Barbacuá – an almost forgotten traditional method of production of yerba mate, used in the production of El Fuego. What is it and why do so few companies use it today?
What is barbacuá?
The word barbacuá in Spanish means “grate, grill”. It is one of the methods of drying leaves of Ilex paraguariensis, from which yerba mate is produced. This method is used in the stage of drying called secado, which consists in drying the plants so that their humidity does not exceed 5%. This is the second stage of production after sapeco, during which the plants are exposed to direct, brief exposure over the fire.
How did it start?
Fire and smoke to dry leaves of Ilex paraguariensis were used centuries ago by the indigenous natives of Latin America, the Guarani Indians, although they did so initially in a primitive form. They dried branches of Ilex by hanging them over the fire. Later, they created wooden structures on which they placed the plants they had collected. Underneath the construction, they would make a bonfire and the heat and smoke would rise up, drying the leaves and twigs. This gave rise to the drying method known as carijo, which was improved by the Jesuits by adding a canopy to the structure, allowing better control of the smoke rising from the hearth. The carijo method was replaced by the barbacuá, when, in the second half of the 18th century, a method was devised to separate dry mate from close contact with fire and smoke. The hearth was placed in a stone construction a few metres from the location of the dried plants, to which the heat was led through a special tunnel. The drying process using this method takes about 10-12 hours.
Barbacuá today. Why is it no longer so popular?
Today, only a handful of producers use the traditional method of barbacuá to dry Ilex paraguariensis. Modern companies have developed production, adding a number of improvements and innovations. Unfortunately, this method is not profitable for most of them, so they are moving away from it in favour of faster and cheaper ways of drying plants. Towards the end of the 20th century, the rapid tube-drying method, which makes the plants completely dry in just 30-45 minutes, became very popular. Large companies with huge plantations are thus able to significantly increase the scale of production, thereby increasing revenue and lowering the price of yerba mate. In 2015, a ban on cutting trees from the forest was introduced in Argentina, so that Argentine producers using the traditional processing method were forced to import wood from abroad, risking increased production costs. Over time, barbacuá simply became unprofitable. However, there are still a few companies that are faithful to tradition which, despite its higher price, is also of incomparably higher quality. Drying Ilex paraguariensis using the barbacuá method is also a current trend in Paraguay, where it is used both by small plantations and large, world-famous ones.
El Fuego – truly Paraguayan yerba mate
As befits a truly Paraguayan yerba mate, one of the steps in the production of El Fuego is barbacuá. Unlike most producers, the dried mate of El Fuego is exposed to hot, wood smoke for up to 20 hours. This affects the taste and aroma of the brew – smoky and very intense. Extremely long aging of the dried mate, which lasts 24 months, has an impact on its strength – it is highly stimulating and El Fuego yerba mate is considered to be one of the most energetic yerbas on the market. Typical Paraguayan yerba mate is dusty, has a characteristic smoky aroma and is bitter in taste – in these respects El Fuego yerba does not deviate from the pattern, but it stands out for its quality. It is made from the best, specially selected leaves of Ilex paraguariensis, which contain a huge dose of natural caffeine.