Maguey to Mezcál
Palenque Mezcál El Portillo
San Baltazár Guelavila, Oaxaca, Mexico
In the Benito market on Friday afternoon, I waved a friendly greeting at Aarón Hernández, a palenquero from San Sebastián Teitipac, from whom I buy mezcál in Oaxaca de Juárez. He overtly gestured me over. He and wife Mari were selling four different mezcales. But he wanted not to sell, rather to alert me of algo especiál, a special event. Knowing that I planned to visit his palenque in Teitipac to see his distilling operation, he offered an alternative. He reported that next Thursday he and his crew would begin to harvest one of his mezcál fields. He invited me to come, and to document the event with my camera.
Aarón described what he expected. First will come cutting off the leaves of the maguey and digging out the piñas, the bulb of the agave. On Friday the piñas will be processed for roasting and mashing, and the encino, the firewood, will be gathered. Distilling the mash into mezcál will follow in about two weeks time. The experience would expose the entire process of maguey to mezcál. Where is the palenque I asked? He answered “near San Dionisio Ocotepec.” Hotels? No. I understood that the palenque is Más allá que Matatlán. So we left it that on Wednesday night I would get a hotel in Santiago Matatlán, and on Thursday morning take a taxi for a twenty minute ride to the palenque called Cuatro Magueyes, Four Magueys.
Because of the camera, we dressed for the occasion. Karen brought out an embroidered long-sleeved blouse to wear under her broad hat from Ocotlán, each demonstrating Oaxaca as well as protecting her from the sun while in the field. I chose a guayabera shirt with a filipino collar and a wide-brimmed, palm-woven hat from Tekax. Other than our white hides and blue eyes, we looked like Oaxaqueños. We were ready for mezcál.
The Carretera Internacionál highway 190 enjoys several names as it passes through Oaxaca de Juárez. Niños Héroes de Chapultepec is the 190 that borders the Historic District on the south and Reforma on the north. Near the baseball stadium and the Volkswagen dealership is a foráneos taxi stand, a stand for taxis entering and leaving the city, foreign taxis that court travelers to the east. Locals call it Sitio Volkswagen.
Wednesday morning Karen and I hopped a bus from our San Felipe house to Ninos Heroes and walked to the Sitio Volkswagen. A foráneos collectivo taxi was waiting for four more passengers, but the driver left as soon as we two boarded. At the next corner three Zapotec women climbed in, so the driver had his five riders, and he headed to Tlacolula where three would exit.
We left Tlacolula with only Karen and I as riders. For a fare of 15 pesos (75¢) each we reached the Hotel Pedregal on the outskirts of Matatlán. Inside the lobby a friendly Zapoteca showed us number 9 and we paid her 250 pesos ($12.50) for a clean room that contained only a bed, a fan, a tiny table, and no chair.
Leaving our cubicle, we went to the highway and began to stroll toward the downtown area. Matatlán proclaims itself the mezcál capital of the world, a declaration strengthened by the overhead banner stretching above the highway, complete with a distiller atop.
After passing under the banner, soon a moto appeared, a motorcycle taxi that could carry three people. For 10 pesos (50¢) driver Carlos carried us the central plaza surrounded by the police station, the market and the church. There we began our exploration of Matatlán.
Sleepy is an understatement of the ambiance of the Zapotec town. Remarkable were the extremely clean streets empty of pedestrians, traffic, rubbish, noise, and callejeros, street dogs. It felt like walking through a silent movie. Finding little of interest in el centro, we made our way back toward the highway, searching for food and drink, which we found on the east side of town at Comedor Jessy. Cerveza Victoria cost 15 pesos (75¢) and we used them to wash down huge 20 peso ($1) quesadillas stuffed with mushrooms and cooked on an open oven fueled by encino wood. The salsa was a blend of guajillo and arbol chiles.
Jessy’s became our eatery and drinkery in Matatlán. Six tables squatted on the porch that fronted the highway. The scent of burning encino and roasting tortillas, the three dogs that slept on the porch, the norteña music from across the highway, the infrequent roar of passing trucks, and the chatting of Josefa and Carmen, the waitress and cook, provided the porch ambiance. On the way to the bathroom inside the comedor, one was greeted by the perfume of fabulosa, the ubiquitous floor cleaner known to every woman in Mexico. The sanitario, the bathroom, was spotless and fully equipted for all necessities, a condition very unusual for such a place.
We walked everywhere. The odor of fermented maguey mash, the bagazo, is never absent unless it is overridden by the aroma of encino wood burning in palenque fires. Whenever a local appeared, we were greeted warmly, welcomed into the town, and thanked for coming. On several occassions, after hearing us speak Spanish to Josefa at Jessy’s, we were approached by curious locals and Mexicans passing through as to the reason for our presence and the source of our Spanish. Our answers brought nods of both puzzlement and approval, heightened curiosity, and recommendations of what we might find of interest. Foremost of the suggestions was a village called Salinas, where one finds a frozen waterfall, a river, and no tourists. Más allá de San Baltazár Guelavila the local described the location.
Artesanias in Matatlán are almost all painted ceramics. Of interest were large pieces. We had found only smaller ceramics in Oaxaca de Juárez. Transporting these bigger pieces is possible, but a consideration. The artesania is found in mezcál stores. Most pieces are planters. Wall decorations are also prominent, as are vases and pitchers. Prices are low.
Taxis pass through Matatlán all the time. The sitio, the cab stand for eastbound travelers, is on the highway at the panadería, the bakery. Westbound taxis are across the street. At the central plaza can be found cabs heading each way. We decided to wait at the bakery on Thursday morning.
From the hotel I called Aarón. He confirmed that the taxi to hail is the one to San Dionisio Ocotepec. The plan was to have the cab driver speak to Aarón once that we were aboard and underway. We slept confidently Wednesday night.
An adventure is an undertaking for which the result is unknown. Good traveling practice is to depart on an adventure with a full stomach. We found breakfast at a roadside comedor after walking from the hotel Thursday morning. The plates were huge – huevos Mexicanos for Karen, enchiladas coloraditas for Paco. The café de olla was awesome, just enough cinnamon. Panzas llenas, we walked with full bellies to the bakery and, after a short wait, climbed into a cab for a 15 peso (75¢) ride to San Dionisio Ocotepec. Rolling out of Matatlán, the taxista spoke to Aarón on my cell phone. Although we sensed some confusion, the driver assured us that our destination was known.
San Dionisio Ocotepec lies to the west of the federal highway. At the intersection, I expected to turn to the right, but the driver flew right past it. He saw that I was puzzled and motioned that all was well. Just a short distance ahead sat a squat building. I could see a blue pickup parked beside the highway. Aarón had told me to look for such. The taxista pulled to a stop beside the pickup. Striding toward us came Aarón. We had arrived at Cuatro Magueyes, also known as Palenque Mezcál El Portillo.
Our adventure in the maguey fields was about to begin.
What follows is an account of the mezcál harvest and distilling. I prepared it for the mezcaleros, who intended to use it for purposes of eliciting English-speaking foreigners to invest in their operation.
Preparado para revisión por inversores que tienen interesa de invertir en la empresa de Mezcal El Portillo. Este documento es autentico y actual. Escrito y fotografiado por norteamericano ingeniero Nugent Brasher. De favor revisar la seción epilogue al final del documento.
Following the traditional abrazo, Aarón guided us to the blue pickup and we bumped to a hillside where men cut maguey with machetes. There we spent several hours amongst the cutters, known as cortadores or jimadores. Before we joined them we toasted madre naturaleza, Mother Earth, with a caballito of mezcál, careful to toss half the jigger-full on the ground for the madre.
Jimadores at work. In the distance is the palenque, the distillery.
Using a machete to trim the espadín maguey. The “leaves” cut from the maguey are called pencas. The field was planted seven years ago. The time for harvest is when the lower pencas turn yellow or red.
The “bulb” is called a piña, a pineapple. The “stalk” is called a kiote or quiote.
The piña is chopped from the ground with an axe, an hacha.
When necessary, a bar, the barreta, is used to pry the piña from the ground.
To trim the piña a spoon-shaped coa is used. Sometimes a sledge hammer, a marro, is needed. Ever present is the machete, sharpened with a file, the lima.
Piñas and pencas.
The piñas are sometimes split in the field.
Considered lucky is to find worms, gusanos, in the roots of the piñas. These are fried and used to make the salt called sal de gusano, eaten with a shot of mezcal, or with anything. Some mezcales include a gusano in the bottle.
The piñas are hauled from the field to the oven. Although the same age, some are bigger than others. The larger enjoyed down-slope locations where they received more water run-off.
Our first day in the fields ended once the hauling was completed.
Beginning day two of the harvest, pit ovens, called hornos agaveros or horneados, that were used during the previous roasting are cleaned. Rocks and charcoal are removed.
Encino trunks serve as bottom wood for the horno. The pit is lined with rocks. This pit has a four-ton capacity.
After ignition, more wood is added.
Rocks are added to the horno.
Once the rocks are added, the area around the horno is cleaned.
The piñas are split into halves for roasting.
Wheelbarrows transport the piñas to the horno.
Ready to add the piñas to the fire. The first ones are around the edges of the rocks.
Notice that the top rocks of the horno remain without piñas.
On top of the rocks is added bagazo, the fibrous remains of fermented maguey from the previous distilling. This protects the piñas from burning.
Piñas are thrown onto the bagazo.
Chips from splitting the piñas, called botanas, the same word as snacks, are bagged and placed into the horno.
Bags are sewn and prepared to cover the horno.
After the cover is added, dirt is thrown onto the cover, and encino trunks are used to secure the cover. The cover will be closely monitored during the roasting process.
The covered horno is crowned with a bottle of mezcál. With the harvest in the horno, we all shared a caballito of previously distilled juice, being certain to sprinkle some on the mound. The piñas would roast for four days.
The maguey we harvested was espadín. This variety is cultivated as opposed to wild. Mezcaleros often purchase maguey from outside their own fields. Espadín is the most expensive to buy. The wild varieties, that is, those not cultivated, are less expensive. What follows is counter-intuitive. Bottled espadín sells for much less than wild varieties. Therefore, the profit margin for mezcaleros is better for the wild varieties because the wild costs less to buy and sells for more.
Wild maguey of three types.
Wild Madrequiche maguey. This variety is also known as Cirial.
Wild Tobalá maguey. This is the most common wild variety distilled.
Wild Tepextate quiote on left. Cultivated Espadín quiote on right.
Espadín buds before the yellow flowers erupt. These flowers grow bulbs when pinched off. The bulbs are planted and grow other espadín. Different types of maguey have flowers, but these turn to seeds and must be collected for planting. Wild magueyes reproduce by wind-blown seeds.
The players during the first two days of harvest.
From left: Aarón Hernández Hernández, Patricia Marina García Hernández, Macario Hernández García, Rosalino Hernández, Luis Jiménez, Karen Brasher, Zacarias Martínez, López, Immanuel Martínez Martínez, Flor de los Remedios Garcia Hernández.
The maguey roasted for four days. On Tuesday morning 28 May 2019 we returned to the palenque.
The first order of business was to uncover the maguey, to open the oven.
On several occassions, traffic stopped to buy chunks of roasted maguey. This is candy sweet and is sucked or chewed, the fiber spit after all the nectar is enjoyed.
Not all the roasted piñas can be mashed at one time. Those awaiting mashing are stored.
Loading mashed maguey called bagazo.
Bagazo is brought to the fermenting barrels called tinas.
Tinas awaiting bagazo.
Bagazo into the tina.
Bagazo atop the bottom of the tina.
The tina is filled with bagazo.
Water is added to the tina to begin fermentation of the bagazo.
Foam, called masa, forms on the top of the fermenting bagazo. This is scraped off and used as a sealant, sellador, during the distilling process.
Depending upon the air temperature and the quality of maguey, fermentation requires some three-six days, the cooler the longer. Fermentation yields a liquid called tepache or caldo de bagazo.
Always mindful of sanitary conditions, the olla de cobre, the copper pot, is cleaned and readied for the tepache.
Tepache into the olla.
Add shishe, a 20 grade mezcál which was derived from the last liquid produced in the previous olla.
Add bagazo to olla.
Apply sealant, the sellador, to rim of olla.
Place the montero atop the olla.
Connect the montero to the cooling tank, tanque, and seal the connections.
Inside the cooling tanque, under the water, is the copper serpentín, the coil. Vapor will pass from the montero through the turbante into the serpentín, where the vapor will condense to form liquid.
Bring encino wood to the hornilla to heat the olla.
Fire up the hornilla to heat the tepache inside the copper olla.
The first liquid produced is called despunte or metanol. This is poisonous and is separated for later use. Unethical mezcaleros do not separate this liquid, or they adulterate their final product with this poison. Guests at Mexican resorts, especially on the Maya Riviera, buy liquor from unlicensed distillers. During the past several years, deaths and incapacitations have become common there. The likely cause is despunte in the moonshine.
From the serpentín inside the tanque comes mezcál out the copper pipe called the salida, the exit.
Mezcál filling a container called a galón, the word having nothing to do with the gallon measurement. The first mezcál out the salida is called punta de tepache, a high grade alcohol.
Throughout the distillation process, the mezcalero monitors the liquid. This is performed visually. Liquid is captured and shaken, this to produce bubbles called cordón. The degree of bubbling indicates the grade alcohol.
As distillation continues, the mezcalero watches the cordón decrease. By eye and experience, the mezcalero determines when the grade alcohol of the punta decreases to a level where it is no longer punta. At this point the galón of punta de tepache is removed and replaced by a different galón. The lesser grade mezcál filling this galón is called ordinario.
Distillation continues until the cordón disappears, that is, there are no more bubbles because the ordinario grade alcohol has decreased. Once again the galón is changed. The galón holding the mezcál ordinario is removed and replaced by a galón that captures shishe, the lowest grade produced. Distillation continues until all the liquid in the olla has been vaporized and the olla is empty, ready to be cleaned and refilled.
In the end, three different grade alcohols are captured – punta de tepache, ordinario, and shishe. The process is repeated until all the contents of the tina are used. Each tina produces about six ollas of liquid. At this point in the exercise, the first distillation is completed. The punta de tepache and the ordinario are stored in 200-liter barrels called tambos. The shishe, of which little is produced, is stored in galones of five or ten liters.
The second distillation begins. The olla is filled with a blend of punta de tepache, ordinario, and shishe, the blend determined by the mezcalero. The blend is run through the distillery a second time to produce doble distilación mezcál. This is stored in a tambo to be bottled or poured into small galones. Should the palenquero desire to age the mezcál, the liquid is placed into Canadian white oak barrels. Depending upon the time aged, the final mezcál is either reposado or añejo.
Mezcál is laborous to produce and the maguey takes years to mature to harvest status. These two factors result in a product not easily created. Such consumer items are targets for replacement by more accessible products. In the case of mezcál, the replacement was aguardiente, made from fast-growing sugar cane in a process requiring little labor. Aguardiente ended the mezcál boom.
Aarón Hernandez is from Matatlán, as is wife Mari. They recall the mezcál boom. Matatlán supported hundreds of palenques. Workers from all over Mexico flowed into mezcál country to help with the production. The arrival of aguardiente caused the number of palenques to drop dramatically. Many of the surviving palenques began to produce inferior mezcál, often adulterated with pharmacy alcohol, aguardiente, or water. A common method of producing inferior mezcál is to place the piñas into the oven before the rocks are hot enough – this practice causes the piñas to absorb too much smoke, which serves to reduce the flavor of the mezcál. Old-timers in the region claim that today’s mezcál is only a shadow of its former grandeur. The exception to this claim are palenqueros that adher to the old style and continue to produce a superior mezcál. These palenqueros are known and sought.
Matatlán remains as the capital of mezcál. Palenques are scattered all over the pueblo, the most obvious ones located on the international highway. Tour buses make scheduled stops at chosen palenques. To supply these palenques with piñas, trucks arrive from the countryside.
A truck heading to Matatlán with a load of piñas.
After the harvest comes the fiesta!
Master mezcaleros holding madrequiche mezcál.
Durante mis días en El Portillo, hablé largamente con el señor Macario Hernández García. Aunque llegué a El Portillo por invitación del señor Aarón Hernández Hernández, me di cuenta de que el operador actual era Sr. Hernández García, reconocido por Sr. Hernández Hernández como maestro mezcalero. En nombre de Sr. Hernández García, he preparado este prospecto.
During my days at El Portillo, I spoke at length with Señor Macario Hernández García. Although I arrived at El Portillo through an invitation by Señor Aarón Hernández Hernández, I came to realize that the actual operator was Sr. Hernández García, acknowledged by Sr. Hernández Hernández as a maestro mezcalero. On behalf of Sr. Hernández García I have prepared this prospectus.