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Colombians Ask: Who Would Dare Patent Panela?

Just downhill was another trapiche, visible as a skinny smokestack poking out from the cane. Under its aluminum roof was a scene Mr. Quintero hates to see: shirtless men smoking as they worked, chickens pecking around, someone passed out on a pile of cane fiber, wooden pans that can produce splinters. But this was the reality of panela across much of Colombia, he conceded.

It was 8 o’clock in the morning, and panela of an unusual, bright golden color was being stirred in pans when a pesador named Jimmy Buitrago showed up to work, late. He had been weighing panela at Don Manuel since 5 a.m., and before that at two other trapiches. He had not slept a full night in three days.

Mr. Buitrago, a wiry 18-year-old, seemed no worse for the wear as he scooped the warm dough quickly to form perfect half-kilogram patties on a table, then stamped them with the initials of the trapiche’s owner. Between fresh pans of hot syrup he sneaked in bites of breakfast. He had been doing this for four years, he said.

Mr. Buitrago was unaware of Mr. González’s efforts, or even what a patent was. Lucero Copete, who was packing the cooled patties in paper for market, explained it to him. “He wants exclusivity,” she said. Mr. Buitrago was incredulous: “Where’s he at?”

This panela tasted different than the kind at the industrial plants: richer, smoother and off-the-charts sweet. “Well, of course!” said Mr. Quintero, pointing to a pile of ruddy gold stalks waiting to be pressed. “Look at the quality of the cane.”

Panela is fussier and less predictable than table sugar, Mr. Quintero explained, because it contains all the components of the cane juice, not all of which can be adjusted. In small mountain plots like this, individual cane is selected for ripeness. The only additive is a little vegetable oil to keep the caramel from bubbling over.

The policosanol content of this deliriously good panela remained undetermined, and the farthest it would ever get was just a few miles down the road.

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