A typical Mezcal still More Photos
Andres Amato, a representative of Slow Food International in Italy, is worried about the development of Slow Food activities in Mexico in general, even in the face of the 2007 International Slow Food Congress held in Puebla. His concern was recently expressed within the context of responding to an inquiry about Slow Food, Oaxaca and mezcal.
Its mission is to promote good, clean (not harming the environment, animal welfare or our health) and fair food. Quoting the Slow Food website, fair means "accessible prices for consumers and fair conditions and pay for small-scale producers."
Into modern times, traditional rural mezcal production has essentially maintained the character of an environmentally friendly, organic and sustainable living industry. Most production facilities, known as palenques or fábricas de mezcal, remain owned and operated by families in villages in and near the central valleys of Oaxaca, including state districts such as Mixe, Mixteca, Tlacolula, Ejutla, Ixtlán, Miahuatlán, Ocotlán and Sola de Vega.
All but a very small percentage of handcrafted or artisanal mezcal production facilities use agave espadín, similar to the blue agave used to make tequila. Espadín grows large and is easily cultivated with little ongoing care, maturing at about 8 - 10 years. At that time a stock shoots up. This stage of growth is optimum for then using the plant to make mezcal. The stock is cut down, and the plant is allowed to remain in the fields, the nutritional elements continuing to gather in the plant's base.
If the agave is to be used for reproduction, the stock is allowed to grow, and after a couple of months produces baby agave plants. The tiny plants are harvested and then planted in beds, where they are watered regularly for the first year or two of growth. Provided they are transplanted into permanent fields during rainy season, the agave require no further watering in order to reach maturity. Individual palenqueros have traditionally owned their fields of agave, or arrange with campesinos whose land is used to grow the plants to maturity.
To harvest the plant for mezcal production, the succulent leaves are removed, and the base of the plant, referred to as a piña because it then looks like a pineapple, is taken to the palenque. The discarded leaves are used as compost, or dried and utilized as a fuel for cooking foods or baking clay for making pottery. The stock is similarly used; it can also be utilized to make "log" cabins, capable of enduring decades if covered with cement.
Each fábrica de mezcal has at least one deep, round pit. Firewood, secured by scrounging the fields and forests, cut with permission of village elders, or purchased as seconds in the forestry industry, is placed in the pit and ignited; stones are placed atop. The firewood and rocks smoulder, and when the smoke has dissipated often a ritual prayer is recited during which time chiles and special bush branches are tossed on top. Then a layer of discarded fiber from distillation is placed over the rocks, followed by the piñas - whole, halved or quartered depending on size (each weighing roughly 100 - 400 pounds). Palm leaf mats were traditionally used to cover the piñas but now grain sacks are employed. Then earth is shovelled on top of all, forming a mound up to five feet above ground level - an airtight, in-ground oven. At times, and based on practices of particular palenqueros, logs are placed on top of the mound. During the rainy season tarps are usually used as protection.
After four or five days the baked piñas are removed. Once the rocks are taken out of the pit, charcoal is found at the bottom. It is either sold or used by the palenquero for cooking. Each baked piña is then chopped into small pieces with a machete, in a circular limestone area. A horse or donkey then drags a limestone wheel over the agave, rendering it a fibrous material.
In more "primitive" production today, the baked agave is mashed in a wooden trough using a tree burl with handle, or using a similarly formed wooden club. In pre-Hispanic times baked agave would likely have been rendered mash using this or a similar means rather than with the aid of a beast of burden - for producing a fermented drink, or if indeed distillation existed.
The fiber is pitched into a large pine vat, where it ferments as a result of contact with yeasts from only the environment, and the addition of water. After anywhere from six days to about two weeks (sometimes more, depending on ambient temperature), the baked, crushed agave has fermented naturally to the optimum point as determined by the palenquero.
The copper still is comprised of two principal parts joined by copper tubing, each usually encased in a square receptacle made of clay brick, mud and cement, or any combination. One side consists of an oven fuelled by firewood which heats the large enclosed copper pot; the other is a copper serpentine immersed in a tank of water, with a spigot at the bottom. The copper tubing joins the pot to the serpentine.
The fermented crushed agave fiber and accumulated liquid is placed in the copper pot where it heats. Vapour rises, continues along the copper tubing, and upon reaching the serpentine, condenses. "Mezcal" drips out the spigot, at this stage not ready for consumption. The copper pot is cleaned out. The liquid is distilled a second time, reaching the optimum percentage alcohol as determined by the palenquero, sometimes adjusted with the addition of water. The remaining water in the still, with no value for making mezcal, can be used for irrigation. The fiber which is removed from the still is used as compost, or when dried can be used as a fire starter, or to make adobe bricks (with the addition of clay and sand). Adobe bricks have better home insulation properties than traditional clay or concrete block.
In a 2005 article, Slow Food proponent Don Emiliano Restaurant in San Jose del Cabo, Baja California, Mexico, was featured along with a number of entrees prepared by chef Margarita Carillo de Salinas. Two of the dishes included tequila as an ingredient. While the brands were not noted, it is common knowledge that tequila is generally not considered a Slow Food beverage, given its leaning towards high tech and speedy production methods. Furthermore, entrees at $20 - $36 USD a plate back in 2005, could hardly have been considered "accessible prices for consumers, " certainly not within the context of affordability for most Mexicans and even tourists to Baja seeking reasonable prices.
Buyers of mezcal produced as it has been for hundreds of years, be they cantina owners, bottlers or consumers, certainly support mezcal as a Slow Food industry to the extent that, through their patronage they resist, by design or not, the disappearance of local tradition. But within the true spirit of capitalism they may not be taking adequate steps to address "fair conditions and pay," when paying these small producers between 25 and 50 pesos per liter for espadín blanco (100% agave, unaged), and even reposado (usually aged in French, Canadian or American oak barrels, a minimum of two months). In most cases these producers eke out a modest working class existence. On the other hand, their purchasers do keep an artisanal cottage industry alive.
There are numerous permutations of mezcal production techniques and modes of distribution and sale, capable of enabling one to begin to work towards constructing a continuum for evaluating the extent to which the Slow Food movement finds support in the Oaxaca mezcal industry. It's beyond the scope of this paper to enumerate each, but there is merit in noting a few, suggesting how particular distilleries might reasonably be viewed within the Slow Food context. It is also beyond the parameters of this essay to deal with the various means by which producers acquire their piñas, be it through harvesting from their own land, purchasing from others, etc.
At one extreme are families which produce mezcal using the traditional means. At the other is the Zignum brand of Armando Guillermo Prieto, as far from local production and Slow Food as one can get. In fact, there's a movement under foot grappling with the issue of whether or not a 100% agave - based spirit, so different in its method of manufacture from mezcal produced as we know it, should be termed mezcal at all. A decision will in due course likely be made by COMERCAM, the national regulatory board whose job is to create and regulate qualitative norms for the production of mezcal and its commercial distribution, primarily export. Is the mezcal produced by Zignum indeed mezcal?
Related to the COMERCAM / Zignum issue, but again beyond the scope of this paper, is the regulation of mezcal distribution in general; small producers' lack of access to international markets (except as noted below); and even their legal ability to supply cantinas and tourists wanting to take a bottle or two back to the US or Canada.
One is not permitted to export mezcal from Mexico unless a member of COMERCAM. COMERCAM has strict norms, rules and regulations for chemical and alcohol content of product, and labelling requirements. The pre-requisites for conforming with COMERCAM's dictates are once again outside of the purview of this paper, although it is noteworthy that they are beyond the capabilities of most producers of mezcal. But there are exceptions; the small scale producers who have both the capacity to ascertain the required knowledge and the desire to comply, and businessmen who act as conduits in facilitating producers' ability to tap markets in the US and Canada, and indeed further abroad.
We can examine a diversity of palenques and mezcal operations using a number of indicia of Slow Food:
Hilarino Olivera Cruz is representative of small scale rural mezcal production. His roadside two - still palenque is near his home village of San Lorenzo Albarradas. There are several palenqueros in San Lorenzo, and many more in San Juan del Rio, less than 10 miles away. Hilarino produces blanco and reposado made with agave espadín, but occasionally produces "designer" mezcal made with "wild" agave tobalá. He sells to locals, residents of Oaxaca, and commuters who live in the Mixe district and the odd tourist en route to Hierve el Agua. On occasion he gets a large order from someone in Mexico City. His palenque doesn't have a name, and his mezcal is sold loose (a granel or suelto), by filling glass or plastic containers up to 20 liters in size. It's priced between 35 and 50 pesos per liter depending on the product, purchaser and quantity. Hilarino's tobalá costs double or triple, the percentage increase well within industry standards.
Hilarino gets highest grades on many of the seven indicators. He loses a bit on pricing, but only because his mezcal is not easily accessible to the broader Oaxacan public or tourists, since the palenque is about 1 ½ hours away from Oaxaca, and COMERCAM does not permit Hilarino to export. But Hilarino is a member of a group of small scale artisanal palenqueros, trying to break the COMERCAM stronghold on distribution and export. He and members of his syndicate view the commercialization of the industry, technological innovation, and adulteration of traditional processes, as being harmful to the business of producing pure mezcal they way it was meant to be fabricated.
Right now, with Hilarino's particular clientele, seemingly by design his quality is not up there with that of some producers in other classes of production in terms of smoothness; but it's nevertheless pure, unadulterated mezcal, in keeping with traditional production methods. If Hilarino reduced his alcohol content from about 45%, to the 38 - 40% more commonly encountered in commercial production, his mezcal would be comparable to the more mainstream products enumerated in this essay.
Hilarino's quality nevertheless surpasses that of many commercial mezcal producers who sell in Oaxaca for five times the price. He takes all the right steps to ensure his product is organic, and waste is kept to a bare minimum. His fuel is firewood, purchased commercially and through patronizing neighbors who bring him the fruits of their labor, on the backs of mules. He uses unskilled laborers on an as-needed basis, exclusively fellow villagers, to assist in all stages of his handcrafted production.
Mezcal del Amigo
The family of Enrique Jiménez has been producing mezcal in Santiago Matatlán since the 19th century. He is the fourth of five generations of palenqueros. While a member of COMERCAM and indeed an exporter of mezcal to the US and France for upwards of 20 years (under different brand names), until 2008 Mezcal del Amigo was producing mezcal using traditional means, in the homestead of Enrique's father Isaac, along with brother Octavio. Enrique then decided to build a new facility in town along the side of the highway, using more modern techniques for baking, fermenting and distilling. A chemical engineer by training, Enrique determined that changing his production processes would not alter the essential nature and elements of his mezcal.
Enrique cooks his agave in a sealed brick room, running steam through tubes beneath the piñas. Diesel is his fuel. He is able to control temperature, and therefore adds precision to the process in terms of being able to better calculate when the piñas are at their optimum stage of readiness. The agave is crushed using a beast of burden. Then the nutrients are removed from the fiber through a washing process, so that liquid, with only a small amount of fiber, is fermented. This process results in subsequent steps progressing more efficiently. Fermentation takes place in pine vats. The fermented liquid is then pumped into the still using PVC tubing and a motor, rather than being carried manually using pitchfork, wheelbarrow and bucket.
COMERCAM states that Enrique's unique multi - chamber copper still provides the equivalent to double distillation, but Enrique distils again using a companion still, a bit different from traditional ones. His stills are also fuelled by diesel. He has a sophisticated water filtration system. Water quality is an extremely important component of mezcal production, so one cannot be critical of the filtration used by Mezcal del Amigo and the other fábricas noted below.
Enrique loses smokiness and traditional flavor by steaming rather than baking over firewood, although his blanco is clean and smooth. His reposado and añejo are surprisingly similar in terms of the flavor nuances imparted using old - style production.
Enrique runs a family business, with his wife and two daughters assisting when necessary, such as for bottling, labelling and packing. He also uses residents of Matatlán in the various stages of production. His operation is more efficient than previously, with less labor, thus adversely impacting employment of local workers. But he receives highest grades in a couple of categories, and on a scale of 10 never dips below 7.
The use of diesel is questionable, but does improve efficiency and consistency of taste. In fact, there are now traditional palenques in the more distant villages which are distilling using propane, producing their mezcal for export as members of COMERCAM. They are affiliated with established commercial exporters of artisanal mezcal such as Mezcal del Maguey and Alipus noted below.
The overall quality of Enrique's mezcal ranks above that found in most traditional palenques. Even in the days when he was producing using the methods employed by his father and previous generations, his quality was well above average. Enrique has recently built a traditional facility alongside his modern fábrica, which increases his overall ranking. His new, old - fashioned palenque is not simply for show (as is the case with some others), but rather enables Enrique to produce mezcal the way his father and grandfather did, maintaining the family tradition.
For export, the new Mezcal del Amigo facility is important in terms of being able to satisfy a non - Mexican palate by and large demanding consistency of product. Mezcal del Amigo overall ranks reasonably high in supporting the Slow Food mission, elevated by having extremely attractive pricing for a COMERCAM product. Labelled and sealed for taking out of the country, it's a bargain at 150 - 300 pesos for a 750 ml bottle. Industrialization of process is countered by not only price and maintaining the integrity of product, but by the fact that Mezcal del Amigo remains a family owned and operated business.
Mezcal del Maguey
Ron Cooper's Mezcal del Maguey ranks close to Mezcal del Amigo, his lofty pricing and accordingly lack of accessibility to consumers knocking him down a notch; this notwithstanding that he has recently introduced a blanco for 180 pesos. Otherwise, his prices range from 450 to 1300 pesos, the latter for his pechuga.
Ron and Mezcal del Maguey have been the best ambassadors for mezcal in the US, for over a decade. However, his prices in the American marketplace, significantly higher than his domestic prices, suggest that his products are available to nothing less than an upper middle class American sipping public. Most of his products, available both in Mexico and internationally, are sold with smart wicker packaging, a wonderful marketing tool, but nevertheless contributing to elevated prices (notwithstanding that he's helping the manufacture of the wicker holders). Coining the phrase Single Village Mezcal was a brilliant play on single malt scotch. Ron does not produce a barrel-aged product, relying on differentiation of his mezcals based on micro-climate growing regions, variety of agave used, and recipes employed by his producers yet tweaked by Ron personally.
Mezcal del Maguey is not a producer of mezcal, but Ron appears to know the business as well as any Oaxacan. In 1995 he began working with traditional village palenqueros, to produce his mezcal. He now works with six small scale palenqueros, four of which have been with him from the outset. He ensures that only traditional methods are used, which elevates his ranking in terms of clean production and sustainability. He points to the positive impact he and his partner Pancho Martínez have had on many lives and villages, such as contributing to the arrival of potable water, more substantial home construction, and making it possible for youths to pursue higher education which otherwise would not have been attainable.
It costs dearly to employ approximately 10 people aside from the actual producers in the villages, maintain organic certification (his current label is grandfathered into one of the two programs), and market a high quality product internationally. But Mezcal del Maguey comes about as close as a non - producer of mezcal can get to furthering the Slow Food mission - if only more people had an opportunity to buy his premium products. Ron says that for years he had wanted to provide an affordable and mixable mezcal, and hence his 180 peso entry level VIDA. VIDA is an average mezcal, now representing 45% of the total volume that Mezcal del Maguey sells annually. By promoting VIDA while marketing outside of North America, Ron may be detracting from his status as mezcal's best ambassador to the world.
Los Danzantes & Alipus
One would be hard-pressed to take issue with Restaurante Los Danzantes in Oaxaca as a supporter of the precepts of Slow Food, given the restaurant ambiance, food quality and presentation, and its pricing, at least relative to higher end non - Slow Food proponents in the city, and of course establishments such as Don Emiliano. But mezcal at between 329 and 679 pesos for 750 ml (blanco espadín and tobalá respectively), hardly translates to "accessible prices for consumers."
Los Danzantes produces mezcal under its namesake, and as well works with palenqueros in a few villages to market their mezcals under the name Alipus, to this extent similar to Ron Cooper and his Mezcal del Maguey modus operandi. Alipus uses 12 varietals of agave. It's labelling indicates village of origin and palenquero, once again similar to Mezcal del Maguey.
Héctor Vázquez, an employee of Los Danzantes, oversees the production of Alipus in the villages, and is in charge of mezcal production at the Los Danzantes distillery in Matatlán.
Héctor acknowledges that the Los Danzantes packaging (bottle, stopper and label content) may be considered "elitist." He stresses that Los Danzantes does not run a family business, and accordingly prices are inevitably higher than those of producers who are helped, for example, by spouses and children (i.e. Mezcal del Amigo). Los Danzantes bodes well in that it employs several Matatlán residents in its production facility, buys agave from campesinos, and has a reforestation project; but it's far from a small scale producer.
Los Danzantes bakes its agave the traditional means, using mesquite, supplemented by encino negro. However, it uses propane to fuel its stills. Héctor points to propane as a clean fuel, and notes the debate regarding the use of wood as opposed to propane or diesel. Héctor burns wood to maintain the traditional flavour of mezcal. Los Danzantes planting 1,000 mesquite saplings annually seems to be a rationalization for cutting forests, but of course it serves to maintain supply. Héctor also points to the use of a special type of cement used in constructing the stills, reducing heat loss and accordingly fuel consumption. Others employ the same or similar heat loss prevention techniques.
The facility uses an electric circulating pump to cool the water in the serpentine side of the still. Solar energy is being contemplated for the future. As in the case of Mezcal del Amigo and others, Los Danzantes uses a sophisticated water filtration system. Los Danzantes (including Alipus), as do the producers noted above, ferments naturally, using no artificial means to speed up the process.
Similar to the case with Mezcal del Maguey, it's clear that Los Danzantes and Alipus mezcals have improved the economic lot of a number of producers and their villages. The unanswered question, to be sure, is the extent to which the sharing of economic wealth between the producers and the sophisticated businessmen constitutes fair trade. Both Los Danzantes and Mezcal del Maguey, by reducing prices to consumers, could do even better for residents and their local communities and improve their rankings on a Slow Food continuum. At its Oaxaca restaurant, Los Danzantes charges between 65 and 125 pesos for a shot of its own mezcals. In fairness, Los Danzantes does sell other brands of mezcal as well; but it is effectively selling its house mezcal at a premium.
Benevá is one of the largest and most sophisticated producers and exporters of mezcal. Don Pedro Mateo and his wife Doña Violeta remain hands-on in terms of overseeing operations, traveling throughout the state to procure agave, as well as in sales and promotion. Benevá is found on supermarket shelves, in its own downtown Oaxaca retail outlets and in restaurants. It is much more accessible to consumers than Mezcal del Maguey and Los Danzantes, at 150 pesos for blanco, and 160 - 190 pesos for reposado and añejo; although the much more artisanal Mezcal del Amigo has comparative pricing. It does not appear to produce mezcal using agave other than espadín, and therefore would not be considered a "designer" product. However, it does make a gran reserva añejo, of similar quality to the Mezcal del Amigo añejo.
Relative to other highly commercial mezcals on the domestic and international markets, Benevá produces an excellent product. But Benevá is big, commercial business, and as much as it produces a spirit of reasonable quality accessible to the general public, it is very close to one end of the continuum. While on a tour of the production facility, when asked the difference between mezcal as produced by Benevá, and tequila, Doña Violeta readily admitted it's simply the variety of agave used, and climate in which it's grown.
Fueled with diesel, Benevá steams its agave in massive stainless steel drums. The agave is crushed using sophisticated machinery; the nutrients are then washed out of the fiber in a similarly high-tech fashion. Stainless steel receptacles with steam running through tubing in the middle are used to ferment the baked agave juice in only 24 - 36 hours, as compared to several days the natural way. Sophisticated diesel-powered stills are employed. Mezcal is produced as quickly and efficiently as one can imagine, in huge quantities, employing a minimum of personnel. Is the Benevá technology mezcal production of the future, surpassed only by Zignum?
Yes, Benevá is a family operation, and at its facility one finds photos of Don Pedro's father producing mezcal the old - fashioned way. But otherwise, the only vestige of tradition is at the Benevá - owned restaurant, Rancho Zapata, strategically located several miles away from the ultra-modern commercial production facility. Here, tourists can see mezcal being made using the pit with firewood for baking, horse for crushing, pine vat for fermenting, and copper and brick still. But it's a demonstration, albeit producing mezcal, serving an important marketing function - as more and more producers who have discarded true tradition have come to exploit.
The alliance between Slow Food International and Los Danzantes, if in fact it can be termed as such, is based on good intentions, and aside from the restaurant's prices for its mezcals, food is accessible relative to the competition in Oaxaca and elsewhere throughout Mexico. Its mezcals are another matter. Yes, Los Danzantes supports the Slow Food mission in terms of supporting small scale production under its Alipus label. But cost makes its Los Danzantes brand products inaccessible to most consumers, effectively acknowledged by Héctor.
Mezcal del Maguey has almost everything going for it, so much so that Slow Food International ought to forge links with Ron Cooper. Perhaps inviting a representative from Italy to visit Oaxaca, and look at the palenques in operation and the standard of living of the producers and village life, would go a long way to either illustrating that fair conditions and pay are indeed at work, or working towards price adjustment. It is suggested that regardless of the willingness of the two sides to work together on all issues, an accord can be reached.
Mezcal del Amigo, like many other palenques of its type, is illustrative of family run businesses which will continue into the future, and maintain their niches somewhere between the highest priced sipping spirits, and the Benevás. The Mezcal del Amigos in Oaxaca must adapt to survive and maintain their placement, and this inevitably means changing some of the traditional production methods. Survival is just as much a part of Slow Food as any of the other noted indicia. It is hoped, however, that what these producers lose in one dimension of the Slow Food mission, they make up in another.
Benevá is not going to change dramatically. It will maintain accessible pricing, because it can afford to do so, and at the same time will enter untapped international markets, such as Canada - just as McDonalds, Burger King and the rest did, and continue to do. Perhaps Benevá actually assists the Los Danzantes, Alipuses, Mezcal del Magueys and Amigo del Mezcals out there - and there are many - since giving consumers an initial taste of a basic, agreeable spirit might be just what's needed to whet the appetite for a higher end designer product - expensive, yet nevertheless sensitive to the Slow Food movement. As mezcal in Oaxaca moves through the 21st century, it must become more accessible to consumers as a quality spirit, while at the same time respectful of the Slow Food mission. Otherwise, Slow Food in Mexico will remain for the rich, and yes, elitist.
Alvin and his wife Arlene run Casa Machaya Oaxaca Bed & Breakfast, a unique Oaxaca b & b experience combining the comfort of a Oaxaca hotel with the quaintness and personal touch of a country inn and the privacy with full amenities of an apartment. Alvin writes, consults to documentary film companies, takes couples and families to the sights in and around Oaxaca, and together with Chef Pilar Cabrera runs Oaxaca Culinary Tours (http://www.oaxacaculinarytours.com).