For me, the learning curve continues. What I’ve seen, heard and incorporated into my agave-based industries worldview over the past year alone, provides the impetus for revisiting the issue of sustainability as it relates to mezcal and pulque in Oaxaca.
This essay, more than previous ones, does presuppose a basic knowledge of traditional mezcal manufacturing methods and a basic understanding about how pulque is produced. But if you don´t have the
background, nevertheless read on; this short treatise might just be the impetus you need to visit or return
to Oaxaca, to get out into the fields, to meet with the palenqueros (small scale producers of mezcal, as
they’re termed here in Oaxaca), and imbibe with a different perspective and new appreciation. Mezcal and pulque production are indeed two of the most environmentally friendly industries in all of Mexico.
Mezcal has a history dating to 1578 if not earlier, and pulque’s past takes us back a couple of thousand years. Palenqueros’ and tlachiqueros’ (those who extract aguamiel to then allow it to ferment into pulque) traditions, accordingly, have included inventing and adapting over the course of umpteen generations. Each small family producer has eked out a modest living; using, reusing, and sustaining his environment as well as himself.
When it comes to the state of Oaxaca where most mezcal (but relatively little pulque) is produced, the diversity in climatic regions, geography and cultures inevitably impacts both the means of production and tools of the trade involved in growing and harvesting, baking, fermenting and distilling. Concomitant with the foregoing, then, is the range of sustainability models which relate to the processes. And so it is enough to restrict this essay to Oaxaca, mainly to a radius of no greater than a five hour drive from the capital, since this is my bailiwick.
At least eight species of the genus Agave are used to make mezcal in the state of Oaxaca. It’s been reported that most species are represented by upwards of 20 subspecies. Each subspecies is best suited to a particular micro-climate. With such a diversity of maguey (as agave is commonly known) it is not difficult to imagine the diversity of regions where mezcal can be produced, and with it the variety of nuances in the spirit. Where there are fertile, humid river valleys, one subspecies may be best suited, and on the steepest of slopes on rugged rocky terrains some 7,000 feet above sea level, another.
Agave Growth: Time, Irrigation and Fertilizer
Depending on the species of agave, reproduction may be achieved through germinating seeds, cutting off and planting the baby agaves which grow on the flower stalk, or transplanting runners known as hijuelos. Best practice dictates watering tiny agaves during the first year or two of growth. If the yearlings are transplanted into fields or onto slopes at about a meter apart during the rainy season, no further
irrigation is required for the subsequent eight or more years until maturity is reached. Greenhousing is not
required and generally not practiced.
If fertilizer is used, it is usually the decomposed feces of farm animals or the composted agave fiber which might otherwise be discarded after distillation. However the use of any fertilizer is the exception rather than the rule.
While weeding is frequently practiced, it is usually done for only for the first year or two after transplanting into fields or onto slopes. After this point in the growth cycle of agave, the plant generally loses very little of the nutrients from the terroir. In fact, it is common practice to plant other crops between the rows of agave known as circos, mainly cash crops which mature and can be harvested once and at times twice yearly. This
enables the grower to sustain himself and gain an income while waiting for his agave to mature and then either be harvested for his own production of mezcal, or sold to a palenquero.
While there are a couple of pests which can destroy the agave, a program of infrequent yet regular monitoring easily avoids a situation where a crop is wiped out.
Agave Leaves or Pencas: Though Not Used to Produce Mezcal and Pulque, Have Utility
Agave’s broad, fleshy leaves known as pencas are considered by some to be waste product since they are not directly used to make mezcal or pulque. However they have multiple other uses in the present, as they have in the past.
In earlier times the pencas were used to produce a green dye. The sharp point on species such as angustifolia could be broken off and used as a needle, the thin connected fiber as the thread. The point itself was used as an incising tool, to decorate pottery.
Today, just as in generations past, the pencas are processed into fine fiber and used to make a rope known as ixtle. The fiber is also used to make floor mats, market bags, clothing, bridles and muzzles for horses and other beasts of burden, and even paper.
While still green, the leaves of Agave americana and other species with large thick pencas are used in the ritualistic preparation of barbacoa de borrego o chivo (sheep or goat cooked in an air-tight in-ground oven). They are also used to fashion the spoon used in the condensation stage of mezcal production where clay pot production is practiced. Two or three green pencas are at times connected to form a trough for this stage in the distillation process, running between and above a series of clay pot stills, delivering water to each. When the steam rises to the metal receptacle with cool water fed by the trough, it condenses, falls onto the spoon, and exits the pot through a hole, to which a piece of river reed is attached.
The most common use for dried pencas is as kindling for starting fires and as a primary fuel source utilized in making pottery (rudimentary above ground or open air, or more traditional brick kilns), or for cooking, most frequently under comals, clay pots and iron grates for preparing, respectively, tortillas; moles, coffee, atole, tejate, etc.; and grilled meats and vegetables.
The Quiote or Flower Stalk: More than a Reproductive Organ
The flower stalk, or quiote, can extend to more than 20 feet, and reach 8” or more in diameter depending on the variety of agave. The quiote has been and continues to be used as a musical instrument, similar in form and sound to the alpine horn (alphorn or alpenhorn) in the old Ricola cough drop commercial. The shape, size and type of conical bore lend to its ability to produce a plethora of sounds, pitches, etc.
When still green, part of the stalk is occasionally ground with corn to make tortillas, providing a bit of natural
sweetness to the staple. But as with pencas, the quiote finds its greatest utility when dried. It is often used as firewood, and on occasion to build log cabins. It’s been noted that if covered with a layer of cement, a home built of quiotes can last up to 100 years. For whatever uses a tree trunk might have, so might the flower stalk of some agave species.
The Heart or Piña of Agave: Lifeblood of Mezcal, Pulque and More
The heart or piña of the numerous species of agave used to make mezcal and pulque contains the lion’s share of the nutritional value of the plant. In the case of pulque, once all the honey water or aguamiel has been harvested from the pulquero (as the species of agave used to produce pulque is generically known), the piña can still be baked, fermented and distilled to produce mezcal. However, with little
nutritional value remaining, it is generally not worth the effort. On the other hand, the hollowed out base does have a couple of ancillary uses. The remaining pencas can be shaved from it, and it can be left to dry. Hide can be stretched onto the top, and it can be used as a musical instrument, a bongo drum.
Another use is as a rustic, highly functional yet decorative flower pot. The more frequent use is as a log, for fuel.
Once the piña has been baked, crushed,fermented with the addition of water, and distilled, spent fiber or chaff known as bagazo remains, and is cleaned out of the still. It has multiple uses. Its immediate
and direct utility in the mezcal making process is to serve as an insulator. After the firewood and rocks have been placed in the pit used to bake the agave, before the agave is placed onto the rocks a layer of wet bagazo is placed on top of the rocks. This inhibits the piñas from burning.
When dried, the bagazo is at times used as a fire starter. However more frequently it is used as mulch, and if left to decompose for between six months and two years is used as compost. One palenquero with a sideline business of producing greenhouse tomatoes regularly uses his bagazo as mulch around his
tomato plants. When used as a compost, the bagazo goes right back into the earth to stimulate the growth of the next generation of agave.
When mixed with mud and sand, bagazo is used to form adobe bricks, having the same properties as adobe made with more traditional materials. At least two Oaxaca mezcaleros, and likely more, use the bagazo to make labels for their bottles of mezcal for export.
Wood: Seconds, of Any Tree, or Counter-Productive to a Sustainable Industry
This essay cannot hope to adequately address ongoing arguments regarding what fossil fuel is the safest, cheapest and least detrimental to the environment. What it can do is put forward factors in support of the use of wood as a renewable resource in the production of mezcal, and let the reader reach a reasoned conclusion.
Virtually any wood can be used to bake agave and fuel a still. Of course efficiency, flavor and aroma are impacted. Palenqueros are able to buy seconds in the forestry industry, logs which cannot be used for certain construction purposes because of quality issues. Some woods burn hotter and smokier than others, and they impart differing flavor and aroma profiles to mezcal. The point is that palenqueros have choices based upon economic considerations and what they hope to achieve in their mezcal.
When agave has finished cooking, usually after about five days, and the piñas, bagazo and rocks have been removed from the oven, charcoal, as opposed to ash, remains at the bottom. The charcoal is sold in grain sacks known as costales, or used as a fuel for cooking. If pine, it is frequently used in hearths for hand-forging cutlery, knives, machetes and a variety of implements and specialized tools, many of which are employed in the initial stages of mezcal and pulque production. Since pine charcoal is oxygen rich, it
is capable of yielding a hotter heat than most other woods, making forging easier and quicker.
I previously noted that green agave pencas are at times used to make spoons and troughs. So too are pieces of wood, hewn into shape from the logs purchased to be used as fuel.
Some mezcaleros are actively funding reforestation projects of saplings of their chosen species, so as to ensure a continuous source of fuel in their operations.
The Oven and Crushing Baked Agave: Crucial Steps Requiring Little Investment
The traditional in-ground oven used to bake agave in mezcal manufacture can be nothing more than a pit dug into the ground. Depending on the substrate, sometimes no lining is used. However when reinforcement is required, or the palenquero wants to impart a particular nuance, the oven is usually lined with river rocks. The stones which are used to retain heat during baking are generally secured locally.
The most commonly employed traditional means of crushing baked agave is using a beast of burden, that is a horse, donkey or mule, to drag a multi-ton stone wheel (usually locally mined limestone but sometimes a mix of other smaller stones and concrete) known as a tahona, over small maguey pieces contained in a circular shallow stone or stone and concrete enclosure.
A more rudimentary means which continues to be utilized to crush the baked maguey is using a heavy, hand-hewn, usually hardwood mallet often referred to as a mazo, and pulverizing the fleshy baked plant heart in a usually elongated shallow stone pit or a hollowed-out tree trunk. In either case the enclosure is known as a canoa, or canoe. Virtually no capital investment is required by using this means of preparing the agave for fermentation.
Fermenting Crushed Maguey: Nothing Goes to the Junk Yard
Crushed maguey with the addition of requisite water can be fermented in virtually any receptacle as long as it reasonably retains the liquid and does not lead to imparting an undesirable flavor or aroma to the mezcal. While pine slatted tanks are most commonly used in and around the central valleys of Oaxaca, other wood is also employed. However, these above-ground wooden tinas as they’re known, are far from the only options. At times a pit is dug in the ground, and once again depending on the substrate, either nothing more need be done to it to create a fermentation tank, or it can be lined with stone or wooden boards.
In Sola de Vega and Matatlán I’ve seen enormous hollowed out tree trunks and stone lined pits respectively used as fermentation vats. In both cases these were vintage and no longer operational, although presumably in certain locales they both continue to be used. Similarly, yet still employed today in some parts, hides and organ linings provide sustainable secondary uses for animal parts, imparting unique
nuances to mezcal.
Large plastic barrels and buckets, concrete and / or brick tanks, sterilized oil drums, and even the metal shells of broken down washing machines are used to ferment.
The capa which forms on the top of the filled fermentation vessels even has a use, to seal together the upper and lower chambers in clay pot production. It is similarly utilized with copper distillation, sealing each part of the copper apparatus to the other; the large encased pot to the top vessel, the top vessel to the tube extending across to the tank, and that tube to the immersed serpentine.
Water and The Still
The water used in mezcal production comes from diverse sources. Included among them, are rivers and streams with or without filtration, trucked in water which is filtered, and spring water. Of course quality is key for fermenting and mixing with mezcal to adjust alcohol content. However, for use in the still for condensation, it is of virtually no importance.
In terms of distillation, sustainability viz. water is noteworthy. In copper stills, water is left in the tanks, circulated, or kept running so that it is continuously changing and kept cool to better facilitate
condensation. In all cases it is reusable; for irrigation, for cleaning the still, and for as many other uses as
imaginable. Similarly once distillation has been completed the runoff can be reused, usually for
irrigation. Clay pot operations tend to be in regions where there is an abundance of water, and hence water is often not recirculated, but rather continuously flows into and then out of the condensation vessel, exiting to be used to irrigate.
Copper still mezcal production requires a significant capital outlay, but the casings enclosing the copper are generally constructed of clay brick or stone, with their mortar often consisting of mud. Cost is somewhat reduced if, for example, the serpentine is immersed in an otherwise unusable washing machine outer metal shell rather than in a brick housing. For clay pot production, the pots are produced locally, and once again the casing is usually brick or stone and mortar. The mortar is often a mix of mud and / or cement and / or, once again bagazo.
A Look to the Future: Sustainability in Agave-Based Industries
In Oaxaca recycling is practiced more out of necessity than a concern for the environment; it is one of Mexico’s poorest states. Palenqueros and mezcaleros, tlachiqueros, campesinos, and most others
integrated into these livelihoods, will no doubt continue to invent and adapt to their surroundings and to the vicissitudes of life, while producing mezcal, pulque and the innumerable other products made from maguey.
It is hoped that sustainability in these industries will continue, and that Oaxacans will find new ways to respect the environment, in the future more so out of an appreciation for mother earth than out of fiscal compulsion.
Alvin Starkman co-owns Casa Machaya Oaxaca Bed & Breakfast (http://www.oaxacadream.com) and Oaxaca Culinary Tours (http://www.oaxacaculinarytours.com). He is one of the authors of the most comprehensive, high quality bilingual color Mezcal Tasting Wheel. Alvin often assists visitors to Oaxaca to learn about mezcal, pulque and other traditional beverages, by taking them into the fields and to visit quaint rural palenques. He also works with those with a business plan in mind, be it export of mezcal, photography or within the context of documentary film making.
A means of marketing mezcal, and accepted practice, has traditionally been to suggest pairing a quality añejo (aged at least a year) with fine chocolate which contains 70% or more cacao. But a recent maridaje
in downtown Oaxaca aimed to push the envelope to limits barely explored, or rather enjoyed. Management of the retail outlet and tasting room of Mezcal El Cortijo teamed up with the chocolatier owners of a local truffle manufacturer known as Xhuladii.
Only weeks after the state of Oaxaca hit a new low in its attempt to lure spirits aficionados to the world of mezcal’s complexity and plethora of flavor and aroma nuances, residents of and visitors to the state capital were treated to a sampling of four premium El Cortijo mezcals matched with an equal number of chocolate
truffles, each filled with a renowned local delicacy, and in one case a traditional Mexican aromatic herb.
The evening began with a reposado con gusano at 38% alcohol by volume, paired with a truffle filled with tiny chapulines (salted and spiced fried grasshoppers, a typical Oaxacan snack food and ingredient in more complex dishes). The hint of barrel essence and honey from aging, and of course the subtle flavor change created by the gusano (popularly referred to as a worm, but actually a larva) matched exquisitely with
the combination of savory crunchiness on the chocolate’s inside, with its smooth, sweet exterior.
Next our hosts upped the ante with a madrecuishe at 46%, minutes earlier our palates having been primed for a higher alcohol content. Madrecuishe is a variety of Agave karwinskii, noted for its complexity. This one was grown in the Miahuatlán district of Oaxaca, celebrated for its rolling hills and climate conducive to the growth of this agave species. While the chicatana filling of the truffle accompaniment was a tad too watery, the unique taste of this seasonal insect, overly liquefied or not, provided perhaps the most exotic
of tastes one can ever hope to encounter in Oaxaca. The casing was comprised of three different chocolates. The consensus of the 15 or so attendees was that this pairing was the weakest of the lot, though no one could deny the quality of the spirit and truffle individually.
The third mezcal entry was another from Miahuatlán, an herbal arroqueño of the Agave americana var. oaxacensis sub-species. At 49%, it was paired with a truffle laden with a local herb known as hierba de borracho, or poleo, normally lauded for its medicinal properties. The hint of fragrant floral of the mezcal worked extremely well with and more than adequately toned down the strong notes of the leafy poleo’s spearmint / citrus character.
Our final pairing featured a mezcal made from an agave popularly known as a pulquero, in this case a variety of Agave salmiana, one of several species used to produce the fermented beverage pulque. The 46.3% spirit was matched with a semi-sweet truffle filled with coffee brewed from locally grown
beans. The mezcal tasted stronger in alcohol content than its stated percentage, potentially coming close to
overshadowing any specific flavor (though touted to be perfumado). It required a robust accompaniment. And so both the truffle’s chocolate and its coffee filling served the spirit well by softening its strength and allowing its perfume to emerge.
Those of us with substantial collections of different mezcals should take the time and effort to seek out equally diverse types of chocolate, including of course a selection of truffles. Experiment alone, with a partner, or better yet within the context of a gathering of like-minded friends. This all makes for yet another means to an end – the appreciation of the world’s most complex and variable spirit, Mexico’s own mezcal.
Alvin Starkman has been an aficionado of mezcal for two decades. He assists visitors to Oaxaca to source and sample mezcals from different part of the state, for their edification and personal pleasure and for business interests. Alvin operates Casa Machaya Oaxaca Bed & Breakfast (http://www.casamachaya.com) with his wife Arlene, Oaxaca Culinary Tours (http://www.oaxacaculinarytours.com) with Chef Pilar Cabrera, and http://www.oaxaca-mezcal.com.
In 2011, Oaxaca’s annual mezcal fair was a world-class event, well planned, well executed, and praised for its organization and the diversity of mezcal and agave related exhibits. Accordingly, the following year the suits decided to reconstitute the festival as an international event, upgrading it from its national status in previous years.
With the 2011 edition by all accounts the festival’s crowning glory, it appeared that the spirit-fest was heading in the right direction, perhaps indeed warranting a more haughty title. It is indeed ironic, then, and unfortunate, that in 2013, the 16th international Feria del Mezcal was marred with factional infighting, vendors who shouldn’t have been permitted to exhibit and sell in the first place, at least one federal agency snooping around for regulatory violators, and an inordinate number of booths flogging non-mezcal known as cremas.
The history of the annual fair and the hope for both its future and that of mezcal in general have been examined elsewhere, within the context of a summary article about the 2011 Oaxaca spirit
festival. At that time it was anticipated that improvements in subsequent fests would reflect not only
mezcal’s rising star, but a greater sophistication in the palate of its enthusiasts. So what happened?
The silver lining in 2013 was that indeed there was a somewhat greater representation from distillers with more than espadín, tobalá, reposado and añejo (that is, from some of the new kids on the block promoting
different mezcals); there were daily informative lectures; and due to the efforts of Matatlán resident Israel Pérez and his team there was a mockup of a functioning traditional distillery (though the organizers cut his budget by close to 50% which inevitably adversely impacted the spectacle).
Otherwise, Parque Llano where the fete was held appeared more like a travelling circus.
The mezcal regulatory body, COMERCAM, nabbed violators of one of its mandates, that ensures all mezcal offered for sale to the public is certified. Enforcing the law in a general sense is fine and dandy, except that there are only about 250 certified distilleries in Oaxaca, with it’s been estimated over a thousand producers.
Many small, family owned and operated and uncertified distilleries enable aficionados to sample spirits of superb flavor and aroma nuances not normally made readily available to the novice unless he or she ventures into Oaxaca’s central valleys or further beyond, off the beaten track.
COMERCAM appears to have been interested in warring with its bread and butter, the large factories, at least two of which were issued citations for either serving samples out of uncertified bottles, or outright selling those same bottled mezcals. Is the purpose of the mezcal fair to celebrate, promote and sell all mezcals, or only those certified ones, and if the latter, why even bother when so many exporters of premium product avoid the fair like the plague?
Or has the fair taken a significant leap, now purely intended as a money-maker and nothing more?
Certainly that did not appear to be the case two years ago when works of art centering upon the themes of agave and/or mezcal were displayed, and some of the participating artists gave workshops. The visual sense came alive for those who passed by the exhibition of photographs, oils, lithographs and watercolors. This year, by contrast, a select number of artisans of Oaxacan crafts were permitted to sell their works inside the fair’s gates, despite the fact that their wares had nothing to do with anything except making money and showcasing commercial grade Oaxacan folk art. Oaxaca has festivals for the latter purpose. Even so, just outside the inner walled sanctum there were well over 100 booths selling similar products. So why permit this few to cheapen the fair? Is it not the feria internacional del mezcal?
If it is indeed an international mezcal fair, why were there so few producers from other states represented, and why were there so many cremas (sweet liquors made with or without cream, milk or another whitening agent) being offered for sale, which are not even considered mezcals despite the fact that most of them probably contain a small amount of fermented then distilled agave? Regarding the former, economics likely played a significant role in the under-representation of extra-Oaxaca distilleries.
One friend asked if I had been to the feria de cremas yet. I waited until the second to last day to attend, and then better understood the sarcastic nature of his question. Upon arrival, a member of the feria
staff told me that 60% of those who entered the fair were female (men and women entered through different gates, thereby enabling organizers to keep tabs). It has always been assumed that women more so than men are drawn towards cremas, and so from a sales and marketing perspective it perhaps makes sense to have an over-representation of cremas available for sampling and sale. However cremas are not mezcals, plain and simple. Some don’t even use the word mezcal in their branding. If COMERCAM is policing a mezcal fair, should it not ensure that only mezcals are being promoted? Of course not, since that is not its mandate. The organizers perhaps?
While as indicated above, there were in fact more vendors than in previous years selling mezcals made with other varieties of agave than espadín and tobalá, and the reposados and añejos were represented adequately. On the other hand, some of the crema vendors were selling cremas and a reposado, and nothing more, not even a blanco. And at least one vendor excitedly awaiting certification of a mezcal made with agave tepeztate could only clandestinely offer samples to those he knew and trusted, for fear of pouncing narcs.
The behind-the-scene politics of the Feria del Mezcal in Oaxaca is beyond my knowledge, I need not be privy to same, and perhaps best if it remains that way. However, it is suggested that an independent overseer is required, someone who is capable of negotiating with producers, regulators and interested third parties, with a view to coming up with a solution to issues which appear to be festering and now maiming the fair’s reputation. The ultimate goal should be to attract mezcal aficionados, both domestic and international, who do not have the time to spend days, if not weeks, seeking out and sampling quality mezcals, certified or not. If cremas are deemed to have their legitimate place in an international mezcal fair, then perhaps charge an additional 10 pesos for admission to a special Salón de las Cremas.
Surely artisans wishing entry can be convinced to develop a line of products relating to the subject matter of the fair. Such a display would surely enhance the festival’s reputation. Cheese, salsa and other purveyors of
foodstuffs should be interested in attracting business by holding daily open seminars with sampling and combining each of their products with a different preferred mezcal.
Otherwise, subsequent festivals will continue to be mezcal fairs in name only, and the cirque du mezcal will live on and leave in its wake what could have become a world class celebration of mezcal and agave.
Alvin Starkman has been an aficionado of mezcal for two decades. He operates Casa Machaya Oaxaca Bed & Breakfast with his wife (http://www.casamachaya.com), Oaxaca Culinary Tours with Chef Pilar Cabrera (http://www.oaxacaculinarytours.com), and helps visitors to Oaxaca to learn about mezcal, pulque and other Oaxacan beverages and foodstuffs.
This essay centers upon sustainability as it correlates with direct by-products of small-scale commercial mezcal and pulque production. It synthesizes and augments earlier efforts on traditional production of mezcal and pulque as sustainable industries today. It is beyond the scope of this endeavor to even touch upon the historical utilization of agave, or its current uses unrelated to making fermented beverages and mezcal. It remains a work in progress and is by no means meant to be the definitive or a complete statement on the theme. Finally, the reader should be aware that it does presuppose a basic knowledge of traditional production of mezcal and pulque in Oaxaca.
Growth of the Maguey
Whether Agave angustifolia (espadín, still the most common variety of the plant cultivated for making mezcal), or Agave americana (generically referred to as pulqueros, the varieties used to ferment pulque), these magueyes as they’re locally known, thrive in desolate landscapes, where soil fertility is frequently low and rain is often restricted to a single season. They grow on both steep mountainside slopes and in fields. Naturally the length of time to maturity as well as size and quality of the plant are affected by climatic and other conditions; but the plant does well everywhere within a certain range of elevations in southern Mexico.
Baby agaves harvested from quiotes (stalks) are best planted in beds and watered once or twice a week during dry season. Then, after transplanting into permanent fields during rainy season, they require no irrigation through maturity, which usually occurs six to eight years hence. Fertilizer is not required. Ongoing care and tending is often non-existent, though periodic checking for infestations and weeding is practiced by many growers. Essentially, what the earth offers and the sky delivers are sufficient for producing agave prime for producing both mezcal and pulque.
Quiote, Leaves and Piña Left in the Fields
The quiote, while still green, can be milled and mixed with corn masa to make tortillas, yielding a foodstuff with a little more sweetness than the traditional staple. When dried, the quiote is used as a fuel, to heat clay brick ovens for making comales as well as other utilitarian pottery pieces in addition to decorative figures. The dried stalk is also utilized as a fuel for heating comales, grilling meats, boiling water, and a plethora of other uses. It has been used as a construction material, for making “log cabins,” and when covered with a layer of cement can last up to 100 years.
The hollowed out quiote of a number of agave varieties can be used as a musical instrument. The live entertainment which formed part of the presentation earlier this year of the first bilingual edition of Ulises Torrentera’s book, Mezcalaria, Cultura del Mezcal, consisted of a musician playing a series of different trompetas, as they’re known. The sound and form of playing was reminiscent of the Swiss mountain man playing the alpine horn (alphorn, a type of labrophone, bored from softwood) in the old Ricola cough drop commercial. The sound is more agreeable as part of a mixed instrument performance. Nevertheless, the performance exemplified yet a further example of the versatility of the quiote.
The thick, broad leaves of Agave americana, but more commonly the succulent protrusions of angustifolia, are encountered bundled and drying on the rooftops of village homes in agave growing country, particularly in areas where production of pottery is a cottage or more commercial industry. As with the quiote, the leaves are employed as a fuel, sometimes as simply a fire starter, but regularly as a primary “firewood” if you will, for fueling pottery ovens, heating comales, grills and clay pots, and for preparing traditional Oaxacan beverages found in marketplaces throughout the state such as chilacayota, and more often tejate, the corn and cacao based highly nutritional drink of pre-Hispanic origins.
In the production of pulque, at the initial phase of preparing to carve out a well in the heart of the agave for the extraction of aguamiel, leaves are removed. And over the course of ensuing weeks and months as the plant is being tapped twice daily, additional leaves are excised from the living and indeed still green agave. These fresh leaves are almost always used to add flavor to traditional barbacoa, the goat, sheep or beef prepared in an in-ground oven. After each extraction of aguamiel, a layer of flesh from inside the well is scraped away in order to help the plant to “bleed” once more. The scrapings are often used as chicken feed.
When the pulquero has run its course and is no longer viable for producing aguamiel, the heart or piña can be baked along with other unadulterated piñas, to make mezcal. But generally speaking the remaining nutritional value of the piña is so low dictating that it’s not worth the time and effort to further use the plant for mezcal production. On the other hand, with all the leaves completely removed from the agave, and a mere hollow shell remaining, if dried this conical piece of heavy hollow plant product is can be converted into a bongo drum by affixing pieces of tanned hide to each end. Together with the trumpeta we now have half of the prerequisites for a quartet.
Sustainable Mezcal Production I: Baking the Agave
Many palenqueros in Oaxaca use whatever logs are readily available to bake agave, with their purchase motivated mainly by price. However, those who produce the spirit for more commercial and export consumption (as opposed to for a more local population) for a number of reasons are more particular in selecting the type of wood they burn. However, seconds in the forestry industry which are not prime for construction are generally preferred because of the reduced price. This adds to the sustainable nature of mezcal production.
The typical oven is merely a pit dug into the ground, at times lined with clay brick or stone depending on the substratum. The rocks placed on top of the smoldering wood are obtained from small, nearby quarries. A layer of wet fiber, discard from the distillation process, insulates the agave piñas from the hot rocks, thereby inhibiting charring of the bottommost agaves, that is those closest to the rocks. Empty, used grain sacks are ritualistically employed to then cover the mound of agave. The final layer is simply earth. An airtight oven is thus created, at times with logs placed on top of the oven to ensure the earth stays in place.
Once the baking is complete and the piñas and rocks have been removed from the oven, charcoal rather than ash remains in the very bottom of the pit. The charcoal is sold, or used by the palenquero and his family as a fuel for cooking. The charcoal imparts different flavors in grilled meats, not only based on the type of wood from which it has been derived, but from the sweet, caramel-like baked agave.
Sustainable Mezcal Production II: Crushing and Fermenting
The two main methods of crushing baked agave are: (1) employing workers from the local community who use heavy wooden mallets to pulverize the pieces of piña which have been placed in a stone or wood lined “canoe” in the ground; (2) having an employee work a beast of burden to crush the agave after it has been chopped into pieces with a machete and placed in a stone-lined shallow circular pit – the horse, donkey or mule drags a limestone wheel over the agave. In either case, local labor is employed, more so than when more industrialized methods employing diesel or propane fuel and modern stainless steel and related equipment rather than animal or human labor.
Towards the end of fermentation, a thick gooey layer forms on top of the fermentation vat. The substance is used as a sealer during distillation. Whether a copper, or a clay pot and carriso (river reed) still is used, two chambers are sealed with this substance once the lower chamber has been filled with the fermented liquid and fiber.
Sustainable Mezcal Production III: Distilling
Since the wood used to fuel traditional Oaxacan stills (alambiques) of either type does not come in direct contact with the fermented agave fiber and juices, the type of firewood purchased is of less significance than the wood used in baking, the latter selected for its specific properties.
The water used for cooling and condensing is the same water used to clean out the clay or copper pot after the first distillation. It can also be used to irrigate. Accordingly, the same water can be used for three purposes. Finally, the liquid in the alambique remaining at the end of the distillation process, can also be reused to irrigate.
Perhaps the most valuable by-product of the entire process, and which has the greatest number of secondary uses, is the fiber remaining in the still at the conclusion of the first distillation:
· as noted earlier it is used as an insulator between the hot rocks and agave piñas during the baking process;
· it can immediately be used as mulch;
· it can be used as compost after having been left to break down for between six months and two years;
· it can be used as feed for certain farm animals;
· it can be used as a fire starter, a kindling of sorts;
· it can be used as a substratum in commercial mushroom production;
· it can be used to make adobe bricks when mixed with mud and sand.
The stalk, the leaves, the piña; the pit, the wood, the labor; the water and the fiber. Virtually every constituent in each stage of the traditional process of making both mezcal and pulque in Oaxaca is characterized by sustainability. Recylcing and reusing for economic reasons, out of a concern for the environment or simply convenience. It really doesn’t matter. The secondary uses of the materials and means of green production in these two agave-based sustainable Oaxacan industries are remarkable.
Alvin Starkman resides in Oaxaca. He has been a mezcal and pulque aficionado for two decades, helping likeminded visitors to the region and those interested in export or learning more, to get out into the fields and to the various types of palenques to sample, buy and understand more about Mexican fermented and distilled drinks. He co-owns Casa Machaya Oaxaca Bed & Breakfast (http://www.casamachaya.com) and Oaxaca Culinary Tours (http://www.oaxacaculinarytours.com), and uploads interesting information about mezcal and pulque to http://www.oaxaca-mezcal.com.
Alvin Starkman, M.A., J.D.
Mezcalaria, Cultura del Mezcal, The Cult of Mezcal (Farolito ediciones, 2012) is the third edition, first bilingual (English-Spanish), of the seminal 2000 publication by author Ulises Torrentera. The book is highly opinionated on the one hand, yet on the other contains a wealth of both historical and contemporary facts about agave, mezcal and pulque. Torrentera places his subject matter within appropriate social, cultural, ethnobotanical and etymological context, at times referencing other Mexican as well as Old World spirits and fermented drinks. And where fact is uncertain, or when Torrentera feels the need to supplement in order to hold the reader’s interest, he infuses with myth and legend.
Torrentera takes the reader far beyond the decades old introductory book, de Barrios’ A Guide to Tequila, Mezcal and Pulque and much deeper into the field of inquiry than the more recent series of bilingual essays in Mezcal, Arte Traditional, although the latter does include excellent color plates (the Spanish first edition of Mezcalaria contains a few color plates). It stands at the other end of the spectrum from the monolingual coffee table book Mezcal, Nuestra Esencia and is far more comprehensive than the English portion of Oaxaca, Tierra de Maguey y Mezcal.
Torrentera’s passion for mezcal rings loud and clear. In discussions with him and in the course of hearing him hold court, he has repeatedly indicated that it’s crucial that more aficionados of alcoholic beverages taste and appreciate all that mezcal has to offer. That’s his motivation for writing, speaking, and exposing the public to mezcal in his Oaxaca mezcaleria, In Situ. The spirit, paraphrasing his viewpoint, leaves its main rival tequila behind in its wake, primarily because of the numerous varieties of agave which can be transformed into mezcal, the broad range of growing regions and corresponding micro-climates, and the diversity of production methods currently employed, the totality yielding a plethora of flavor nuances which tequila cannot match.
His treatise, on the other hand, to some extent does his raison d´être a disservice. He is overly critical of mezcal that is not to his liking. For example, in the Prologue to this first English edition (don’t let the poor and at time incomprehensible translation of the Prologue dissuade an otherwise prospective purchaser; the balance of the book is well translated) Torrentera writes of mezcal with more than or less than 45 – 50% alcohol by volume: “above that graduation [sic] the flavors of mezcal are lost and there is more intoxication; if it is below this one cannot appreciate the organoleptic qualities of the beverage.” He also writes that unaged or blanco is the best way to appreciate mezcal. He continues that in his estimation “cocktails are the fanciest manner to degrade mezcal.”
Indeed, I regularly drink one particular mezcal at 63%, which is exquisite, and numerous other mezcales in the 52% - 55% range which my drinking partners and I enjoy; we appreciate flavor nuances without becoming overly intoxicated. At the other end of the spectrum, a recent entry into the commercial mezcal market, produced in Matatlán, Oaxaca, is 37%. The owners of the brand held well over 50 blind taste testings in Mexico City, including mezcales of less percentage alcohol, of greater potency, and of popular high end designer labels; 37% won out by a wide margin. In the first year of production it shipped 16,000 bottles of 37% alcohol by volume to the domestic market only; not bad for a mezcal lacking organoleptic qualities.
Regarding the blanco/reposado/añejo issue, why not encourage novices to try it all and decide for themselves? Why dissuade drinkers of Lagavulin, or better yet Glenmorange sherry or burgundy cask scotch from experimenting with mezcal aged in barrels from French wine or Kentucky bourbon? While I appreciate Torrentera’s zeal and his belief, his dogmatism may very well serve to restrict sales of mezcal and inhibit valiant efforts to find convertees. Many spirits aficionados might prefer a mezcal which he does not recommend. Furthermore, if mixologists and creative bartenders can increase sales and market mezcal through mixing mezcal cocktails, isn’t that what the Maestro wants?
Torrentera’s reflections are otherwise sound and should find broad agreement with readers, be they mezcal or tequila aficionados or novices, or those who are otherwise followers of the industry. I’ve often expressed his point that far too many exporters and large scale producers are padding their bank accounts at the expense of campesino growers and owners of small distilleries, the mom and pop “palenques” as they’re termed in the state of Oaxaca. He laments the regulatory direction mezcal appears to be heading, and pleads for change in the NOM (Norma Oficial Mexicana) and for a better and more discerning and detailed system of classification. He warns of mezcal heading in the direction of tequila in terms of homogenization.
Torrentera’s work is the most comprehensive and detailed endeavor available in English, which combines and synthesizes literature about agave (historical uses and cultural importance), pulque (within global context of fermented beverages) and mezcal (as one of a number of early distilled drinks). He appropriately criticizes, mainly in the Prologue, academic studies which have provisionally concluded, using a bastardized form of scientific method, the existence of distillation in pre-Hispanic times.
The author shines in his compiling, extensively drawing from, and quoting diverse bodies of work; scholarly, historical anecdotal, as well as both secular and religious Conquest era laws and decrees. His bibliography is impressive. He correctly cites inconsistencies in and difficulties interpreting some of the centuries old references, allowing the reader to reach his own conclusions. If a criticism must be proffered, occasionally it is difficult to discern when he is quoting versus using his own words. But this is likely an issue with editing and printing than fault of Torrentera. At times he does neglect to indicate dates and sources, making it hard to determine precisely how much is independent research. Footnotes would have helped in this regard, and also would have made it easier for the reader to go to the original source material.
Torrentera vacillates between seemingly attempting to write in an academic manner, and inserting intra-chapter headings and content which would appear to be attempts at humor. To his credit, however, the difference is easily discernible, and accordingly the reader should have no difficulty distinguishing fact from lightheartedness.
Mezcalaria, Cultura del Mezcal, The Cult of Mezcal, is an important and extremely comprehensive body of work. It should be read by everyone with an interest in agave, mezcal (or tequila) and / or pulque. Torrentera is to be congratulated for compiling what no other writer to date has been able to do.
Alvin Starkman has been an aficionado of mezcal and pulque for 20 years. A resident of Oaxaca, Alvin frequently takes visitors to the state into the outlying regions of the central valleys to teach them about mezcal, including different production methods, flavor nuances and the use of diverse agaves. Alvin has written extensively about mezcal and pulque and has recently begun compiling a body of literature: http://www.oaxaca-mezcal.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.
The southern Mexico state of Oaxaca has long been known as the nation’s capital of mezcal, the agave-based alcoholic beverage. In 2011, it took a giant leap forward in another direction with the opening of its first nano-brewery, Teufel. Oaxaca was actually slow off its marks; decades earlier micro-breweries in the Western World had begun making small-batch craft beer, thus refining the collective palate of brew aficionados in Canada, the US, Europe, and further abroad. Then in early 2013, Teufel began experimenting with pairing a selection of its craft beers, some with uniquely Oaxacan ingredients, with different mezcales.
Background to Pairing Beer & Mezcal in Oaxaca
Drinking mezcal and cerveza together is nothing new. For decades, if not centuries, Oaxacans of all walks of life have been imbibing the two at a single sitting, be it in downtown restaurants, at intimate social gatherings, or at any one of a myriad of rites of passage festivities held at anywhere from rural homesteads to upscale event halls. In fact European style beer brewed with barley, and the distillation of baked, fermented agave, were both introduced into Mexico in the 16th century.
Simply combining beer with mezcal is not pairing. Until recently the tradition has been to select a particular mezcal, of course assuming that a choice is available, and similarly a beer. The latter has generally been a brew produced by one of Mexico’s two main breweries. Giving thought to what kind of beer goes better or best with what mezcal, rarely, if ever, crossed the minds of Oaxacans, regardless if native or foreign born. But that has begun to change. It was no coincidence that about the same time that Teufel began production, the first retail outlet opened selling exclusively craft beers from around the globe.
Pairing Teufel Craft Beer with Mezcal El Cortijo
It began as an experiment, that is, gauging the receptiveness of Oaxacans to the concept of pairing beer with mezcal. The project developed during the course of discussions in late 2012 between Teufel partners Fernanda Sueldo and Fernando Bolaños, and their friends, brothers Juan Carlos and Raúl Méndez Zamora, fifth generation producers under the label Mezcal El Cortijo. El Cortijo has actually been distilling mezcal in Santiago Matatlán, about an hour’s drive outside of Oaxaca, since 1951.
It is not suggested that readers run out and buy bottles of Mezcal El Cortijo to match the pairings indicated. While the spirit is agreeable enough, there are literally hundreds of other brands which produce quality mezcal using espadín; blanco, reposado, añejo and gusano, and mezcales made with other types of agave, pechuga, etc. In fact, as noted, at least with the beers which were paired, mezcal made with the more unusual varieties of agave are perhaps imbibed solo, while the more pedestrian mezcales seem to be enhaced with Teufel, and vice versa.
A special edition mezcal with a serious gusano flavor was paired with Teufel 77, named in honor of the punk movement which began in that year. The beer is 99% malt and 1% miel de agave, an India Pale Ale in the English tradition with a touch of bitter at the finish. The medium body brew excellently tempered the mezcal’s flavor which I found a little too strong for my palate. There was no clash, the beer holding its own alongside an otherwise overpowering gusano.
Next, a three year añejo aged in American white oak barrels was paired with an Irish style red made with another local ingredient, rosita de cacao (flower of the cacao), an ingredient traditionally used to make the pre-Hispanic non-alcoholic beverage known as tejate. The special ingredient is actually the aromatic flower of a bush, the Quararibea funebris often referred to the funeral tree flower. The vanilla, green coffee and cinnamon tones of the añejo were excellently paired with the beer which maintains just a hint of maple, imparted by the rosita.
Our third offering was a 44% espadín blanco with green apple undertones selected to compliment one of Teufel’s benchmark brews, its Babalao. The beer is made with local blue corn, thus imparting a dark brew appearance, yet it has a light body. The colors contrasted yet the drinks were well paired, with the beer allowing the mezcal’s character to predominate. Babalao is one of Teufel’s most important products because with the use of corn as an ingredient it pays homage to Oaxaca as arguably the first region in the world where corn was cultivated, its primitive precursor, known as teosinte, dating to 7,000 years ago if not earlier.
Our final offering was a 46% cuixe with herbal and butter tones paired with Teufel’s 77. Once again I enjoyed the brew: However, I did not find that it added anything to the mezcal, and in fact seemed to mask an otherwise excellent product. What I learned, at least on a provisional basis, is that mezcal which has a decent level of complexity, whether made with wild or cultivated “designer” agave, or with espadín which can be put into that special category, should perhaps be drunk alone – or dare I state imbibed with a commercial light beer, so as to not detract from the nuances imparted by the agave and / or production method.
The Future of Beer & Mezcal Pairings
The two evenings held at the downtown Oaxaca retail outlet of Mezcal El Cortijo were successful. The first was oversold, with patrons sitting both at and behind the bar, and standing. The second was full, though not to the same extent. The questions, the commentaries, and the overwhelming interest, all suggest that in Oaxaca, pairing mezcal, with at least craft beer, will grow. There will undoubtedly be further formal tastings. It is anticipated that eventually beer and mezcal aficionados will then quickly begin to scrutinize what they pair for themselves, and offer to their guests.
As mezcal’s star continues to rise in the larger centers in Mexico, and in the US, Canada and overseas, pairing with craft beer will likely become chic. Whether it will filter down to the more regular folk here in Oaxaca, is another question.
Alvin Starkman has been an aficionado of mezcal and pulque for over 20 years. He operates Casa Machaya Oaxaca Bed & Breakfast (http://www.casamachaya.com) with his wife Arlene, and Oaxaca Culinary Tours (http://www.oaxacaculinarytours.com) with Chef Pilar Cabrera Arroyo. Alvin organizes personalized small group mezcal and pulque tours, and arranges Oaxacan food and craft beer pairings at the Teufel cervezaria.
 Some archaeological investigation suggests that indigenous populations were distilling prior to the arrival of the Spanish, though more accepted version of the history of alcohol in Mexico indicates that mezcal was first produced in the country in or around 1578.
 The Méndez family began producing mezcal in Santiago Matatlán in 1795. At its peak this one town boasted 300 palenqueros.
Valentín Rodriguez stands 10 yards away from Juana, who is peddling a large, thick wooden wheel with long strands of fine fiber attached. Don Valentín is nimbly twisting the threadlike filaments, known as ixtle, almost magically transforming them into rope, known as mecate. Remember when twine was made of light colored fibers such as hemp, linen, cotton and sisal, before the Western marketplace became flooded with brilliantly colored polypropylene and nylon cord of varying calibers sold in hardware stores from large rolling spools? For the time being, at least in Oaxaca, it still is.
Producing rope from the broad, spiny leaves of a particular class of agave plant is one of the oldest surviving manufacturing industries in Mexico, dating back well over 2,000 years. And in the southern state of Oaxaca it today represents yet another dimension of sustainability relating to the production of mezcal and pulque.
The 70-year old Zapotec craftsman is making rope out of the pencas of pulquero agave, as he’s been doing for the past 55 years. The only difference is that now Don Valentín buys the fiber in 150 or 200 kilogram bales. When he first learned his trade he fashioned the fiber out of fresh, green agave leaves, using an extremely labor intensive process. Some folks in his hometown village of Santa Domingo Xagacía still do it the old fashioned way, from scratch.
Valentín Rodgriguez and Family; From Santa Domingo Xagacía to Colonia Yasip, Tlacolula
In 1984, Don Valentín moved from Xagacía to his current homestead in Colonia Yasip, a neighborhood in the foothills above Tlacolula de Matamoros, about a 40 minute drive from the state capital, Oaxaca de Juárez. Tlacolula is best known to both visitors to Oaxaca and residents of the state for its vibrant Sunday marketplace.
Don Valentín lives with his wife, five children and grandchildren. A sixth, Simón, lives directly across the street, with his own family. Simón and his wife also make mecate. Altogether there are a half dozen families in the colonia and surroundings making mecate and other ixtle by-products. They sell them mainly to stores and in regular weekly and livestock marketplaces in cities such as Oaxaca, Zaachila and of course Tlacolula.
“”We used to make a lot more products other than just rope; mecate is now used mainly for tying farm animals and sometimes as clotheslines and the odd other assorted use,” laments Don Valentín. He still produces the mecapal, a long piece of twine affixed to a woven forehead band, employed by campesinos to carry mainly firewood on their backs; from the forests, through the fields, along dirt roads and pathways, and finally to their homes. But the days of producing clothing, footwear, floor mats, netting known as ayates utilized primarily for harvesting crops and holding and carrying infants, and even hammocks, are fast disappearing.
Early Production of Ixtle and Its By-Products in Santa Domingo Xagacía
Don Valentín’s father taught him how to make mecate, and several other types of utilitarian products once needed for day-to-day living in Oaxaca; all from the fiber of the agave leaf. His father learned from his father; and so the tradition was passed down from generation to generation, beginning in the region once a sedentary lifestyle had been established by early Zapotec inhabitants.
Don Valentín recalls:
“Until I moved to Tlacolula we made mecate the way it’s still made today in my village. I learned every stage of the process from my father; but of course sometimes others taught me when the two of us couldn’t do everything by ourselves. We would bake about 20 leaves from the pulquero agave, piled on top of one another in a narrow pit, flipping them once after they turned yellow, making sure not to burn any too badly to render them useless for turning into mecate. Once we had a big pile of them we would pulverize them using a large, heavy wooden mallet, exposing the fiber. We then put big heavy rocks on top of them to squeeze out any remaining juice. We would bring down fresh water from the spring or stream, and leave the mashed fiber in the water for a couple of weeks until it began to rot. Later we mashed it again and left it for a further 15 – 20 days. Finally we would use a metal scraper to get off all the remaining flesh, then leave the completely fibrous material in the sun to dry for one or two days, depending on the time of year.”
Agave, Sustainability & Loss of Tradition
Sustainable industries in Oaxaca have been documented elsewhere as relating to the production of both mezcal and pulque. In the case of mecate and mecapales currently produced in Tlacolula by Don Valentín and others, there’s been a dramatic change since these rural villagers began to develop a more urban lifestyle facilitated through emigrating from Santa Domingo Xagacía.
“In the olden days, after making mecate and other products with my father back home, we would fasten it all onto our backs and walk a whole day to get to Tlacolula for the Sunday market,” Don Valentín explains. He continues:
“But after I moved, I learned about a tractor trailer that had begun to come to Oaxaca from Yucatán, filled with ready-made ixtle for sale. So I started buying bales rather than making it myself. The ixtle I used to make from local pulquero agaves was and still is much better than the industrialized Yucatán stuff we now use, but this way it’s much easier and quicker. Now, every two or three months I simply have a light transport truck pick up the ixtle from the trailer in Oaxaca.”
Don Valentín says that the industry is changing even more dramatically, with less Xagacía villagers producing mecate: “I think there are fewer than 800 people in Xagacía now. The older generation is dying off, and youth are leaving, either coming to Oaxaca, going to other states altogether, and of course many head to the US.”
There isn’t the demand as there was before, perhaps because of the lesser quality of the mecate made from imported fiber, inexpensive imported synthetic product, or the inability of men like Don Valentín to compete with rope of varying thicknesses which can be cut to any length in a matter of seconds. Yes, he does do custom work, but orders are few and far between. And how much can he charge, when his price for a dozen, four-and-a-half foot lengths of one-third inch mecate is only 20 pesos, about $1.70 USD?
Ixtle & Mecate in Oaxaca a Generation Hence
If Don Valentín and his family are any indication, in less than a generation a sustainable Oaxaca industry may have vanished. Five of six progeny do not maintain the tradition. Four are employed operating small, motorized three-wheeled taxis known as moto-taxis. The fifth, who is a chauffeur for a van company which transports residents between Oaxaca and the coast, is even more pessimistic: “I don’t think it’ll be around in even ten years, the way things are going.”
Don Valentín does now have a permanent Sunday stall at the Tlacolula market; but in addition to mecate and mecatales, he’s now making 100% synthetic carrying bags and selling them from his market stand. “That’s my bread and butter,” he bemoans.
Alvin Starkman is a contributing writer for Mexico Today, a program for Marca País – Imagen de México. Alvin has written over 270 articles about life and cultural traditions in Oaxaca and its central valleys. Alvin has a particular interest in mezcal, pulque and all agave derivatives. He enjoys sharing his passion for Oaxaca with tourists to the region.
Alvin Starkman, M.A., J.D.
Ninety-two year old Isaac Jiménez, a pioneer in the modern age of mezcal, gently rocks back and forth in his old wooden mesadora, a rocking chair, in his Matatlán homestead, struggling with his failing senses of sight and sound, memory still sharp. “When you ask me about the history of mezcal de pechuga, I’m sorry, but I can’t take you back any further than about 1930,” he apologizes, then continues, “when Ramón Sánchez arrived in Matatlán with his family.”
My mission to uncover the origins of mezcal de pechuga, and to a lesser extent catalogue variations in its formulations, lead me to Don Isaac, whose grandfather first arrived in the self-proclaimed world capital of mezcal, Santiago Matatlán, in 1870. Doubtless, there are several theories and legends, at least as many as exist regarding the first time a Oaxacan released a gusano into a glass of mezcal.
Those under the impression that mezcal de pechuga contains only the essence of chicken breast, which when raw had been suspended inside a still over which steam produced from fermented baked agave passed, are in for a lesson. Formulations, more in the nature of recipes, may call for wild turkey breast, rabbit leg, deer meat, or no protein at all, with fruit and / or herbs and spices, sometimes infused in prepared mezcal rather than being integrated into the distillation process.
Mezcal de Pechuga Arrives in Santiago Matatlán
“I was about 10 years old, so it must have been around 1930 when Ramón Sánchez put down roots in town, apparently coming from Río Seco, or at least that’s what he told everyone,” recalls Don Isaac. At that time Río Seco would have been days away from Matalán, whether by foot or beast of burden. It’s near the junction of the now districts of Tlacolula, Ejutla and Miahuatlán, agave growing country; so residents of Río Seco also made mezcal.
“Then in 1938, a fellow by the name of Chuy Razgado came to Matatlán,” Don Isaac continues. “One day he showed up at Hacienda Los Lope where I was playing with my band-mates.”
In Oaxaca, as in other parts of Mexico, there has been a longstanding tradition of playing band, woodwind and percussion instruments, proficiency beginning at a young age. The youthful Isaac learned to play alto saxophone, eventually becoming a member of a band. He and his fellow musicians occasionally played at Hacienda Los Lope which was owned by a family of Spanish aristocrats.
The day that Razgado attended at the Hacienda, he had no instrument in hand. But he asked if he could hang out with Isaac and his fellow musicians and somehow contribute. The band rejected the overture since at that time there was no indication as to how he could help. Eventually, after subsequent failed attempts to integrate into broader Matatlán, Razgado disappeared.
One day Isaac and his mother, Felipa Arrazola, travelled to Mitla to buy provisions, and they came across Razgado. Since Isaac had now become an accepted part of the region’s music scene, and the two had to stay in Mitla for at least an overnight because of the distance they had to travel to get there, it was easy for them to find lodging. But that first evening Isaac and his mother by chance encountered Razgado drinking in a cantina and playing music; but not just any music. He was playing bottles; glass bottles of different sizes, shapes and neck openings, thus yielding different sounds. He used both his breath and a makeshift drumstick to create different sounds. He was playing melodies reminiscent of the music of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, near Oaxaca’s Pacific coast.
At the end of the set Isaac and his mother seized the opportunity to speak to Razgado, Isaac now clearly humbled by someone it had become clear to him was a true, multi-facet talent, whom he and the other band members had rejected weeks earlier. At the time Isaac was learning how to read music. In the course of discussion with Razgado he realized that he was in the company of a true maestro, a musician who played more than just bottles. Isaac recognized that an opportunity existed for him to further his own musical skills while at the same time have someone in town, Matatlán that is, who could tutor others. Razgado accepted the invitation to return to Matatlán, and there began to teach and to play, not only bottles, but also guitar, trumpet, sax and a couple of other traditional instruments.
Ramón Sánchez quickly learned about Chuy Razgado and the work he was doing within the Matatlán community of musicians. He decided to throw a special reception in his honor. During the festivities Sánchez presented Razgado with a large bottle of mezcal de pechuga. Others at the event also imbibed the pechuga, many for the first time. Prior to this occasion, while Sánchez had shared his pechuga with some, no one really took notice of the unique flavor nuance, and if they did they didn’t ask about it. The cat was out of the bag, and mezcal de pechuga was born, at least for broad public consumption. Perhaps more importantly, it had become elevated to the status of a spirit for special occasions.
No one knows for sure if villagers in Río Seco had been making mezcal de pechuga, if Sánchez was the only palenquero with such a recipe, or if it was first prepared by him in fact after his arrival in Matatlán. We do know two things: since the honor of receiving mezcal de pechuga was first bestowed upon Razgado, pechuga has been served in many Oaxacan towns and villages at special fiestas; and, there are several formulations of the spirit.
Epilogue to Chuy Razgado & Ramón Sanchez
In 1940 General Lázaro Cárdenas travelled to Mitla. While there were still no paved roads in or leading to the village, General Cárdenas nevertheless rode there, to inaugurate the arrival of electricity. It would take another 19 years for electric lines to get to Matatlán.
By then Razgado had become well-known and a highly respected musician in both Matatlán and Mitla. The mayor of Mitla invited him to play for General Cárdenas during one of the celebratory dinners. Razgado did not dress up to perform. He played a brief first set. No one applauded. For the second set he was part of a trio, and at its conclusion a bit of praise was bestowed upon the group. For the third and final set Razgado lead the local philharmonic orchestra in four songs, decked out in formalwear, a suit traditionally worn by band leaders. General Cárdenas called him to the box where he and the other dignitaries were seated, to congratulate him. Perhaps the clothes provided the inspiration for an exceptional concluding performance. Razgado was known to throw back a few, so perhaps by evening’s end mild inebriation had contributed to his excellence.
Three or four months later Chuy Razgado once again disappeared, this time never to return to the region. Word has it that he died in the Mixe district of Oaxaca.
Ramón Sánchez continued to make small batches of mezcal, including pechuga, for his own use and to provide to others who had become aficionados and / or wanted it for fiestas. None of his progeny became palenqueros. During that era there was a pervading perception that making mezcal was not a dignified trade, much the same as leading the life of a musician. In the case of Don Isaac, he paid little if any attention to public sentiment, and continued to excel at both vocations.
Mezcal de Pechuga in Mexico Today
According to Enrique Jiménez, son of Don Isaac, a chemical engineer and palenquero (producing for the labels Mezcal del Amigo, La Muerte, Herencia del Mezcalero, Ultramarine and Amores), authentic mezcal de pechuga is produced by placing a specified amount of chopped seasonal fruit in the copper still along with previously distilled mezcal (thus in preparation for a third distillation), with a full chicken or turkey breast hanging inside the apparatus. If breast is used, without fruit or other additions, it can still rightfully be considered mezcal de pechuga; and if herbs and / or spices are added, with or without fruit it is still considered the real deal. If no protein is used, the spirit is more properly considered mezcal afrutado.
At least one Oaxacan mezcalero instructs his producers to use rabbit leg rather than breast of fowl. A palenquero from the state of Michoacán uses breast of chicken, deer meat, and a selection spices, the recipe closely guarded by his wife.
One incarnation calls for placing 200 liters of mezcal into a traditional 300 liter copper receptacle, part of the alambique (still), along with 100 liters of diced fruit, with of course the chicken or turkey breast dangling inside the top portion of the still. This yields about 120 liters of mezcal de pechuga.
If protein is omitted from the formulation, while the spice and / or fruitiness of the flavor will surely prevail, the spirit will lack a certain nose created by the meat, fowl or otherwise.
A second broad category of mezcal de pechuga calls for adding the fruit and / or spice to the still during the first or second distillation, along with mezcal and / or tepache (the fermented liquid) and / or bagazo (crushed, fermented fiber).
In both of these two cases, the mezcal de pechuga is clear, since regardless of the ingredients inserted into the brick and cement encased copper pot, a final distillation occurs, resulting in a colorless spirit. These are the two variations of pechuga which are still often highly coveted, and in fact served at many rite of passage celebrations in Oaxaca such as weddings, quince años, baptisms, and so on – a tradition enduring since 1940, if not earlier.
Since many readers are likely tourists who may consider buying “pechuga” which is an amber color, appearing as reposado or añejo, a word of caution is in order. A third classification of mezcal de pechuga is being marketed, at minimum in the city of Oaxaca and central valleys. One variety of mezcal marketed as pechuga is simply mezcal blanco (clear, unaged) with a piece of either sugar cane or baked agave having been inserted into the bottle before sealing. Another consists of mezcal blanco which has been infused with fruit and / or herbs and spices, then filtered before bottling. Whether chicken, turkey or any other meat has been used in the distillation process is doubtful, regardless of representation.
Variations on the Recipe and Unanswered Historical Questions About Mezcal de Pechuga
The foregoing is meant to provide merely an introduction to mezcal de pechuga. There is an endless variety of recipes. Both palenqueros and their exporter entrepreneurs will likely continue to experiment, a goal being to create a more taste-worthy product than the competition. To be fair, there’s also more altruistic motivation, spirit as artful formulation.
The questions which remains unanswered, at least to the fullest extent, are precisely why, where and when that first palenquero decided that using something in addition to baked agave – in particular breast of chicken or turkey – would make for a spirit pleasing to the palate.
Alvin Starkman has been drinking various formulations of mezcal de pechuga for more than 15 years. He is an aficionado of both mezcal and pulque, and endeavors to enlighten visitors to Oaxaca about the state´s spirits and fermented products. Alvin operates Casa Machaya Oaxaca Bed & Breakfast (http://www.casamachaya.com) with his wife Arlene, and Oaxaca Culinary Tours (http://www.oaxacaculinarytours.com) with Chef Pilar Cabrera Arroyo.
Alvin Starkman began drinking mezcal in 1969 during his first visit to Oaxaca, and then continued the love affair the following summer. However it wasn’t until 1991 that he started to become an aficionado, interested in learning, sampling, expounding the spirit’s attributes to others, and promoting its producer palenqueros.
Alvin has an M.A. (Social Anthropology, York University) and a J.D. (Osgoode Hall Law School). Throughout his academic training he maintained a special interest in cross-cultural dispute resolution, with emphasis on Mexican models. He spent 18 years as a litigation lawyer in private practice in Toronto, before becoming a permanent resident of Oaxaca in 2004.
Alvin first became passionate about pulque when he began living in the city full-time. He eventually started taking tourists to Oaxaca into the fields accompanied by his Zapotec friends, to enable them to experience the fascinating harvest of aguamiel – the “honey water” which transforms into pulque as it naturally ferments.
Alvin has written over 260 articles about life and cultural traditions in Oaxaca, several of which center upon mezcal and pulque. He is a paid contributing writer for Mexico Today, a program for Marca País – Imagen de México. Alvin continues his pursuit of exposing all that is culturally rich about Oaxaca and its central valleys, by helping travelers to the city to plan their visits, including touring the central valley routes – with a special interest in helping them to learn as much as possible about mezcal and pulque.
Together with his wife Arlene, Alvin operates Casa Machaya Oaxaca Bed & Breakfast (http://www.oaxacadream.com), and with Chef Pilar Cabrera Arroyo, Oaxaca Culinary Tours (http://www.oaxacaculinarytours.com). He is a director and Vice-President of CANFRO (Canadian Friends of Oaxaca Inc.), a Canadian charitable corporation.
Alvin’s predominate thirst remains promoting mezcal and pulque to tourists and spirits aficionados, including assisting those interested in pursuing the export of agave based alcoholic beverages from Mexico to their home countries and indeed further abroad.
In a quirky turn of fate, just as craft beer consumption in Oaxaca has begun to skyrocket, South Africans who have traditionally preferred microbrewery beers to commercial brews and spirits, are now turning their attention to mezcal. In January, 2012, Oaxacan-distilled La Muerte brand mezcal hit the shelves in South Africa.
Until recently, mezcal (also referred to as mescal), the spirit derived from a number of varieties of agave (or maguey) plant, took a back seat to its more popular sister, tequila. But with the aid of a marketing plan currently being advanced by the Mexican government through its ProMéxico agency, the southern state of Oaxaca, producer of most of the country’s mezcal, has become the darling of up and coming spirits importers.
Enter entrepreneur Rui Esteves. In less than two months his La Muerte mezcal has become the top selling Mexican spirit at popular Cape Town restaurant El Burro, known for its broad selection of tequilas; no small feat given that La Muerte had to dislodge popular products such as Patrón and Olmeca from their lofty rankings.
Since 2007, Esteves’ main business interest has been beer, importing German craft beer to South Africa, and promoting it through an innovative and aggressive marketing plan. Then about three years ago Esteves began introducing tequila and other agave based spirits (as well as agave nectar) into the South African marketplace. The agave business began strictly as a hobby, with Esteves tapping the advertising acumen he’d honed during his dealing with imported brews.
But for Esteves it’s always been much more than his expertise in marketing and promotion which has driven his products, and in this case La Muerte mezcal. “I love working with artisan producers who are driven because of the pride they have in what they brew or distill,” he notes. “And just as importantly,” he continues, “I only work with products that I love to drink myself and that form part of my life; I have no passion for whiskey, and hence I don’t work with it.”
And so Esteves travelled to Oaxaca about 1 ½ years ago with mezcal in mind. He met with a number of palenqueros (producers), sampled their products, and subsequently decided to work with one individual in Matatlán, a town about a 45 minute drive out of Oaxaca and reputed to be “The World Capital of Mezcal.” It must be; a sign stretching across the highway as you enter Matatlán tells you so; and above the sign there’s a full-size copper still.
“It was important for me to sit down with the palenquero and his wife and family in their home before making a decision about working with them,” he explains. “Meeting the rest of the family affirmed for me their passion for what they do, and learning that they have a mezcal producing tradition in Matatlán which dates to the 1800s didn’t hurt either.”
Although mezcal had previously been available in South Africa, imbibers really didn’t have any idea about what it was or how it was made until La Muerte came on the scene. And of course the products which were available were not of the artisanal quality that Esteves has now introduced. Tequila struggled with its reputation until the Patróns began to be imported. It’s taken until now for the drinking public to gain an appreciation for mezcal, through La Muerte. “South Africans are embracing it; they can’t believe it actually tastes delicious,” he proudly asserts.
Esteves initially chose reposado con gusano because he felt that it was a spirit which could be easily marketed at an accessible price. His other entry into the mezcal market, a five-year añejo aged in Kentucky bourbon barrels, came about as a result of a spontaneous emotional decision. “I just fell in love with it,” he confesses, then adds, “what I feel about quality mezcal, and in fact about the magic of Oaxaca, I want to share with my countrymen and women.”
And the branding? Esteves could have selected any one of a number of names. “Oaxaca is filled with inspiration,” he gleams. “The name was influenced by Day of the Dead of course; and the respect Oaxacans have for the dead, and more generally their ancestry and heritage.”
Despite the meteoric rise in popularity of La Muerte mezcal over the past couple of months, Esteves maintains that to date he really hasn’t done much marketing and that for the time being he’s just planting the seed and gauging mezcal’s potential, in South Africa and as well in other non-traditional markets for agave based Mexican spirits.
Esteves is cognizant of the recent trendiness in some large American cities, and indeed in some parts of Mexico, of mezcals made from not only agave espadín which is used to make his reposado and añejo, but some wild and other “designer” magueyes. But he remains cautiously optimistic, planning to introduce other mezcals into select markets by taking slow, deliberate steps. “I tend to get carried away,” he confesses. But judging from the initial welcome of La Muerte mezcal in South Africa, the more hastily Esteves proceeds with his plan, the better for Oaxacan palenqueros, for Mexico’s economic fortunes, and for South Africans. And if Esteves keeps to his course, brewers of craft beers beware.