Travel in Colombia for more than 15 minutes and you will encounter panela, the country’s beloved brick of raw, unrefined sugar that’s used in all sorts of food including the ubiquitous aguapanela and guarapo beverages. One scary study estimated that Colombians consume more than 75 pounds (34.2 kg) of panela every year.  Residents of plenty of other countries love it too, though they call it by different names like chancaca in Chile, Peru, Argentina, and Bolivia and gur or jaggery in India.

Colombia produces 1.4 million tons of panela a year. It’s a major part of the economy and the country even holds an annual National Panela Pageant. Much of the panela is made in big factories, but some is still made in small, traditional, semi-automated workshops called trapiches. We came across one on the side of the road and stopped to watch the process of making panela–from sugar cane to finished brick.

Here’s how to make panela

Sugar Cane press extracts sugar cane juice

Step 1: Fresh cut sugar cane is put through a press to extract as much  juice as possible.

Sugar Cane Juice boiled and evaporated

Step 2: The extracted sugar cane juice runs from the press  into deep bins over a big fire fueled by the dried husks of pressed cane.

Sugar cane juice boiled and evaporated until it becomes a semi-sold

Step 3: Workers stir and transfer the boiling cane juice as it thickens.

Semi-sold sugar cane juice poured into molds

Step 4: Thickened sugar cane juice is poured into wooden molds and left to set.

Semi-sold sugar cane juice cools and solidifies

Step 5: The molds are left to set and cool.

Solid panela is removed from wooden molds

Step 6: Once the molds have set the panela discs are carefully removed from the wooden molds.

Solid panela is removed from wooden molds

Step 7: Cool and solid panela discs are stacked in preparation for packing.

Panela is packaged for sale

Step 8: Carefully packed, the finished panela is ready to be taken to market.

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