ACCESS CUENCARum and milk processing tours attract different crowds

Apr 20, 2011

My first night in Cuenca, I attended an event at the Cuenca Chamber of Commerce launching its Cuenca for Expats program. I ponied up $100 to join the Chamber, buying access to the members-only content at CuencaforExpats.com and invitations to Chamber functions. (For that story, click here.)

However, membership in the Chamber also includes exclusive Cuenca for Expats events, under the able auspices of lovely Lorena Lopez, Director of Special Projects. Lorena arranges activities such as cooking classes and Spanish lessons and a trip a month. The trips are free to members and $5 per person for non-members and are great fun; to get on the CuencaforExpats mailing list, email Lorena at llopez@cccuenca.com.ec.

Last month, we toured the Cuenca facility where San Miguel, an Ecuador alcohol company, ages its rum.

This tour, which left from the Chamber building at 10 a.m., attracted a busload of gringos. I’m not a drinker, so I went to take advantage of my Chamber membership, check out the first Cuenca for Expats trip, maybe get a story, and see and be seen. Forty of us filed into a cold dark warehouse stacked to the rafters with big oak barrels full of alcohol, where the production and aging process of Ecuador-grown sugarcane into Ecuador-made ron was explained to us.

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Then we repaired to the tasting room, where we crowded around the tap for our free samples. I had two sips, just for a taste, but the rest of the crowd really got into it. Free booze! At 10:30 a.m.!

Then it was on to the office to buy a bottle or three at the special Cuenca for Expats price. People were applauded when they walked onto the bus, arms laden with firewater. Then the bus sloshed its way back to the Chamber at 11:30, with hooting and hollering and cheering and hat-tossing; I actually looked around to see which retired couples might swap spouses before passing out at noon.

This month’s trip was somewhat smaller and tamer. Five of us, plus Lorena, rode in a van to the NutriLeche plant, where local milk and juice products are processed and shipped. I don’t drink milk, either; that bad-boy lactose and I have never seen eye-to-eye. But what an interesting tour!

In an industrial sector 10 minutes from downtown, this is a highly automated plant with Swiss-made equipment that achieves Coca-Cola standards of quality (NutriLeche supplies boxed juices to Coke).

Ingeniero (engineer) Juan Carlos Romero, el jefe de gestión de la calidad (boss of quality control), greeted us by handing out blue coats, hairnets, and mouth masks. While we were donning our protective gear, he explained, all in rapid-fire Spanish, that his facility collects 250,000 liters (roughly 66,000 gallons) of milk daily. Small dairy farmers deliver their own milk; aggregators collect the milk from multiple farms and bring it in; and NutriLeche goes out to collect milk in their own tanker trucks.

Then he led us into the plant. Samples of each batch of milk go directly to quality control, where they’re checked for water content and antibiotics; if the milk is watered down or tests positive for drugs, the whole batch is rejected and that producer can be blacklisted.

 

From there, the milk is pumped into one of a number of big-ass storage tanks; the tank in the photo below is 20 feet tall and holds arouund 12,000 gallons of milk.  

From the tanks, the milk is put through all kinds of production paces: pasteurized at progressively hotter temperatures, homogenized by big mechanical agitators, vacuum-packed in boxes and bags that are stacked in cardboard boxes, and forklifted into the warehouse.

 

 

 

Meanwhile, samples of the packaged milk are sent back to quality control, where they’re left in a walk-in hot room at 100 degrees for eight days. If any bags expand, it indicates a too-high bacteria count and the whole batch is discarded. The lab workers pull a bag to test every 20 minutes.

 

The warehouse has room for three million liters of milk. The batches wait in the warehouse until all the test results have come back from the lab; once they do and they’re all negative, the batch is green-lighted for shipping.

 

 

Milk in Ecuador isn’t refrigerated (neither are eggs). There was no refrigeration at the NutriLeche plant, none at all. If anything, it was nicely warm, even uncomfortably hot. The bags and boxes are stored, shipped, and shelved without any refrigeration.

Like I say, I don’t drink the stuff, and after observing all the heat and mechanization of the production process, one can’t help wonder how much, if any, nutrition remains in the lactose water. But I can say this: The milk is about as safe as it can be – and all at room temperature. I can’t imagine how much electricity is saved here simply by not keeping milk at 40 degrees.

 

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