One of the highlights of this recent Mexican adventure was a special treat that Bixa had organised for her visitors -- a Mezcal tour. Oaxaca is the region of mezcal production, which means that for certain people it is one of only two Mexican regions worthy of interest.
This was not at all the case for us, but since we believed we had exhausted the cemeteries, festivities, markets and churches of Oaxaca, it was a delightful change of pace, a lot of new scenery and the occasion to actually learn all sorts of things about the production of mezcal. The tour was operated by a Canadian expat who operates a few tours a week and who knows quite a few of the producers of the region, so we were able to drop into several different places to see each stage of production, from the growing of the agave plants to the final distillation. The drive out to the countryside was quite scenic and would have been worth it even without the rest of the things that were in store for us.
Our guide showed us one of the pits in which the piñas are roasted. A big fire is made in a pit on top of rocks. When the rocks are as hot as possible, the piñas are placed in the pit and then covered over with agave leaves, fibers and straw mats and then buried for 4 days. The roasting had already been completed at this particular site.
I have been directed to jump into this thread and will try to do so without disrupting the excellent flow Kerouac has going.
To backtrack to the OP for a moment ~ You should know that all tequila is mezcal, but that mezcal is not tequila. That is because tequila must be made with the blue agave, Agave tequilana, and that its production method is different. Mezcal can be made from several different varieties of agave, with different-tasting products resulting from that and from the skill of the makers. More on that subject here and also here.
I believe this is a field of espadín agave, Agave angustifolia, from the first place we visited ~
The stuff mounded over the pit Kerouac shows above is bagasse, the residue left after the juice is squeezed out of the agave piña ~
You can see this family has a wood chipper. However, in common with some other mezcal producers, they prefer not to use it, feeling it tears the agave too much, rather than chopping it. Nope, they do it the hard way for better results ~
And then the piña is whittled down into smaller pieces ~
So that it can go into this slot and be pounded into pulp by the immensely heavy pestle ~
The pulp goes into big vats. Once properly fermented, the liquid is transferred to the stills. We sampled the fermented product, which is rather bitter and not pleasant ~
The mash in the vat ferments (with natural yeasts, none are added) until it reaches around 5% alcohol. At that time the goop is put into the clay pot stills you see here. That is topped by a pan which is sealed to the pot and which is continuously fed with cold water. A fire is kept burning under the pot and a reed tube protrudes from the base of the pot so that the distilled liquor can flow out. This first distillation produces a liquid of about 20% to 30% alcohol. That will be distilled a second time for a finished product of anywhere between 45% and 55% alchohol.
The objects hanging in the window are chicken breasts! They were used in the production of pechuga (breast), a type of mezcal which incorporates meat in the distillation process. The meat is laid over the distillation tube inside the pot, along with in some cases, fruits and nuts. No, the finished product does not taste like any of those things, but it can be very complex and interesting.
Note how the reeds making up the ceiling have turned a rich color from the fires beneath the stills ~
After some extremely appreciative tasting of four different mezcals -- damn, this stuff is good! -- we go inside to make our purchases ~
That is our host, the master mezcalero, when he was tiny, standing under a great big agave ~
Onward to the next palenque. Here we see the common method of a horse or mule turning a millstone to crush the baked agave. The work is still labor-intensive. The whole process of creating mezcal requires constant tending.
You can see everything is slightly more modern here, from the copper stills to the tanks of cooling water, but the essential method is the same ~
All those barrels to be filled and monitored ~
Hmmm -- looks as though accidents happen from time to time ~
I found there was a marked difference in taste even among different types produced at the same place. When you sample two mezcals made from different agaves, you really understand why such a big deal is made over the different types.
I would say that the differences in mezcal are just as marked as the differences in wine -- the weather, the terroir, the specific plants all influence the taste of the final product, as well as the little details such as dripping the distillate over chicken breasts or something else.
Seeing the horse drawn crusher reminded me of the Egyptian water wheels driven by donkeys, they certainly were not allowed much rest. The name shaduf springs to mind but I may have the wrong method of raising water.
Man is not lost, only temporarily uncertain of his position
The humans also seem to be working very hard. The only tequila I ever had was not a very good one, and I didn't like it. I'd love to try mescal. There too, one would have to have a guide who knows quality. I'm really not in the habit of drinking hard liquor, and if it is harsh, it gives me a terrible headache.
I have never liked tequila either although it has its place in a margarita. I had never tasted mezcal before coming to Mexico and was surprised to discover that I liked it quite a bit. It is every bit as good as some of the French products like armagnac, calvados or even cognac although I cannot affirm that it matches up to the very best of those products, since I myself am not very familiar with the contents of those fine bottles priced above $70. The most interesting thing about mezcal is the smoky flavour, which one can find in some of the more expensive whiskies. What we were seeing (and buying) was being sold for about $10 a liter for standard quality outside the "official" circuits and therefore had no taxes applied to it. (For a start, the VAT in Mexico is something like 16% and I would suppose that there is also an alcohol tax.)
Yes, that sounds very interesting - much more interesting than the tequila I've tasted, though I'm sure there is far better tequila as well. It is certainly the proper spirit for a margarita, but I'm not big on cocktails in general. The only times I've tasted high-end cognac or single-malt scotch, I certainly wasn't the one paying for it.
Kerouac's photos and explanations are excellent, so I'm hard pressed to find something a little different to show right now. As he points out, the disparity between the sleek modern containers and the international market for their product and the ancient low-tech production method is striking ~
Mick, I'd say you need to taste mezcal -- a nice aged one is a good introduction.
Lagatta, my advice to Mick applies to you as well. And you make an excellent point about labor. Really, the whole beast of burden thing is hard to take for animal lovers, but when you see the amount of labor assumed by humans in less developed countries, it's easier to understand why they demand the same from their animals.
Re: prices ~ Kerouac is a little off about what we were paying. Even here, high quality mezcal that is bottled and bearing a tax stamp can be shockingly expensive. The liter of excellent aged stuff that Htmb graciously bought (& which I'm still enjoying) was $14.60 at today's exchange rate. It was decanted at the source into a juice bottle. I'm sure that were it offered in sealed, labeled, tax-stamped glass it would be at least twice that for a fifth (750 ml bottle). At the local organic market, they routinely ask 700 pesos and upward for a fifth. I am thinking that a liter of tobalá at one of the palenques we visited was @600 pesos, but don't totally trust my memory on that. However, you can also buy mezcal from strolling vendors in markets for @100 pesos or less and local tiny general stores are likely to have it under the counter to decant into your container for that price. It definitely will not be of the quality of the stuff we got to sample on the day of our tour, though.
You all may be wondering what we tried and what was bought. Let's start at the beginning, before the tour. I wanted Htmb and Kerouac to try mezcal, so bought some Oro de Oaxaca, a commercially produced brand widely available here. I got the best of their aged (añejo) versions -- five years in white oak casks previously used for aging bourbon in the US. It's quite smooth and we all enjoyed it. As you can see, it is from Matatlán, an area know for fine mezcal and the area we visited on our tour.
Please note that the mezcal in the bottle, although the right color, is not in fact the Oro de Oaxaca, owing to the fact that we drank all of that. What is actually in the bottle is the lovely añejo purchased by Htmb. It is by Juan Hernandez of Matatlán, a fact recorded on a masking tape strip now gracing the glass bottle.
It should be mentioned that Htmb and I only travelled with carry-on luggage and therefore could not take any mezcal on the plane from Oaxaca when it was time to leave. So we left everything with Bixaorellana. If she is not so good at posting in the near future, it might be because of those extra bottles of mezcal that were left at her place.
I did buy a bottle of mezcal in Mexico City, but I really had to grab about the first bottle I saw at duty free, because I was given my standby boarding pass only 10 minutes before boarding time and had to rush through security at top speed. I was dismayed to see later that it is only 38° alcohol (76 proof), probably for some obscure fiscal reason. It still tastes good, though.
Thanks Bixa, I somehow knew I had the wrong name. Let's face it that is a memory from over 60 years ago and I felt sorry for the poor animal. The locals were extremely poor and so their animals got little consideration, it always annoyed me to see a fat fellahin sitting on his skinny little donkey with the ribs showing, and prodding it along with a little stick. Meanwhile his woman trailed along on the end of a long cord.
I guess Cyprus rotgut brandy at 3 shillings and sixpence (17.5 pence) a bottle was similar to your mezcal.
Man is not lost, only temporarily uncertain of his position
Thanks for the kind words, Casimira. Sorry, but I still can't help but laughing over your choking surprise upon glugging down what you thought was water.
Moving on to the next place ~
The big pile of agave shorn of leaves is ready to be put into the quite nice pit for cooking. You can see how much wood is needed -- wood that needs to be bought and brought in. Part of the cost of that is defrayed by selling the charcoal that is produced while baking the agave ~
This place also crushes with a horse-driven millstone. While that bunch is being readied another is fermenting away ~
Here some nice pieces of freshly baked agave are being selected for us to chew. I love the fibrous treat -- it is smoky and tastes somewhat like a more complex baked sweet potato ~
Checking out the scenery around the farm. The greenhouses are for growing tomatoes. The smooth cactus is the kind used for raising cochineal.
Despite the elegance of their product, the equipment is someone rough and ready. Here a truck tire rim has been modified for the fire pit beneath the still ~
These are the cooling tanks for the stills. You can see where the water is drawn up and where it's returned. The steam on the further tank shows how hot the water eventually gets during the distillation process.
It's time to muck out the leftover mash from the still and to freshen the cooling tanks -- a hot and potentially dangerous activity ~
Indeed, so labor intensive and seemingly precise in knowing what they are doing. I had no clue how involved a process this involved. Which makes the thread that much more incredible. I shared it with my husband a bit ago and he, having been the recipient of 2 bottles of what I believe was top notch mezcal from B. on a visit here which we sparingly imbibed in and shared with some folks who were more familiar with the bounty and blown away by.
A couple of questions. (perhaps I missed it) but, how far outside of the city limits does this enterprise happen? Are they under governmental inspection/restrictions subject to regulations a la health dept. codes etc.as some of the pics do not present an especially hygienic or sanitary environ. (which I don't give a hoot about and would have no reservations about personally).
Mainly, I would like to know if these incredibly intensive hard working etc. people profit enough or is it another example of underpaid worked to the bone night and day enterprise?
As for B.and her posting PUIM,that was a nice throw in there K2 along with the pic of "visions". I know she can hold her own.