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Bacardi, and its yeast, await a return to Cuba

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At 6 a.m. on Oct. 14, 1960, Cuban national radio announced that the Communist government was nationalizing sugar mills and rum factories — including the island's most famous business, Bacardi. Cuban marines quickly headed to Bacardi's office in Havana with a one-page official document (riddled with misspellings) that gave them control.

However, Fidel Castro and his cabinet made a crucial error, and the repercussions live on in the world of rum today. They went not only to the wrong building but also to the wrong city.

Bacardi's headquarters and production facility were in Santiago, on the other side of the country. The marines responsible for seizing Bacardi had to catch a commercial flight to get there, and by the time they did, Bacardi's most valuable possession was gone from Cuba. It had already left the country, and anything left behind had been killed, completely — not a cell left alive.

Photos: Bacardi and its yeast

Daniel Bacardi had known he wouldn't be able leave Cuba for several more weeks, according to Tom Gjelten's book "Bacardi and the Long Fight for Cuba," and had planned the mass murder — committed by his most loyal staff — ahead of time. But the carnage was bloodless: What they killed was the company's unique strain of yeast.

"The yeast is the biggest asset the company has," said Juan Piñera, a master rum blender for Bacardi.

Piñera speaks in the present tense because the Bacardi yeast strain, born in Cuba almost 150 years ago in the roots of a sugar cane, lives on under heavy security in refrigerators at Bacardi's rum plants in Puerto Rico and Mexico, where Bacardi had the foresight to send it before Castro's takeover.

Bacardi gives tours of its Puerto Rico plant, along with free cocktails, though visitors aren't allowed into the building that holds the master yeast strain. But it is possible, with company permission, to get into the yeast room in the plant in La Galarza, Mexico — if you beg. You have to sign a disclaimer. But if you're a fermentation geek, it's the chance of a lifetime. How many yeast strains built an international company and were snatched from the grasp of Fidel Castro?

First you enter a bare-bones lab that has large beauty photos on the wall of the yeast — round white cells against a purple background, displayed the way others might decorate with shots of movie stars. Laptops hooked up to cameras on microscopes show the yeast's sluggish activity; when not being propagated, it appears to subdivide almost lazily.

Most of the conversation about yeast is here in the lab. But you're this close: You want to enter the inner sanctum. You ask again. And again. And finally, you're in.

Amazingly, the old, noisy GE refrigerator that holds the precious yeast isn't even frost-free. The yeast sits in a round container in a gel with micronutrients, waiting to be propagated. This is a big job: Bacardi makes 20,000 liters of a solution of yeast, molasses and water each time it starts to make a new batch of rum.

One might think that the yeast would mutate and evolve over time — it has been more than 50 years since both Bacardi and its yeast left their homeland. But Bacardi takes its yeast legacy seriously, using gas chromatography to make sure each new batch is identical to the last.

The Bacardis love this yeast; they need it to create the style of rum that made them wealthy. The reason they killed it in Cuba was to make sure the Cuban government couldn't get it. Bacardi's president at the time, Pepin Bosch, believed that eventually Bacardi would be its former government's competitor in the rum business.

That indeed happened, as Castro's government soon began making rum in the old Bacardi facility, with the help of a few of the Bacardis' most senior employees. At first they even called the rum "Bacardi," but the Cuban government lost trademark battles in courts around the world and soon shifted to the name it uses today, Havana Club.

The products aren't actually all that similar — and the unseized yeast is a main reason. Rum is distilled from either sugar cane juice or molasses, a byproduct of sugar production. Because molasses is easy to transport, rum can be produced anywhere, even in places like New England, where sugar cane could never grow.

Rum traveled the world for centuries with sailors who stopped in Caribbean ports of call and was, until the mid-1860s, a famously rough spirit that could only be smoothed by years of aging.

Facundo Bacardi started his family's company in 1862. Within a few years he created a lighter style of rum that proved a smash hit. Charcoal filtering was a big reason, but the Bacardi yeast strain — company records don't show exactly when Facundo isolated it — also played a key role. Its special characteristic is that it works fast.

"When you select a race horse, you select a horse that's fast and strong," Piñera said. "Our yeast was selected in exactly the same way."

Ironically, what was a huge benefit 150 years ago isn't exciting to spirits aficionados today. The Bacardi yeast strain converts sugar to alcohol so quickly that fewer esters and congeners are created — meaning Bacardi Superior actually has fewer flavor compounds than other rums. (It may also have fewer hangover-inducing compounds.)

Bacardi Superior today tastes light and slightly sweet; in order to taste much character in it, you have to use a neutral mixer like soda water. In comparison, a mass-market dark rum will usually have flavors of caramel and toffee, and a modern artisanal rum, particularly an agricole rum made directly from sugar cane juice, will have noticeable vegetal flavors, like celery or asparagus. These are what all rums used to taste like before the Bacardis' yeast breakthrough.

Why would anyone want to produce a rum with less flavor? Because of its light body and mild character, Bacardi quickly became Cuba's, and then the world's, rum of choice for cocktails. Even today, when agricole rums are all the rage in the cocktail community, some cocktail recipes call specifically for Bacardi because it doesn't assert itself over the other ingredients.

"It's an advantage in certain cocktails, absolutely," said Giovanni Martinez, head bartender at Fig & Olive in West Hollywood. "If I'm in a hot climate, humid and tropical, I'm not looking for darker flavors. I'm looking for something bright and light that I can accent with tropical flavors. I want something tart and effervescent and fruity."

Bacardi is still privately owned, and the family, scattered to Florida and elsewhere, is still fiercely loyal to its Cuban identity. During tours, visitors see a slide show in which current chairman Facundo L. Bacardi says, "The day is drawing near when Cuban exiles will be able to return home." If so, some of them will be traveling in a test tube with micronutrients.

Photos: Bacardi and its yeast

food@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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