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  • Goa misses its Feni moments`

    May 7th, 2020

    Goa’s villages are missing a heady aroma this summer—the strong smell of fermenting cashew apples, being transformed into feni. The annual feni production season is here, but the distilleries, which were spruced up in January for the year’s production, are lying vacant. As Hansel Vaz, owner of Cazulo Premium Feni and the brain behind India’s first feni cellar, says: “It’s a complete washout.” Three days after the first batch of cashew apples arrived at the big distilleries in the state, the Union government announced a national lockdown due to COVID-19, halting among other things the production of alcohol. Feni, a heritage liquor of Goa, could not be distilled. Opinion in the state, though, was divided on whether feni and urak, the liquid after the first distillation, are food products or alcohol. “We have lost the main season at its peak,” says Regan Henriques, partner at Rhea Distilleries, who estimates the revenue losses for the state’s Rs 450 crore feni industry at 70 per cent. The government’s orders to stop production dealt a blow to the industry that has a two-pronged source of income. One is from cashew nuts and the other from the fruit that is pressed into juice and distilled into feni. The first distillate collected is a light aromatic drink called urak. It is sold in the market to bring in the first round of revenue. “It brings in cash flows that help people pay salaries and cover some of the expenses incurred on sprucing up the distilling facilities,” says Vaz. Unable to distill the cashew juice into urak, and then feni, farmers found it uneconomical to collect the fruit. A shortage of labour also affected fruit collection as migrant labourers promptly left for their homes near the border areas, fearing they could be stuck endlessly during the lockdown. The feni industry, says Vaz, accounts for barely 2 per cent of the total revenue collected by the excise department in the state. But for distillers, particularly the smaller farmers, it is a key source of income. With a short shelf life of a few months, urak is sold to local consumers as soon as it’s ready, but the cashew feni can last up to 10 years. As it gets older, the price goes up, increasing the profits for the manufacturers. “It is like a fixed deposit for farmers who can afford to wait,” says Vaz. Goa has an estimated 30,000 small distillers and six major players in the feni industry. Once viewed as a local brew, the state classified it as a ‘heritage spirit of Goa’ in 2016. Earlier, in 2013, feni was granted a GI (geographical indication) tag. Over the years, the clear spirit distilled from cashew apples has got a premium makeover, with barrel ageing and varied infusions. The villages, primarily in the hilly areas of Valpoi, Canacona, Pernem and Sanguem, have numerous feni distillers, both big and small. There are farmers with smaller facilities, who produce up to 1,000 litres in a year, as well as those who manufacture over 100,000 litres in a season. The feni-making season begins in the first week of March when the cashew apples start ripening and goes on till the end of May. Feni distillation is an intrinsic part of Goan culture. In the hilly villages, Christmas celebrations end with the frenetic activity of setting up the distilling facilities. Makeshift huts are built, existing ones are spruced up, the heavy stone-crushers for pressing the fruit are brought in and copper and terracotta pots for fermentation are arranged carefully. “Once the trees start flowering in November, distillers invest money in procuring the fruit through government auction and preparing for the season ahead,” explains Vaz. The amount of money to be invested is decided after analysing the potential crop that will fruit in March. Vaz, whose feni cellar launched at Cansaulim in 2019 offers a glimpse of the history of feni, says: “It is a cottage industry of Goa and a lot of farmers and distillers use the money they make by selling feni to celebrate the Ganesh festival. It is a tradition.” With most distillers importing glass bottles from China, the supply has been impacted since January, but that is the least of their worries. A large amount of the premium feni that is produced every year is consumed by tourists, in restaurants and shacks or bought from stores to take back home. The expected loss of tourism is set to reduce the sales of feni. “While the production loss is 70 per cent, the loss in sales is difficult to estimate right now,” says Henriques, who procures 80,000 litres of feni from various distillers every year. With the state likely to see fewer tourist footfalls, local businessmen expect several restaurants and shops selling crafts and local produce to visitors to shut down. With that, the cashew feni business stares at a spiritless year ahead.