The Brazilian cachaça brand Ypióca, until recently, was the oldest family-owned company in Brazil and it was both the first to bottle cachaça in the country and the first to sell the drink outside of Brazil. The company was founded in Ceará 167 years ago by a Portuguese immigrant with the last name of Telles de Menezes, who had only arrived in the country two years prior. While he died without seeing his company succeed, his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren have made Ypióca a household name.
These days, the company produces around 200 million liters per year, has over 3,200 employees, five factories in Brazil, and holds about 12% of a market with 4,000 competitors. Their sales, which are around US$100 million per year, are likely one of the main reasons the company was bought out by UK drink-maker Diageo (also responsible for producing Johnny Walker and Smirnoff) in May of 2012 for US$470 million.
Aside from the main spirits business which makes up 60% of its sales (across 20 products), Ypióca also reutilizes 100% of the bagaço, or crushed sugar cane refuse, to make recyclable products for their paper company, food rations for animal use, and electricity for their self-sufficient factories. They also sell water which they bottle and source themselves.
What’s in a name?
The company says the name Ypióca is Tupi-Guarani in origin and refers to a fertile, dark reddish soil called terra roxa (literally, purple earth/dirt), native to Brazil. Deciding to dig deeper, I found that this type of soil has been used historically for coffee production (and more recently, for other crops like sugar cane, etc). The Italian immigrants in the 1800s gave it the name terra rossa (red earth/dirt) which, when adopted into Portuguese, would become erroneously known as terra roxa. As for the claim that Ypióca comes from Tupi, there is debate (PT) since Tupi has no word for roxa and also “dark red” (the color of the soil) happens to be pitanguna.
While not being Brazilian, over the years I’ve been able to gain an understanding of certain brands and how they are perceived in the larger, Brazilian market. It just so happens that Ypióca, while being very well-known and despite the sales it does, isn’t a very favored brand. From what I understand, it’s kind of the “Bud Lite” of Brazilian cachaças, on par with Pitú (another brand). In general, this type of cachaça is called pinga in Brazil, denoting average to lesser quality and a lower price.
Keep in mind, most of what both I and Brazilians know about the brand is via Ypióca’s most recognizable product (in a straw, mesh encasement) which is an entry-level item and doesn’t cost much more than a few reais in Brazil. While researching for this article, I discovered that the brand is one of the leaders at the premium level so I suppose what Diageo is trying to do now that they own the brand is to remarket it and show off its other, more refined varieties to a larger market (or perhaps improve the quality of that entry-level item). In fact, they’ve already started to improve the image given the recent news that none other than John Travolta himself is in Brazil this month as the cachaça company’s new poster boy.
If you’re in the market for cachaça, I can personally recommend one called Espírito de Minas, and if you want to know what’s happening in the world of cachaça, check out the Cachaçagora blog.
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