and color.
(Photo by Wilfredo)
From there, it is transferred into another room where square moulds are spread out on long tables. An employee scoops the liquid into these and levels it off with a tool similar to a giant spatula. After about half hour, the moulds have set and the final product is boxed up in a second room – 32 to a box. I helped box some up the other day just to see what it was like.
The boxes are then collected by buyers or driven to their destination. None of the sugarcane is wasted. By-products either fuel the fire or feed the animals that live on the farm.
Agua de panela tastes like a mix of brown sugar and molasses. Here, it is made on the stove with boiled water. In the bottom of the mug, you may find a surprise – a big chunk of soft cheese that is pulled out in long strings and eaten with a spoon. It’s similar to the way they drink hot chocolate – with cheese. Panela is also used in baking, as a sweetener for coffee and a variety of other things. It is healthier than purified white sugar contains some essential vitamins and minerals.
Colombia Reports published an interesting article in September last year noting: “There are 70,000 farms that grow panela in Colombia and 20,000 sugar mills that produce panela. The industry employs 12% of the economically active rural population making it the second employer after coffee. In total, 90,000 Colombians earn a living with panela.”
This is a video from a different “trapiche”, or panela farm, in Colombia, but it’s a good idea of how it’s made.