You may think you know açaí, that dark purplish berry that has found its way to your local smoothie shop. Everyone seems to be ordering up a daily açaí bowl with fruit, nuts and coconut. You probably know that it comes from Brazil and is full of antioxidants, though you’ve never seen the plant and you don’t know whether it’s a tree or a bush, or something else.
Sambazon, the most well-known and largest exporter of açaí, wants you to know not only where that berry comes from, but that it can be a tool for linking cultures. Sambazon is serious about investing in a sustainable Brazil, showing that edible industries can reach beyond mere food purveying. Owners Jeremy and Ryan Black, who first traveled to the country as surfers in 1999 and fell in love with the berry, are using their company’s resources and connections to build and refurbish several Brazilian schools.
Paste: Why did you pick the name Sambazon — was it just a portmanteau of samba and Amazon? You were surfers, but were you involved in samba dancing yourself when you visited Brazil?
Ryan Black: I wanted to say Brazil in the name, and came up with an acronym for Sambazon — Sustainable Management of the Brazilian Amazon. I only learned some samba after lots of practice many years later.
Paste: How would you describe açaí?
Jeremy Black: Complex, chocolatey, and jammy.
Paste: Is açaí at all endangered? How do you ensure sustainability while creating more jobs?
JB: Açaí is not endangered in any way; it actually grows wild all over the Amazon. Through the Sustainable Amazon Partnership (SAP), we have successfully helped manage 2.4 million acres of açaí in the Amazon rainforest, which continues to thrive today. With SAP, we have created a positive economic exchange for over 20,000 local farmers and their families, with biosocial indicators that continue to show that wild harvesting of açaí has a very positive contribution to social, environmental and economic conditions.
Paste: What makes Sambazon different from other açaí products?
JB: Sambazon is the OG … the original açaí brand, and we are the only açaí company that is tree-to-product as well as both organic and fair trade. We built our own state-of-the-art açaí factory in the Amazon over 10 years ago so we could control the quality from tree to tastebud.
Paste: Why do you think açaí bowls are getting so popular in the United States?
JB: In 1999, eating açaí bowls in Brazil was the inspiration to start Sambazon. An açaí bowl is the perfect kickstarter to anyone’s day because it’s energizing and filling, but doesn’t weigh you down — that’s why athletes like surfers love it so much.
Paste: Why do you recommend blending açaí with non-dairy liquids on your product packaging?
JB: We like to promote drinking nut milks. Dairy milk is for baby cows.
Paste: Sambazon sorbet is flavorful, but not too sweet. Was it a conscious decision not to overdo the sugar?
RB: Açaí is basically the only fruit around that actually contains no sugar. The fact that it has naturally-occurring omega fats, fiber, protein and tons of antioxidants makes it one of the world’s most powerful fruits. We wouldn’t want to mess with that too much, so we gently sweeten it to make açaí’s amazing flavor come through.
Paste: Who are Brazilian chefs and restaurants you admire?
JB: I love how Alex Atala is fiercely passionate about respecting ingredients from Brazil. The region had previously gone under the radar from a culinary standpoint, but it’s amazing to see a talent like him celebrate his home country through food. It’s a similar passion we felt about Brazil after experiencing açaí and the culture that came along with it in the Amazon.
Paste: When it comes to Brazilian food, what would you pair with an açaí drink, or how would you incorporate açaí into foods other than açaí bowls?
JB: I love to pair açaí with a white fish or have it incorporated into a chocolate soufflé. Chocolate and açaí pair deliciously together.
Paste: Any collabs with the clean-eating community, or with chefs or bakers?
JB: We have done quite a bit of collaborations — most recently, we have been working with nutritionist Kimberly Snyder, U.S. Women’s National Soccer player Christen Press and San Francisco-based chef Amanda Haas. They all love Sambazon and share a similar passion for healthy, honest, and organic eating.
Paste: Tell us about the schools you’re building.
JB: We funded the construction of four schools and refurbished three schools (supporting over 1,000 students) in Brazil to date, with three new schools in the works for 2016 that will be used for 500 more students. The schools are located at Comunity Rio Mariazinho, Breves, Pará; District of Mazagão; Comunity Limão do Curuá, Amapá; and District of Bilique.
Paste: Why was it important to build in those districts?
JB: In certain areas, kids can only attend school by a three-hour boat ride, so a lot of them stay home instead. Our schools are located in areas that are close to the communities we harvest from, allowing for easier access to education for kids that might not otherwise have an opportunity to get an education.
Paste: How were the Olympics?
RB: The Olympics were simply amazing. The world’s best athletes and their families, coaches and agents together with VIPs from all over the world, and to top it off the people of Brazil, who are passionate and live life to the fullest. I’m also really impressed and proud that the Brazilian government has done such a tremendous job shining a bright light for Brazil in the world. There has been so much negative press, but anyone who was here experiencing this Olympics knows what an incredible experience, city and country this is. Finally, this Olympic games has put açaí on the international sports map.
Paste: How were you involved with the Olympics?
RB: Sambazon partnered with Oakley to install an açaí bar at the Oakley Safehouse, a VIP lounge for athletes and their families to relax, watch the games, and eat tons of Sambazon açaí.
Paste: What was your favorite moment of the games?
RB: Watching Usain Bolt live winning the 100m and Wayde van Niekerk breaking the world record in the 400 meters was incredible. The energy in the Olympic stadium was so alive.
Paste: Sambazon seems to dominate the açaí market. Where does the company go from here with future goals?
JB: I’d love to see amazing açaí bowls available everywhere, not just in larger, metropolitan cities. It’s slowly happening — we started 16 years ago and it’s still early. We are also putting more resources behind our organic Amazon energy drinks because we know people want a healthier and better energy drink. The energy drink industry is slowly moving toward better-for-you ingredients, and I’ve love to see Amazon Energy fill the gap and replace some of the more chemical-filled drinks that do harm to your body.
Green açaí berry photo by Constantino Lagoa CC BY-SA. Ripe bowl of açaí berries photo by Lisa Cyr CC BY. Açaí tree by Dick Culbert CC BY