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Get a Sweet Taste of Cuba With Guarapo

Get a lesson on the sugar cane-based drink, which Rico and Brendan's tour guide calls "Cuban Red Bull."

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Regular listeners of the show may know Brendan and Rico led a tour of public radio fans through Havana back in November. In fact, you can see a few snapshots from their trip here.

Their guide, Alejandro Infante, led them around, and outside one of their tour destinations was a little stand selling what Alejandro told them was Cuba’s signature street beverage: Guarapo. Rico bought a glassful of it, pulled Alejandro aside and asked him to explain the origins of the sugar cane-based drink. But first, he told Rico a little about the historic literary locale they were standing at.

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Alejandro Infante: Right now, we are at the Finca Vigia, which this was the house that Hemingway bought in Havana in 1940. So, it is where he lived from 1940 until… you can consider 1961 when he committed suicide because — well, he committed suicide in the United States — but he considered this one his home.

Ernest Hemingway’s writing studio. It was on the top of a tower he had built in his villa on the outskirts of Havana. Here is where he wrote “The Old Man and the Sea” and many of his other works. And he had to take a nap or two in that chair, right?
Ernest Hemingway’s writing studio at Finca Vigia. It was on the top of a tower he had built in his villa on the outskirts of Havana. This is where he wrote “The Old Man and the Sea” and many of his other works.

Rico Gagliano: So, right in front of the house, kind of down the driveway from the house is this stand selling….

Alejandro Infante: This is guarapo. It’s sugarcane juice. So, in Cuba, this is.. I don’t know, like, the number one natural drink. It’s what we call the “Cuban Red Bull.” It’s sugar in its most pure form. It’s just a sugar cane pressed. You press the sugar cane. The juice that comes out — yeah, it’s just sugar.

Rico Gagliano: And what did you call this? You said that this was the son of rum or something.

Alejandro Infante: No, no, it’s the other way around. So, rum is the happy son of guarapo.

In a sugar factory, to obtain sugar, the sugar cane is pressed. And after cooking the juice for several hours, then a part of it crystallizes. That’s the part for where the sugar is obtained. And the second part, it becomes a very thick liquid, molasses, and is where the rum is obtained. It has to undergo several fermentation processes, but the first alcohol obtained from it is about 192 proof.

Rico Gagliano: So, you want to maybe tamp that down a little, maybe water it down a bit.

Alejandro Infante: Yeah, maybe like, you might want to add tons of water to that one.

Rico Gagliano: So, you get the cane juice. I’m going to try a little bit of this stuff. And I will say that every drink that I’ve had in Cuba is served with sort of a piece of fruit somewhere in there. And also, is this — jutting from the glass — is that a piece of sugar cane?

Alejandro Infante: Well, actually, this one is not the juice by itself. It’s combined with pineapple juice and lime, which is really refreshing. It gives a really refreshing taste.

Rico Gagliano: It’s really pretty, kind of an orang-ish, green-ish thing, probably from the lime, and I’m going to take a sip. [Sips.] Oh, that is really refreshing and really sweet. I feel like I could run about three miles if I down this whole thing. My understanding is that you can doctor this with its happy son, rum.

Alejandro Infante: Oh, yeah! You can crank it up. Yeah.

Rico Gagliano: Can we do that right now?

Alejandro Infante: Sure, yeah. Let’s go there and put some añejo — that’s aged rum. It adds a little bit of taste to the drink.

Rico Gagliano: That’s what I want: taste! That’s why I want the rum in there.

All right, so now we’re under kind of a tarp where they’re serving all of this stuff. And before I get my drink topped off with rum, we’re going to watch them actually feed sugar cane into this machine to press it.

There’s an enormous metal machine with a bunch of gears, and you turn this big wheel, and they feed huge stalks of sugar cane into it. And there’s juice squirting out all over the place. I actually just got squirted a little bit.

So, basically, a bamboo-looking stalk of sugar cane goes in, and out comes flattened, pulpy, ropey wood devoid of excellent sugar juice.

Now that we’ve seen the cane get pressed, I’m going to go over and get my guarapo topped off with some rum. The gentleman here just gave me a whole bottle of Havana Club to pour in. Oh, he’s saying, “Tip it [the bottle] up, tip it up!”

That was a mistake to put an entire bottle of rum in my hand and tell me to serve myself. There we go. Guarapo, the way Hemingway would want it.

[This interview has been edited and condensed.]