BrasUp founder Facundo Cabrera holds up two bars of ecological charcoal.GUILLERMO BILLORDO
The scene is repeated at every celebration across the country, from Jujuy to Tierra del Fuego. The Argentine barbecue ritual requires a few simple supplies: a grill, meat, salt, and of course, charcoal. The vast majority is of plant origin, coming from native trees such as Quebracho Blanco, Algarrobo Negro, Mistol, and Quebracho Colorado, among others.
Eight years ago, entrepreneur and industrial designer Facundo Cabrera launched a simply designed wooden structure that contained charcoal and an auto-ignition system. It was enough to put it on the grill and light the fuse to get the coals that would cook the meat for the typical Argentine gathering. He called his idea BrasUP.
“There was something from the original project that didn’t fill me up and made noise over time. I would go to the fields to look for coal and I would find thousands of bare acres. And nobody did anything with this situation. I figured there had to be something to replace charcoal. The aim was to end deforestation and create income and employment. A sustainable alternative that doesn’t rely on native trees, and that’s a good deal,” Cabrera said.
At that time and with this concern, he traveled to the United States to share his experiences in a program with 250 other entrepreneurs from the region. He got the town of Little Rock, capital of the southern state of Arkansas, famous for its rice production. Cabrera was born and lives in Corrientes, the main producing province of this grain in Argentina. This experience in late 2018 was a break in his life as an entrepreneur and he returned from the trip with the idea of making charcoal from the waste – the husks – of rice.
“We started with a 200 liter double-ended oil pan, into which we loaded the rice husks, made a fire and turned everything by hand. But it did not achieve 100% carbonization. Then we put an engine on it and it still hasn’t reached the ideal temperature. At the end of 2020 we went from prototype to investment. The first carbonator was a type of Frankenstein. The big challenge was scaling it up.”
Cabrera shows two of the ecological charcoal bars he makes.GUILLERMO BILLORDO
The elaboration process that they finally achieved after much research has as a starting point the roasting of the shell at high temperatures. After being crushed, it is mixed with a natural binder and water, then passed through an extruder to shape it. Finally comes the drying process. The idea was to create an efficient and profitable product for the barbecue from rice husks, a product that in Corrientes is mainly used only as “animal bedding” and mixed feed with corn for cows.
“The product is made entirely of rice husks and we only add a binder for the final pressing. However, we could also use other raw materials such as almond, peanut, walnut or corn kernels. Rice-based charcoal does not alter the taste of food and is even more durable than vegetable charcoal. The idea is to give the grill a product that is indistinguishable from charcoal. But in return you know that by using ecological charcoal you are helping to stop deforestation. You don’t have to take risks or sacrifice taste.”
In 2021, BrasUP assembled a franchise business model and received investment from a Spanish group. Due to the success of the initiative, it is moving its production to the Corrientes Industrial Park and will soon start its first franchise in Paraguay, with a production capacity of 600 kilos of green coal per hour.
“We’re taking a piece of waste that the rice mills throw away in industrial quantities and they didn’t know where to put it. We give jobs to many people, preserve the trees and help the environment. We offer the possibility of grilling without killing a tree,” says Jorge Giménez, Technical Advisor at BrasUP and responsible for building the mechanical parts of the first carbonator.
Promotional image of the ecological charcoal by BrasUp.GUILLERMO BILLORDO
Perhaps the most idiosyncratic dish in the country’s gastronomy, asado is a source of pride for Argentines. Proposing a charcoal-free preparation may be a “heresy” to some traditionalists. Cabrera believes that this custom will change over time and that there is already a wide acceptance among the youngest.
“When we created the auto-ignition box, some people criticized us and said it was a product for women, as if roasts were only for men. This backward ideology of the “alpha male” doesn’t work with ecological coal. The new generations understood it well. You want a change. These are the people who, for example, stop consuming carbonated drinks.”
The average annual production of charcoal in Argentina is around 400,000 tons. She is mainly from the north-central region of the country (Santiago del Estero, Salta, Formosa and Chaco). The one made with white quebracho is the most sought after in the world for its quality.
“There is little sustainable forest use in the country. What does that mean? That I take no more out of the bush than the bush will grow in any given time. This is how I make sure I have forest forever. If the extraction rate is higher, I demote it. It becomes an impoverished forest with little tree cover,” said Marcelo Navall, forest engineer and technician at the National Institute of Agricultural Technology (INTA) in the province of Santiago del Estero.
Control by the competent authorities is essential to ensure that the forests are not damaged. “The controls are complex and have a lot of holes that don’t allow you to say anything about handling in the forest. We should deal with this complexity and be careful not to dissect it where it is not allowed. For example, we could have a list of coal stoves. The control system we have is too late, already on the track.”
Navall points out that in most cases charcoal production is carried out by small, family-scale producers with two to three furnaces per unit. This activity means the effective income of many farming families living in forest areas. “The coal is not the villain in the film. As a forest engineer, I believe that the real challenge is to install the alternatives of sustainable production. If the coal comes from a clearing, the forests are destroyed. But if this is not the case, they can contribute to good management of the forest.”