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Mother Nature’s love affair with sustainability
The outside area at 1st Principles Distilleries where the gin tasting takes place.

By 1st Principles Distilleries Spokesperson

(20 Minute Read)

I never thought that I would be part of a generation who may very well be responsible, in years to come, for the destruction of our planet’s sensitive eco systems; but it’s true, we are the generation finding ourselves at a critical fork in the road that will leave us with only two options; either yield to the plights of the world’s most prominent environmental scientists and radically change our destructive ways, or continue along our current path and become spectators to a dying planet which, in a short space of time, won’t be able to maintain life anymore.

I was first made aware of increasing global temperatures back in 2006 with the award-winning documentary film An Inconvenient Truth written by Al Gore and produced by Davis Guggenheim. The documentary depicted a planet on its proverbial head and depicted images of raging rivers in flood, record-breaking torrential rainstorms and upsetting images of the death and destruction caused by hurricane Katrina. A frightening sight to say the least. What followed was a quick succession of documentaries, each one more concerning and scarier than the previous one. Films like Before the Flood, Our Planet, A Plastic Ocean,Sustainable and The True Cost, comes to mind, but brace yourself, they aren’t easy to watch. The world population is slowly but surely waking up from the deep slumber funded through corporate funded research and laced with the necessary eye-blind, to the reality of our planet’ calls of distress.

It’s clear that as a species, we have work to do, and lots of it. Governments, businesses, and international organisations have no choice other than to work together, share resources and to come up with innovative solutions and new ways of producing, consuming, building, designing, and developing to create a more sustainable world. This is one of the important tenets of Swedish environmental activist, Greta Thunberg, and although not everyone agrees with her views, one has to acknowledge that she has placed the global warming debate centre stage and she is a serious voice and influencer in anything environmental.

As consumers we need to become more demanding of our favourite brands and products. Companies must be willing to answer questions such as How are they producing the goods we use? Where and how are they sourcing the main components in their processes? Are the products produced locally? Is the process damaging to the environment? and many more.

But what exactly do we mean when we speak about sustainability, or going green or having a smaller carbon footprint from an agricultural perspective?

SUSTAINABILITY – TOWARDS A NEW DEFINITION

Traditional definitions of sustainability is usually expressed from two perspectives namely:

From an economic sense:

  • The ability to be maintained at a certain rate or level. For example, “The sustainability of economic growth”.

From a natural sense:

  • Avoidance of the depletion of natural resources in order to maintain an ecological balance. For example: “The pursuit of global environmental sustainability”.

Although there are other forms of sustainability such as political sustainability, social sustainability, financial sustainably, and many more. Sustainability is also often expressed across three macro levels namely the economic, environmental, and societal spectrums. It is clear that sustainability is complex in nature and an accurate definition pretty much depends on who you ask.

1ST PRINCIPLES’S VIEW ON SUSTAINABILITY

Gone are the days when having a single borehole with a windmill, or a dilapidated sun panel powering a small overhead spotlight can be considered to be effective steps toward sustainability. International legislation, formal memberships, accreditation, and certification measures have developed far greater requirements to achieve an acceptable level of sustainability in recent years.

Hands holding healthy soil with growing leaves in hand.

At 1st Principles sustainability efforts evolve around development plans; professional engineering and architectural consultation; long-term planning to ensure sustainable production methods; lowering the overall carbon footprint; continuous organic production; making use of local suppliers, and using local products are just some of the measures. Clients coming to the distillery for tastings sessions, are curious about these measures and often ask important questions about green production methods and environmental issues. This is the kind of activism we require to ensure companies make the necessary change to their processes.

An important lesson learnt over time, is that one can become sustainable through smart planning and you need to make sustainability principles part of your brand DNA. It doesn’t cost a lot more; it simply requires a bit of experimentation and tenacity to find practical solutions. This includes things like using locally manufactured glass bottles instead of imported bottles, eliminating plastics in all packaging (without jeopardizing quality), using local raw materials, making use of local manufacturing plants, and reducing the distribution chain.

The top thirds of many bottles with cork stoppers.
A cactus plant growing in upcycled 1st Principles spirit bottle caps.

A distillery is particularly reliant on heat production and by implication electrical supply. Thus, making use of solar energy in a variety of permutations is of utmost importance and one specific way of reducing the energy consumption and reducing the strain placed on local production capacities. The solar energy sector is also innovating in leaps and bounds, and new technological and capacity improvements are made daily.

To create another layer towards sustainability, 1st Principles understood the importance of recycling, reusing, and repurposing their products and goods. Using glass bottles thus made it easier for customers to recycle, re-use or repurpose these items. The bottle caps are made from wood, which can be repurposed, for example, as small pot plants which was suggested by one of our consultants (see image below). All bottled products are protected in transit with Virgin wood wool from exotic trees which is used as packaging material. The wool can be repurposed to keep fruit fresh or be used as compost in pot plants. As a special add-on, purchasers receive a handwritten note included in their parcels, to encourage them not to throw away the wool, but to re-use it in a natural way as a first principle.

The current still is an old still masquerading as a potting container before being restored to its former glory, yet another example of re-using instead of discarding it.

1st Principles, only makes use of the best quality products to produce their signature range of craft spirits. To serve this purpose, founder Joubert Roux is forever seeking out new producers of sustainable botanicals, crops, cultivars, and products.

One such a gem was Agulhas Honeybush Tea, a local grower and producer of Honeybush Tea, with its complex kaleidoscope of aromas, textures, and flavours, in the Overberg district by the Joubert family.

Here follows their fascinating story – a tale of true grit and tenacity and an overview of exactly what it takes to grow and produce a sustainable crop in close co-operation with mother nature.

CREATING WITH NATURE – THE STORY OF AGULHAS HONEYBUSH TEA

The entrance sign to Agulhas Honeybush Tea.

My first introduction to Agulhas Honeybush Tea (hereafter referred to as AHT), started with a few introductory emails, followed by a bunch of voice notes to Operations Manager, Nina Joubert, one of three daughters to founder and owners Van Zyl and Mona Joubert. We agreed that our busy schedules don’t allow for longwinded telephone calls and we opt for a flurry of voice notes sent back and forth. Over the course of a few days Nina sent me the promised voice notes, and I eagerly listened to them; as Nina’s storytelling voice carefully and meticulously shared with me the family story, I not only found myself dazzled by their difficult journey but also completely in awe of what they have achieved!

HUMBLE BEGINNINGS

The Joubert family’s journey started approximately 26 years ago, when they moved from the picturesque Tsitsikamma to their new family farm Toekomst in the Overberg district, in close proximity to the town of Bredasdorp. Soon thereafter, close family friend and famous Honeybush Tea researcher from the Agricultural Research Council, Dr Hannes De Lange, arrived with a bunch of Honeybush Tea saplings. Of the more than 20 types of Honeybush Tea species only about 5 are farmed commercially. To minimise his research risk in case of the infamous Cape veldfires, Dr De Lange included Toekomst in his research group and with the Joubert family’s help to plant and maintain the saplings, became an important research site. Dr De Lange conducted many years of critical research including studying the correlation between smoke treatment and germination, different harvesting techniques, insects promoting pollination cycles and which types of species were best suited to the coastal region and many more important findings.

A macro photography of Agulhas Honeybush tea against a bright blue sky.

The Joubert’s were no strangers to farming, having farmed with cattle, sheep, flowers and other crops, the inclusion of Honeybush Tea came as an easy add on. Nina recalls her primary and secondary school holidays often spent harvesting bakkie loads of freshly cut tea for a new client order. She shyly admits her disdain at the time, but now, years later, confesses that those early days of hard labour were actually the seeds of a deeper understanding of the entire cultivation process that were being sown, and today she relies on those experiences to manage the intricate production operations of the farm.

A few years later, Van Zyl realised that due to the quality of their tea, it was being used by processing plants to improve weaker harvests from other farms and regions. The idea of starting his own processing plant was slowly taking shape and he started making inquiries and doing his own research as to how such a processing plant must be built and operated. With the help of good friends, willing to graciously share some of their own lessons and know-how, Van Zyl with his cunning ability to realise a vision, sat down and created the first blueprint of what was to come. In no time he started procuring old processing gear at auctions and wherever he could get his hands on old equipment. His knack for repairs and maintenance soon saw (to the surprise of many) these once broken and damaged machines in top operating condition.

In 2008 they registered AHT, and while being an intensive farming operation close to nature, had not yet been certified as an organic producer at the time. While being certified as an organic producer was not initially at the top of mind, Van Zyl realised that the future development and expansion of the business was limited and decided to start the process and to make the necessary changes in order to meet the criteria to obtain organic certification. AHT received their organic certification in 2015 and has since then grown in leaps and bounds. With a growing concern and more international orders being placed, having been certified as an organic producer, was once again proof of Van Zyl’s insight and accurate long-term vision for the sustainability of the family business.

HELPING AN INDUSTRY GROW

Having walked the walk as they say, AHT decided to also give back to the industry and started numerous efforts to promote Honeybush Tea. They started identifying farmers in the Overberg who wanted to expand their agricultural repertoire on available land. The farmer needed to have the necessary motivation to make a success, considering how the relatively new Honeybush Tea was to the agricultural family. Farmers were carefully selected based on their personal drive and ability to get the process right from the first step, instead of trying to take shortcuts. In turn, AHT provided them with quality seed from their own seed bank, acquired after many a hard day’s harvesting by hand, including Christmas day when most families were on holiday or at the beach. In this industry, seed isn’t just handed out, it’s earned!

AHT would also certify such a farmer organic, under their own organic certification, until the farmer is large enough to do their own certification, as an independent grower, and produce their own seed. One of these success stories is AHT’s neighboring farm who will be certifying themselves as organic, as an independent grower, in the last quarter of 2021. AHT is especially proud of this organic farm, having achieved such a level of responsible farming, in less than a decade.

A farm worker sorting Agulhas Honeybush tea by hand.

AHT will continue to add more responsible organic growers to their organic certification, every time an older farm becomes self-sustainable. This model of farming strengthens the industry by bringing high-quality and personally cultivated Honeybush Tea to market; a matter that AHT views as a moral obligation and a personal responsibility. All of this is done to ensure the industry continues to grow and prosper and to ensure the region and South Africa’s Honeybush Tea is continued to be held in high regard.

AHT’s collaborations and consultation with new farmers include teaching farmers how to plant, grow and harvest the tea. A critical part of their support is to certify the farm as an organic producer which means going into all the details of explaining and training these farmers on current, local, and international, certification policies and procedures. AHT have truly become a major role player in their field, and they leave no stone unturned to see new market entrants be successful in their pursuits. AHT’s currently has five farms, including their own, certified as organic producers of Honeybush Tea.

Another important aspect that any new Honeybush Tea farmer needs to be aware of, is the challenge of sourcing farming equipment. The industry is new and not yet large enough to warrant large research and development budgets from local agricultural equipment companies. As a consequence, a farmer is reliant on customized equipment which can be extremely costly or borrowed from older agricultural sectors.

For example, an old diary or wine tanks double up as fermenting tanks for the Honeybush Tea; or an out-of-date tobacco cutter is used for cutting the tea; or new plastic crates are used to store dried tea; or greenhouse tunnels are used as tea drying docks, and sickles and fruit tree trimming scissors are used to cleanly cut the tea, the innovative list goes on!

Drying Agulhas Honeybush tea.

MANAGING A GROWING CONCERN

In spite of its constant growth and expansion, it has remained a family business at heart, and Van Zyl and Mona Joubert remains integrally part of the entire operation. In 2016 their eldest daughter Nina Joubert, joined the business to facilitate the operational management and sales of the various products, a challenging role which requires an in-depth understanding of every single element of the farming and production process.

Sister (Dr) Lize Joubert Van der Merwe, an Ecological and Conservation Post-Doc student from University of Stellenbosch, and owner of her own conservation consultancy, oversees the legislative and policy requirements for production, and ensures that all conservation policies and procedures meet the stringent legislative requirements of the Department of Agriculture and Cape Nature. This remains a critical component to ensure the sustainability of all farming and production activities.

Moné Joubert, the youngest of the three siblings, is a graphic designer and marketing specialist at heart, and she ensures that all packaging, branding, and designs meet the same stringent production and quality standards associated with AHT. She also ensures that the family legacy is protected and that the brand conveys a sense of what it means to be a family, and more importantly what it means to become part of the Honeybush Tea family.

AHT’s tea is currently being exported to the US and Europe and future plans may include Asia and Canada, once they meet the required organic certification requirements and once they can meet the required production demands. To address the local market demand AHT offers smaller quantities in re-sealable bags of 120 grams (teabags), 200 grams (loose tea) or 20 kg bulk buy options.

A farm worker preparing to dry Agulhas Honeybush tea.

What makes AHT’s story so special is that the entire development of the business up to this point, and this is also the plan going forward, is the time they took with each critical developmental step. Nina explains that their growth was always done with small risks and increment steps; one fermenting tank at a time, one new store at a time, one new drying tunnel, one more production farm. What this meant was, that if they made mistakes, it could be rectified because they did everything on a smaller scale. It’s not possible to rectify mistakes easily, if you decide to start with five new farms all at once, or if you construct four processing plants in one go, she explains.

There is a strong correlation between careful planning, slow execution, and gradual growth to produce a sustainable end-result. If anything, AHT is a living testimony of the time, patience and planning it takes to be sustainable and hugely successful – and it’s working. Time well spent is never a waste, and failing to plan is planning to fail, are such strong convictions, that they have almost become brand mottos!

With annual production now close to 60 Tons, they keep a tight rein on maintaining the quality of their products. There is an uncompromising belief in their production process. They perform exhaustive production quality checks every step of the way from how the tea is cut, to the aroma, flavour, and color of the end-product. This is what makes clients return for more year on year. One of the key principles at AHT is to nevercompromise on quality in the name of production, profits, or any other alluring market trends.

The current production cycle takes place in different batches, but the main processes remain more or less the same; cut (harvest), ferment, dry, sift, package, test, transport. This tried and tested process is the result of many years of trial and error and ensures that the process is manageable from a resource and delivery perspective.

AHT implemented a particularly important internal quality control measure in that they do lab testing of every batch of tea that is processed at their facility. This happens after the tea has been bagged-and-tagged. Once a batch of tea is packaged, it has to be tested and sent to two different laboratories where it needs to be certified to be safe for food-use and that the tea is organic (in other words free from pesticides). This means the product needs to be free from salmonella and e-coli. Once the lab reports are issued it is presented to the client for consideration. Once a client is satisfied with the batch, the order is given to release the order to the client’s warehouse. Without the proper lab reports the tea is not allowed to leave the facility.

THE PURSUIT OF QUALITY AND CREATING A LEGACY

AHT has come a long way and they have achieved a lot, not only for the development of the business but also for the benefit of the industry and South Africa as producer of Honeybush Tea. Besides a number of expansion plans, they are also currently busy with the development of a special Smartphone application to assist with the management of the production, processing, traceability, and certification of the entire operation. An automated process will greatly enhance the combination of multiple processes and will also aid in making more accurate predictions on future crops. It would seem that Van Zyl and Joubert’s visionary abilities have certainly been replicated in his offspring!

A person holding sustianably grown Agulhas Honeybush Tea in two hands.

AHT also invests in their community and employees. As the Honeybush Tea harvesting cycle is only six month’s it’s a challenge to provide full time employment to all their employees and many of them are seasonal workers. However, AHT makes considerable effort to empower and train staff by helping them get their learner’s and driver’s licenses to ensure they can be employed by the surrounding farms in other sectors. This simple yet life-changing project has been greatly received not only by the employees but also by the greater Overberg region can offer new opportunities to these trained individuals.

Sustainability in the minds of the Joubert family exceeds their own agricultural boundaries but goes beyond what can be reasonability expected from a family business. True to the definition of sustainability they also make a societal and communal contribution – proof that the one cannot survive without the other. Their philosophy of care is echoed in Nina’s own words “Give a man a fish, and you’ll feed him for a day. Teach him to fish and you’ve fed him for a lifetime”.

IN CONCLUSION

Sustainable production, or farming as in the example of AHT, doesn’t come cheap, easy, or overnight. It takes time, many years of dedication, discipline, being united by a common vision and the necessary motivation to work with nature to create something special and enduring.

In the early days at AHT, for example, new saplings were carefully planted in selected areas where they would best fit into the natural pallet. These saplings were closely monitored until the AHT team understood the optimal conditions required to ensure good growth. Plantations were also delicately harvested by hand in a way that would ensure a future harvest. This is what it means to be truly dedicated to working with nature rather than simply viewing nature as an incubator of profit.

The reason why sustainability is so difficult to achieve is because it comes at such a high price. To become sustainable one has to innovate, and to innovate means three specific things; you have to be willing to experiment, you have to be willing to admit your mistakes, and you have to be able to struggle endlessly, many times over! For some this is simply a bridge too far, and unsustainable quick fixes, often the easy way out, is simply just too tempting.

Hand stretching out to catch water drops outside.

Sustainability is without any doubt humanity’s way out of the self-induced global warming predicament. It’s the one tried and tested method that continues to yield remarkable results. Brands and businesses who spend the time to develop sustainable methods of production will continue to produce great products and services.

In echo of our efforts, mother nature in return gives us her returns many times over, almost as if we are her favourite children. Perhaps mother nature is indeed in love with those who love her first.

1st Principles Distilleries Logo on transparent background

1st Principles Distillery are the creators of some of the world’s finest hand-crafted spirits and are located in the picturesque and fertile Olifant’s River Valley in the town of Vredendal.

Owner and founder Joubert Roux is well-known for producing authentic products with a longstanding heritage, full of personality and founded on 1st Principles.

Keeping within the crafting traditions, 1st Principles produces ingredients on-site, and where possible, use locally sourced botanicals.  With an extensive online range of handcrafted spirits, cocktail mixers, natural ingredients and paraphernalia, 1stPrinciples Distilleries are the specialists for all your handcrafted cocktail supplies.

For more information, to book a tasting experience call us on +27 (0)27 213 2431 or send a WhatsApp to +27 (0)76 132 5614 or send us an email to [email protected]

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