Travel Diary: Sourcing Açai in the Amazon with Sambazon's Jeremy Black
When surfer Ryan Black and his best friend, Ed Nichols, went to northern Brazil in 2000 to celebrate the new millennium, they discovered a delicious, colorful, healthy treat called an açai bowl. Almost immediately, they decided to make it their life's work to bring the creamy, purple, banana- and granola-topped treat back to California—and the rest of the world.
“They were just like, this is what we’re going to do with our lives," says Jeremy Black, Ryan's brother, who subsequently co-founded the company Sambazon with them to help them realize their dream. "We’re going to figure out how to get this back to California and open up a little shack. When they came home, they started working on a business plan and figured out that açai came from the Amazon. They learned that the sustainable harvest of it was actually doing good things for people, like providing more income and more jobs to protect what is a wild harvested crop. They saw this idea of like, wow, you can actually make the standing forest more valuable than cutting down the forest—and this was early, when social entrepreneurship wasn’t really a buzzword.”
In 2001, Sambazon started selling its products to local juice bars up and down the Californian coast. “Pretty soon, people were calling us in New York and Miami saying they had an açai bowl in California and they wanted it in New York," says Black. "Sixteen years later we’re all over the world—and, we were the first ones to certify açai organic.”
The trio wasn’t just looking to get rich. They wanted to do right by the environment, and the Brazilian people. “When we decided we wanted to do this, we knew we wanted to build a supply chain that could supply the world with açai—but do it right. So it’s organic and it’s fair-trade, and while we’ve been building a business in the U.S. and internationally, we’ve also built this world class, fair trade organic supply chain in the Amazon. It’s a state-of-the-art manufacturing facility. You can’t supply the world with açai and not do it right, so we had to become our own supplier of the fruit.”
Black, who is based in Malibu, goes to Brazil a couple times a year to check up on the manufacturing facility (while making time to catch a few waves, too). After 15 years of traveling between California and the Amazon, he fell in love with the country. “Brazil is one of the warmest, passionate cultures I think I’ve come across in the world. Most people think of Rio de Janiero—but Brazil is huge. You’ve got everything from the Amazon in the north to the beaches to the mountains to the Pantanal, which is like the Florida Everglades.”
Sambazon, which is best known for its juices and smoothies, recently launched some new products, açai superfruit packets with protein and greens, which offer a great way to get your antioxidant fix while traveling. The company also added two new flavors of its signature sorbets—açai chocolate and açai chocolate chocolate chip. And in an effort to give back to the community that has given them so much, the trio have also been working to build schools for children in the Amazon.
On a recent trip back to the company's manufacturing facility and the surrounding area, Black snapped these pictures for us. To learn more about the superfruit, how it's harvested, and what its health benefits are scroll through his slideshow.
The Harvest Begins
"The farmest that harvest the açai climb the trees like someone would climb a tree for a coconut, and they bring them down these 'brooms.' They call them brooms because that's what they look like, with all those little white things coming off. So they bring those down, and with those gloves on, they basically just strip those little brooms of the berries."
The Great Brazilian Amazon
"If you hopped in a speedboat or one of those other boats a little way off, this is the kind of scene you’d see. Those are all açai trees. This guy lives out in the forest. He harvests açai, and to get from place to place, he paddles around in his boat. See how high the trees are? They’re like 30 or 40 feet, and the trunk is skinny, but it's strong. I’ve seen people slice up their hands and shins trying to climb those trees, because you kind of wrap your arms and legs around shimmy up it like you would a fire pole. Even with the guys who do it a lot, they have the right boots and equipment. It’s like trying to climb a palm tree Tahiti to get a coconut—like, yeah, good luck."
The Sambazon Docking "Port"
"What you’re looking at is the Amazon River. These boats get loaded down with thousands of these baskets, full of açai, and get driven from up to 24-hour boat rides away from where our factory is. The boats don’t come very fast, but they can go a long way, and where our factory is in the Amazon, there are not a lot of roads. That's the dock of our factory, and you can see that it's slanted because the tides in the Amazon are really extreme. Sometimes it' level and sometimes it’s a really steep incline. You can see stacks of baskets, and these guy are just carrying two, three, four baskets at a time up the dock."
"This is just down the road from where the market is. It’s Macapá, the city closest to our factory. When you see that little red flag, which says “temos especial açai,” it basically means "we sell acai here." You see these little red signs all over the place. I love the colors of the buildings. The palms behind the blue building are actually açai palms."
Inside the Factory
"This is inside of our factory, where they get loaded from those baskets. The berries are being washed there, and then they’re soaked for about a half hour before they’re put through a machine that basically scrapes the skin off the seed. What you’re eating is the thick purple skin of the berry, which also has oil in it. So açai has the healthy oils that you get in olive oils, mixed with the dark, purple skin that you’d get in a blueberry."
A New Year's Sunset in Maresias
"This is my fianceé, Luiza. I took this picture last New Year’s Eve—December 31, 2015, around 8:00 p.m., as the sun was setting. She’s doing an end-of-the-year meditation on the beach in Maresias—I think Maresias is one of the best beaches close to the city of São Paolo."
Açai Seeds Galore
"This is a basket of açai seeds. Para planter means "to plant." That's a tiny little market in Santana, which is the little town where we built our factory. Açai is a regenerative crop, so when forests are cut down, it's great for regenerating the forest."
A Sambazon-built School
"That’s a school that we built. Part of our fair-trade project is that we’ve been building schools. We’ve built four in the last six years or so. This school serves 150 kids. It’s a few hours by speedboat from our factory. It would take most kids who live out in this zone three or four hours a day to get to and from the closest school, so a lot of them don’t even go to school. Now they can attend school without spending half a day in a boat. We’re building three more this year."
Açai, Brazilian Style
"This is at Maresias. This is a typical açai stand on the beach. You can see it says "açai na tigela," which means "in a bowl," and they’re almost like little ice cream carts. The cool thing about Brazil is everybody comes to the beach with next to nothing. For a buck, you get a chair, an umbrella, and there are guys walking by with everything you could possibly want to consume, from beer to oysters on the half shell. You need a hat, you need sunglasses, but everything else comes to you—you just sit there. It’s pretty fun."
Mountains of Açai Seeds
"We looked at our supply chain and we realized that with all these açai berries that are going through our factory, we were getting mountains of seeds. What we figured out was that if the seeds were left to dry, they could be burned to provide the fuel people for fuel their furnaces, instead of using forest wood. So we found a local brick maker who was cutting down huge amounts of trees every year to make bricks to build houses. Now he’s using our seeds, which we give him for free, instead of cutting down swaths of forest. We also converted boilers in our factory so that we could run the factory partially off the seeds."
Baskets of Berries
"Here's a beautiful image of stacks of açai berries that are waiting to be processed at our dock. Because açai is just the skin of this berry, it takes a lot of berries to make the pulp. If you buy one of our juices, it took about 100 of those berries to make that juice. There are massive amounts coming in and being processed everyday. It's been an interesting ride because of the amount of açai we actually need to process to make the product."
Bean Shopping in Pocos de Caldas
"This is Luiza again. She's at a little farmers market checking out different kinds of beans. This is called Pocos de Caldas, close to where she grew up near São Paolo. We were just loading up because there are so many amazing beans in Brazil. The diet in Brazil consists of a lot of rice and beans—they put beans in all kinds of stuff. So we like to load up before we come home so we have lots of good beans to cook here."
A New Friend
"There are beautiful parrots all over the Amazon. This is a wild parrot, but this is at an eco-hotel. Even though he’s wild, this parrot comes to this little spot because he knows there’s going to be food for him there."