“I’m fired up. It’s not about easy. We make rum the way we make rum not because it’s easy… it’s about the love of the game I guess”
It’s a scorching day in Africa, around 40 degrees - in the shade. The smell of burning wood staves, pressed sugarcane and distilled alcohol fills the air. Inside an old farm building, Robert Greaves celebrates his 41st orbit around the sun by tasting one of his fine creations. Set in between the oldest mountains on earth and the world renowned Kruger national park, Robert describes his MHOBA rum with an unprecedented passion - it’s almost a childlike excitement - an intense love for the craft.
The Greaves family has been farming sugarcane at the foot of the Makhonwja Mountains since the 1980’s. Malalane, the closest town to the MHOBA Sugar Estate, is known for its sugarcane, extremely high temperatures and tropical climate. One of South Africa’s Largest Sugarcane mills is also situated near the town and is a large contributor to the small agricultural town’s economy.
After school Robert left the farm to study mechanical engineering. He pursued a few business opportunities, but returned to the farm during the 2007-2008 economic crisis. Some of his business ventures weren’t experiencing their best days and he needed to come up with a few new ideas and consider other options. One of his main thoughts was to add value to the sugarcane they grew. Sugar refinery was just not an option with the mill on his doorstep, and he was forced to think of a more creative and unique way of adding value to their crop. The idea of developing a craft rum distillery sprung to mind after a holiday in Mauritius, but it wasn’t until 2013 that saw his first drop of white rum drip out of his self-made stills.
Robert jokingly says “As a mechanical engineer I like to think that I can build most things.” This is why everything that is part of the distillation process at the MHOBA rum headquarters was built with his own hands. Whenever there was some part or machine that he needed to fill the casks, he did some research and then built it himself - nothing was bought. As the Rum making process evolved he started getting a lot of compliments from people who tasted his creation and in 2015 he took steps to obtain the relevant license to manufacture rum on a commercial scale.
MHOBA Rum is not just any rum. MHOBA is a boutique artisanal craft distillery that makes handmade sugarcane rum. MHOBA is the only distillery that makes rum from the specific varietal of sugarcane that they use. Most distillers make rum from molasses, MHOBA is different though, they produce single origin pure Agricole style rum from sugarcane juice. This juice is extracted from their organic sugarcane that they farm on the MHOBA Sugar Estate. Agricole rum has its origins in the French Caribbean where they ferment the juice and then distil it to make rum. This is why MHOBA is known as an Agricole styled rum as it follows the same method as distilleries in the French Caribbean. It is not the real Mccoy but it is still unique as it is the only Agricole style rum in this geographical area.
Asking Robert What makes MHOBA special and unique, he enthusiastically explains the following “Many spirits and Rums these days are flavoured and adjusted, a lot of big producers and even some small ones are adding a lot to their spirits, they’re not true artisan spirits, they are adjusted with anything from sugar , to caramel, to glycerine. Our rum is a pure, single rum. Which is the rum equivalent to a single malt whiskey. Artisanally produced, pot stilled and we don’t add any colourants, flavourings or sugar.
The flavour character and quality of the rum is entirely determined by the skill of the person making it and determined by the quality of the ingredients, fermentation, distillation, ageing and the blending. Not by the addition of caramels, flavours and sugars. It’s real rum”. Strictly speaking their pineapple rum is not a pure single rum as it is flavoured with pineapple, the reason for this Robert says is because of a long traditional history of pineapple and sugarcane. These two crops are usually farmed close to each other and in the Caribbean and that there is a “sticky” relationship with pineapple. Robert adds “Making a flavoured rum was quite a difficult decision but I don’t see us producing any other flavoured rums.”
One can't help but to wonder if Robert would be interested in distilling other types of artisanal spirits, questioned about this he says the following:
”I am a rather fanatical person, so now that I am involved with rum I am obsessed with rum. Rum and the making thereof has taken over my life for a while. I am interested in other artisanal spirits like whiskey and brandy. There is a lot of synergies and similarities between pot stilled brandy and pot stilled rum. But for now, I’m crazy about rum!”