Feni is finally Goan
Cashew feni, that quintessentially Goan beverage, faithful companion of many a rainy evening and the first go-to household medicine for mothers at home is now a Geographical Indication product. What Paithani sarees are to Paithan, Darjeeling Tea is to Darjeeling and Scotch whisky is to Scotland, feni is now to Goa.
It was on 23rd March 2009 that feni received the final certification from the Geographical Indications Registry in Chennai, culminating a long journey that began in 1997 when Valentino Vaz, doyen of the feni industry and founder of Madame Rosa Distillery read about an American corporation filing a patent for Basmati rice and resolved not to let that happen to feni. Mr. Vaz rallied the industry behind him, and both the Goa Chamber of Commerce & Industry (GCCI) and the subsequently-formed Goa Cashew Feni Distillers & Bottlers Association (GCFDBA) threw their weight behind the move to safeguard the future of what is perhaps Goa’s most famous product. Simply put, what the GI registration means is that while other cashew-growing regions of the country may brew their own liquor, they cannot call it feni and try to cash in on the brand equity of Goan feni that has been accumulated over several centuries.
Industry stakeholders are naturally elated. Says Mac Vaz, son of the venerable Mr. Vaz who now runs Madame Rosa Distillery along with his brother Cedric, “It definitely elevates the status of brand Feni, both from the point of view of the industry and the government. It is also a step forward from the point of view of the customer, who can now buy cashew feni with the confidence that it will be made only of the cashew fruit juice in the traditional pot still method.” Most industry insiders admit that the GI registration will have only a marginal impact, if any, on actual sales at least in the short term. But Gurudatta Bhakta, General Secretary of GCFDBA feels that the impact of this recognition will start being felt 5 years from now, as awareness about it grows and distillers and bottlers figure out how to take advantage of it. Mr. Bhakta, who produces the popular Cazcar brand of feni, says a lot depends on whether the benefits of GI are able to be translated into a better price and a better deal for the bhatikar, who is the first and most important link in the supply chain. The bhatikars are the cashew growers, some of whom distill their own brew and others who sell their produce to larger distillers and bottlers.
Most feni producers often cite a certain diffidence on the part of the State Government to promote feni as part of the marketing of Brand Goa, due to its being an alcoholic beverage with a somewhat down-market image. So while Goa has lately seen many wine festivals held under the aegis of the state government, home-grown feni has not been similarly promoted. Many feel that the GI recognition may spur the government to push the beverage aggressively at national and international fora, which will in turn open up larger markets for feni, especially in the rest of India. Currently, exports of feni are miniscule as most producers are happy catering just to the Goan market. Tukaram Haldankar, whose company produces the highly-rated Cajulana brand of feni, and who is also the vice-president of GCFDBA, feels the focus should be on improving quality and consolidating their existing markets. “In any case”, he says, “the production of feni is limited by the annual yield of the cashew fruit, which is notoriously weather-dependent and unpredictable. Also, though the area under cashew cultivation has grown over the years, the overall output has not increased proportionately due to falling productivity, meaning that unless cashew yield improves dramatically over the next few years, the annual feni output will still be just about enough to cater to the local market.” Mr. Bhakta feels that this may not necessarily be a bad thing as then the exclusivity of the drink will be assured.
The Feni industry is still largely unorganized though, and many distillers are simply unaware of the developments on the GI front, leave alone what it can mean for them. For most, the brewing of feni is a time-honoured family tradition, and there is naturally a fair amount of resistance to any attempt to standardize or homogenize the end-product. “Standardization of the process and product is the only way to move towards the ultimate goal of having a world class liquor. Unless we implement modern hygiene standards and methods like controlled fermentation, which enables a standardized end product, we will not be able to realize our dream of feni bottles rubbing shoulders with the best Scotch, Rum & Tequila brands on bar shelves. With more than 2500 different distillers, standardization will be a tough process to implement”, opines Bhakta. Despite this, he is excited about the prospect of small distillers recognizing the opportunity and branding their own produce to carve a niche in the market much in the same way as small distilleries in Scotland produce some of the world’s most coveted Scotch. “A better product will mean higher profits and will help arrest the slow decline of the skilled workmanship that is the bedrock of the industry.”
So what lies on the road ahead? Fresh from the GI victory, the industry head honchos have now trained their sights on the next challenge – the ‘country liquor’ tag. In the eyes of the Excise Department, all liquor produced in India falls under one of two categories – Indian-Made Foreign Liquors like rum & vodka, and Country Liquors like mahua, arrack & mosambi found in other parts of India. Feni being classified as the latter prevents the drink from being marketed outside Goa and lumps it along with other local drinks which are perceived to be on the crude side and suffer from a very down-market brand image. Goa’s feni crusaders promise to leave no stone unturned until this tag is changed to a more appropriate ‘Heritage Liquor’ tag. This may take as long or even longer than the GI registration, but Vaz and his colleagues are geared up for a long campaign. “This is the only way to ensure the long-term success of the feni industry. Our goal is to ensure that the cottage distillers and farmers get a better price for their produce and encourage them to bottle their own brands, while at the same time being cautious not to kill the goose that lays the golden eggs” avers Vaz. Cheers to that!
What is a Geographical Indication?
• It is an indication or appellation of origin used to identify agricultural, natural or manufactured goods originating in a definite territory in India.
• It is defined by special qualities or characteristics or reputation based upon the climatic or production characteristics unique to a geographical location.
• Once conferred, it gives legal protection to geographical indications in India and other WTO member countries, and prevents unauthorized use of by others.
• Examples of GIs from around the world include Tequila, Champagne, Kolhapuri Chappals & Gorgonzola Cheese.
Mac Vaz, Director, Madame Rosa Distillery (makers of the famous Big Boss & Goan Treasure feni brands) & President, Goa Cashew Feni Distillers & Bottlers Association, is the erudite spokesperson for the feni industry in Goa. A teetotaler and a self-described “Marxist capitalist”, Mr. Vaz spoke to Business Goa about his tryst with feni.
BG: How long did the whole GI process take and what were the challenges you faced?
MV: When my father started the endeavour in 1997, the central legislation under which it would be done was not yet in place. It was only in 1999 that the Geographical Indication of Goods Registration Act was passed by the Indian Parliament and the GI Registry office of India started functioning formally only in 2002. We also had to build consensus within the industry which, with more than 3000 stakeholders, was quite a task.
BG: What will be the game plan of the GCFDBA in the coming years to build upon this landmark recognition?
MV: I think the accent will be on improving the quality of our product so that feni can move up the value chain. In the short term, our production is limited by the yield of the cashew crop, so we hope to be able to work closely with government agencies to develop improved varieties of the cashew tree that will raise yields and enable us to increase production in the long term, which in turn will mean that we can put out more feni into the export market.
BG: How did you personally get into the feni business? Was it inevitable considering your father has been one of the pioneers of the industry?
MV: Actually, when I was younger I spent 6 years training to join the Indian Army as I thought that would be the best way to serve the country. It was only when my father made me realize one day that one need not be in the army to contribute to the nation that I relented and joined the family business.
BG: How do you see the feni industry 10-15 years down the line?
MV: I have often thought that if we can organize ourselves into an Amul-like federation, then that would be far more effective in terms of unified marketing, and also in ensuring that all stakeholders get a fair share of the pie. I am hopeful this will be a reality some day.
BG: With feni becoming Goa’s first GI product, what do you think should be Goa’s next?
MV: I seriously think that another facet of the Goan identity that is under threat is our long history of communal harmony. If it were possible, that would be next on my list!