A stagnating magnesite mine led mechanical engineer, Robert Greaves down a winding road in search of a better means to generate an income from his small stretch of land in Malalane. “Planting sugar cane was an obvious choice, but I’m no good at farming,” Robert muses.
“I inherited a strong entrepreneurial nature from my dad, so I started scratching my head as to what else I could do.”
This was swirling around in his thoughts while on holiday in Mauritius – a country known for turning its sugar cane into rum. Sitting in a bar, facing a wall with over 120 rums on display, Robert was intrigued by the variety and started peppering the barman with questions.
“Eventually he got quite annoyed and turned to me to ask where I was from. When I said South Africa, he laughed and said, ‘You won’t know anything about rum. All you know is how to grow grapes and make wine’.
“But what he didn’t know was that I live in a valley with more sugar cane than the whole of Mauritius – with no rum in sight!”
This was all the spark needed to ignite Robert’s industrial spirit. Upon returning he went straight to his sugar fields to cut some cane, which he then put through his vice grip in the farm’s workshop to press the juice out.
“It took a gruelling two days to get 30 litres of juice, which I then fermented and put through a still that I quickly put together. A few weeks later I had the most revolting rum,” laughs Robert.
“But I kept trying and it got better and I kept building bigger stills and ramping up production.”
Today Mhoba Rum boasts 10 different kinds of rum, ranging from white, light spirits to darker rums aged in French oak barrels or in glass casks with American white oak staves.
It is a complete farm to bottle operation, where the sugar cane is grown, fermented, distilled and bottled on the same premises. Even the labels are engraved on site.
“This is a real authentic, old-school craft product where everything is done in-house. I strive to make as natural a rum as possible.”
Robert points out that the market varies significantly from the rum-and-coke market to those who can be compared to cognac drinkers, who enjoy a robust, barrel-aged rum without any mixes.
“This spirit falls into two categories. One is a more mass-produced rum made from molasses, which is mostly drank with mixes or in cocktails.
“The other is more of a craft rum made from sugar cane itself, called rhum agricole. Since we produce the latter, we took our name from the Zulu word for sugar, mhoba,” explains Robert.
The whole process has been quite an education and since starting out, Robert has shifted the direction he wants the business to take.
“I’ve learnt there is a difference between what the connoisseur wants to drink compared to your average Joe. Initially I wanted to produce smooth, easy drinking rum, but with exposure to the rum nerds in Europe I’ve started moving more towards the robust, bolder kinds.
“They want what is referred to as a ‘funky’ rum – a strong-smelling spirit, which is how it used to be produced before the big liquor brands came and toned it down. We have started exporting to Europe as a result.”
Robert reveals that due to the vast differences in tastes, marketing has been his greatest challenge.
“There have been shifts in demand locally and the craft rum scene is starting to expand, but we are still quite uneducated locally and the range of what the average guy drinks is small compared to international markets.
“But just like gin has had its revival, rum is on the up. It is reported that it will outsell gin in the UK this year. There’s just such a broad range and there is so much more you can do with it compared to gin.
“Rum festivals are popping up all over South Africa and consumption is certainly increasing.”
Robert is also in the process of setting up a tasting room on his farm, that borders the N4 en route to Malalane.
GET IN TOUCH
Contact Robert Greaves on 082-430-9501 or [email protected]