The Embodiment of Permaculture: Artisanal Mezcal Production

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By Alvin Starkman, M.A., J.D.

Mezcal is 
the iconic
spirit, most of which is
 distilled in the state of
Oaxaca. Its meteoric rise
 on the world stage began 
less than 25 years ago,
 when in 1995 Del Maguey
 became the first brand to 
export artisanal mezcal in
 a significant way, to the
US and then further
 abroad. Similarly,
 permaculture had its
 genesis not that long ago.
While the seed for the idea
 of permaculture was
 planted in the 1920s, the term was first coined in 1978, by the
 Australians Bill Mollison
 and David Holmgren. Perhaps coincidentally, it’s only been a couple of decades since the concept, its interpretation, and applications began receiving attention globally, just like interest in artisanal mezcal.

Permaculture is a design concept initially formulated to mirror how systems in nature survive, persist, and indeed prevail. Back then it combined the words permanent and agriculture. It was meant to teach how humans could conduct their agricultural lives by observing nature. It was a philosophy of design principles for sustaining the environment and hence making it viable on an ongoing basis for human benefit through wise use of land, crops, water, and nature in general. A decade after the term was first promulgated, Mollison and others began writings that went further, interpreting the term to include and stand for permanent culture as well as agriculture, that is, concepts, philosophies, and design strategies not only for the benefit and maintenance of natural systems, but also of humans as both individuals and members of families and communities.

My participation in and observation of mezcal production and agave cultivation since the early 1990s has led me to the conclusion that those who make the spirit in an artisanal fashion represent the embodiment of the current manifestation of permaculture, in as pure a form as any industry in Mexico.

Within the context of mezcal, agave, the broader environment and human settlement in Oaxaca, I suggest that permaculture is: the intricate and harmonious weaving together of what nature provides in a microclimate with material goods and human needs/aspirations, in an ethical manner that, while minimizing adverse impact, self-sustains the complete system as well as advances it to an optimum, realistic, and attainable extent.

To illustrate mezcal production as permaculture, we examine the tools of the trade, almost exclusively produced locally; the means of production, that is, human cooperation within a family or community to maximize labor output while minimizing cost; and both recycling and using every part of the plant and the byproducts of production, thereby creating the least detriment to and the most sustainability for the environment. Here’s how it fits together.

Mezcal production requires

  •  agave that is cultivated or harvested wild from outlying 
parts of the state, in both cases in relatively close 
proximity to the palenque (artisanal distillery);
  •  machetes and other iron tools produced in Oaxaca, for cutting the agave out of the fields and removing the 
  •  firewood and rocks for the in-ground oven, 
respectively cut and mined from nearby forests and quarries. 
And you must
· crush the baked sweet agave by hand with a wooden 
mallet or using a beast of burden dragging a limestone 
· ferment in typically locally made wooden slat vats, 
adding mountain spring, well, or river water;
· distill in either clay pots or copper alembics, both produced nearby as well as most materials for their 
Mezcal production requires labor:
  •  typically artisanal distillation is a family trade, with 
parents, children and grandchildren involved in production, the tradition passed down from generation to generation, to both sexes;
  •  often families work co-operatively with others in the village, so as to minimize labor and material costs;
  •  those who have never accumulated resources to build 
a palenque rent from other palenqueros (at a modest fee, typically a percentage of the yield), a “win-win” while maintaining healthy mutually beneficial community relationships;
  •  families work out production schedules with little if any conflict, which maximizes use of the palenque and results in efficient use of human resources;
  •  as a consequence of the mezcal boom, villages where mezcal is distilled typically have less emigration to the US than those in which the spirit is not produced.

With tools of the trade and means of production (the human element) having been illustrated within the context of permaculture, the final component of our definition is that artisanal mezcal production generates no waste. In fact, making mezcal maintains and enhances the environment through sustainable practices:

  •  agave, a succulent, requires very little water in reaching maturity after the first year of growth, adapts to a broad diversity of climatic zones, and is efficiently reproduced through cross-pollination by bats, hummingbirds, bees, etc.;
  •  while agave takes several years to grow, in between the rows under cultivation campesinos often plant corn, beans, and squash (the “three sisters”), not only complementing growth, but also providing families with year-round nutrition and income;
  •  after the piña (heart) is harvested, the discarded leaves and the flower stalk are gathered (typically by others), then dried and used as firewood for fueling rudimentary pottery kilns, and cooking tortillas, moles, salsas, meats, etc., thus sustaining entire communities;
  •  seconds and discards in the forestry industry are used to fuel the ovens and stills;
  •  charcoal is created at the bottom of the oven after baking, and is used for cooking and fertilizing crops; the ash from distilling is also employed for the latter;
  •  waste fiber from distilling is used to insulate the rocks from the agave during baking, and just as importantly as mulch, compost, substratum for growing mushrooms, materials for adobe bricks, paper, planters and more;
  •  tail-end distillation liquid that has not been utilized to make mezcal is used as a non-toxic cleaning solvent and to cure containers prior to their use for storing, transporting and selling mezcal.

Notwithstanding how the foregoing illustrates (but a fraction of) how artisanal mezcal production is consistent with the tenets of permaculture, a significant shortcoming has yet to be adequately addressed: water.

Because of the dramatic increase in mezcal production, the effluent that is often simply discarded after the initial distillation and left to filter into the water table, can potentially harm humans because of its chemical composition. While efforts are being made to address the problem, change comes slowly. In addition, water is a lifeblood (together with agave) of mezcal production. It is used in condensation, and is a key component in the fermentation stage. Water shortage has yet to be adequately tackled. But as palenqueros and brand owners adapt, they will no doubt address any adversity which comes their way in terms of water and otherwise, advancing both permanent agriculture and permanent culture, that is, permaculture.

Alvin Starkman operates Mezcal Educational Excursions of Oaxaca