Monday, September 10, 2012

Por Todo Mal Mezcal

It has been a while, and I will not try to fill in the gap, except to say that life has been busy with three new grandkids (two in California and one in Chicago), involvement in local things like the neighborhood group and the indigenous ladies in Huimilpan, my art, and lots of friends, fiestas and cultural activities.

This past weekend C and I visited San Luis Potosi (SLP) for the first time since 2006 when we decided we would not like to live there as it was too run down, with nothing much to see, and security seemed to be an issue. While I still do not think we would want to live there, we may have been a little to hasty about the general conditions and the lack to interesting things to see and do there.

A month ago a friend, James, from Atlanta who started the Dekalb County Historic Preservation Commission in the 1990s came for a visit, and together with his wife Carol I went to the Mexico ICOMOS (International Council on Monuments and Sites of UNESCO) conference in Toluca.  James was also attending the international meeting of ICOMOS’ legal commitee. 

At the conference, a friend from San Luis Potosi, Miguel, who is an expert on the manufacturing of mezcal, announced that he was heading up a month long celebration and educational program on mezcal. Mezcal is a distilled alcohol from one of the many agave varieties (known locally as maguey) of which there are about 150 in Mexico. Tequila is the best known variety of mezcal based on better public relations, more modern distillation methods, and the predominant use of the blue agave, giving it a distinctive flavor.  Most people associate the name mezcal with the agave alcohol from Oaxaca which has a strong smoky flavor, although the largest manufacturers of mezcal are probably in the SLP, Guerrero, Puebla, Hidalgo areas.

The basic method of mezcal manufacture consists of collecting the piña (“pineapples”) of the maguey plant (sometimes called century plant in the US southwest), by cutting off the large pointed leaves revealing the core of the plant which contains the agua de miel (“honey water”).  Traditionally, these piñas are then roasted and crushed under stone rollers to extract the juice. The juice is then allowed to ferment for several days, and once it has fermented it is filtered (more or less) and distilled in a traditional alambique  (alembic or large copper kettle with a constricted top and a tube leading off of it to extract the alcohol).  More modern methods have been introduced since the early 20th century, including better filters, modern crushing or pulverizing machines, and modern distillers, although these have been used more for the tequila variety, and mezcal has tended to be more traditional.

Miguel’s program consists of a series of Friday evening academic colloquia on the history, culture and manufacture of mezcal and a Saturday tour (7AM-9PM) of the mezcal regions of SLP, including visits to agave fields, as well as to traditional and modern manufacturing plants.

This weekend we joined the tour.  The Friday evening colloquium was on distillation patents in the late 19th-early 20th century, historic distillation methods from Europe and Asia that were brought together in colonial Mexico, and other topics, plus talks by two manufacturers of mezcal illustrating the differences between traditional and more modern methods of mezcal manufacture. The following day we visited the plants of these two speakers.

One of the more curious aspects of the tour was that we were accompanied all day by a four piece band playing ranchero music.  Wherever we went they followed in a pickup and began playing, whether it was in the middle of a maguey field, in a plant, at a hacienda. It was a little surreal, like the Mexican movie Herod’s Law and other recent Mexican movies.  There was always this ranchero background music to everything. Of course there was always a lot of mezcal being passed around to fill up the little Mexican clay cups we all had hanging around our necks. After a while, it became a little hard to tell the real from the surreal.

Ranchero band in the maguey field

Ranchero band at Laguna Seca Plant, note the little mezcal cups around their necks.

Ranchero band at Zaragoza de Solis Plant

The first plant we visited is owned and operated by the Zaragoza de Solis ejido (communally owned indigenous town) a 2.5 hour bus trip from SLP. The mezcal made here and at the second plant, nearby Laguna Seca, are from a local variety of maguey that grows wild rather than in neat rows like one sees around Querétaro, Jalisco and Puebla, and even in Oaxaca.  One therefore finds a mix of immature and mature plants in the landscape which makes collecting it a very labor intensive job.

Immature maguey with evidence of red worm infestation

Maguey field and me with my little mezcal cup

The wild maguey is also infested with little red worms which zero in on the honey-water in the piña.  These worms have become a delicacy worth thousands of pesos a pound in Mexico City restaurants. So the locals are trying to make money off both the worms, which destroy the maguey, and the mezcal which requires healthy maguey.  This conflict of interests prevents either product from really being harvested efficiently. And the whole system relies on very, very cheap labor.  One gets the impression that they should devote some fields to worm production and others to mezcal kept free of worms and more amenable to row crops. And it is clear that once workers begin being paid better the price of the worms and the mezcal will sky-rocket, or they will go out of business.

 Red worms infesting the piña of a maguey


Worms collected from a couple of maguey plants

She actually ate it raw, but normally you fry them first.

Curiously, the indigenous operation at Zaragoza de Solis is the most modern mezcal operation, perhaps in Mexico.  Rather than roasting the pineapples and crushing under stone rollers to extract the juice, they have a modern, stainless steel grinding/threshing machine that directly extracts the juice with no roasting. This means they can process several hundred kilos in a few minutes rather than wasting days roasting and crushing the piñas. The juice is pumped directly to a modern filter system that removes most of the impurities.  From there it is fermented, filtered again to get 99% of the impurities, and then run through two distillers. Finally, the finished mezcal is stored in a 4,000 liter stainless steel tank awaiting bottling. The plant produces about 500 liters a day of high quality mezcal with a rounder flavor than tequila, but not as strong a flavor as Oaxaca or traditional mezcal. The ejido has not been slow to market their product either. They have been marketing to the US and Europe, and a German group just offered to buy 500 liters a month at whatever cost the ejido decides is fair, which is considerably more than in Mexico.  The price of 3/4 liter at the plant was $100MN or about $7.50 US.  At the end of the plant tour, we were treated to a snack of guacamole and fried worm tacos, which C and I did not take advantage of, and of course, the mezcal was flowing into our little ceramic cups all backed up by increasingly loud ranchero music.  (They were provided with mezcal too.)

Modern distillery at Zaragoza de Solis

The village of Zaragoza de Solis

The second plant was 15 minutes up the road at Laguna Seca.  This is a large mezcal plant, much larger than the little mom and pop outfits in Oaxaca that you may be familiar with.  And it has been in operation in the same buildings for 400 years!  Inside the buildings one can see the progression of technology over the centuries, as they have simply added new equipment next to the old which is then abandoned but not demolished.  This is common in a lot of places and industries in Mexico, where one can often see the progress in technology in a single plant or building.  However, the basic method used has not changed too much since the 17th century.  They still roast the piñas although in large industrial sized furnaces, they still use stone rollers to crush the roasted piñas although they now import the stones from Chile and use a John Deere tractor instead of mules to pull the rollers, they still use a press like a cider press to filter the juice, large open vats to ferment the juice, and an alembic with a combination of copper and stainless steel to distill it.  This plant also uses the wild maguey variety of the region which gives the mezcal from this area a characteristic and pleasant flavor.  While the mezcal from Zaragoza de Solis is purer and made with more modern and efficient techniques, I preferred the taste of the Laguna Seca product, which is more flavorful than Zaragoza, but not heavy and smoky like Oaxaca.  Laguna Seca is one of the major mezcals in Mexico and for export.  A full liter cost only $85MN or about $6.50 US.

Alembic of copper with steel top at Laguna Seca, not much changed in 400  years

A more "modern" condenser at Laguna Seca

Stone roller and basin powered by a tractor

Older crusher/filter at Laguna Seca

After the plant tour we had a late, by US standards, lunch in the 400 year old plant with plenty more mezcal and even louder ranchero music to which half the folks and even I, on one song, sang along. As the sun began going down we boarded the bus and headed back to SLP, exhausted and just a little borracho.  It was an excellent day and very Mexican, because as usual we were the only gringos.