Tag Archives: mezcal

Resourcefulness and Ingenuity in Clay Pot Mezcal Distillation

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

When I read about the Year of the Ox, it reminded me of the resourcefulness and ingenuity of the hardworking Oaxacans who make mezcal. Why? Because not only is a team of oxen used to plow the earth, but the team is sometimes employed to transport agave hearts (piñas) from field to traditional family-operated distillery (palenque), or to crush them after baking. There’s no need to buy a horse or mule when you already have animals capable of doing multiple tasks. And their waste makes excellent fertilizer.

The start-up costs of building a clay pot (olla de barro) palenque in Oaxaca involve relatively little monetary outlay. However, the ongoing upkeep expenses have the potential to be out of reach for many distillers (palenqueros) of modest means … but for their ingenuity, resourcefulness, and sustainable practices.

Most clay pots used in Oaxacan mezcal production are produced in the town of Santa María Atzompa. They are made with locally sourced clay, water, and fire, and thus their cost is relatively modest, perhaps 800 pesos for the two receptacles required to make one still.

The housing that encases the bottom clay pot is made from clay and/or adobe bricks and mud, and nothing more. The adobe is made by mixing sand, mud, bovine and/or equine manure, and waste agave fiber (bagazo) discarded after distillation. Bagazo is often also used as compost or mulch, and when dampened, is typically employed in the baking process to insulate the piñas from the hot rocks.

Firewood goes at the bottom of the baking pit. Not straight logs the lumberjack sells at a premium to lumber yards, but rather seconds that the distillery is happy to acquire at a discount. Once the bake has been completed, where there once was firewood there is now charcoal. It is used a fertilizer to grow more agave (or other crops), or by the family for cooking and for sale.

Even the discarded agave leaves (pencas), once dried, have an important use as fuel. Entire Oaxacan communities live off them to cook tortillas, grill meats, make hot chocolate, and more.

Clay distillation pots last from roughly a couple of weeks to a year and a half, after which time they must be replaced. The bottom pot, as opposed to the upper clay cylinder, presents the more significant problem.

Once it cracks, the housing must be disassembled, the pot removed, a new one inserted, and the encasement re-built. The life of that bottom olla is extended by using a wooden tree branch shaped like a fork, its prongs joined with rope or wire, and not a metal pitch fork, to remove the bagazo.

Still, through cracking, clay pots are inevitably rendered unusable for their primary purpose. When that happens the fermented liquid or the subsequent single distillate can seep out and be lost. The damaged and discarded pots are frequently used as planters, but that bottom pot can still be used in the fermentation process. Most baked crushed agave is fermented in wood slat vats, but some palenqueros ferment in clay pots partially embedded in the ground. After a damaged pot has been removed from the still, it can be repaired with cement and used for fermenting; a broken olla de barro gets new life.

For clay-pot distillation to work, a continuous flow of cold water is required. It often arrives along a makeshift wooden trough, falling into the small conical condenser through a length of giant river reed (carrizo). Carrizo is an invasive wild plant, but it has multiple uses, including in the olla de barro distillation process. Carrizo is also sometimes employed to guide the water out of the condenser, and the distillate out of the still into a holding receptacle. Yet another use for the reed is as a bellows to stoke the flame under the clay pot during distillation. Some palenqueros purchase waste from a lumberyard de-barking process as fuel for their stills. The bark always includes some attached wood.

Long ago palenqeros used clay condensers in the distillation process. When metal became available, they switched. Originally, they used simple laminated metal, and some still do, although more recently stainless steel or copper have appeared. Some palenqueros have even adapted old aluminum construction worker hardhats. The shape is about the same, and with a little work they are almost as efficient as the others. When I visited a distillery in the town of Sola de Vega in 2012, the palenquero was still using hard hats as condensers!

Steam rises, hits the condenser, then the drops of liquid must fall onto something which then guides the liquid to the exterior of the cylinder, through the carrizo, down into the container. That something is typically a hand-hewn wooden spoon, or a small length of penca. The condenser is sealed to the upper cylinder, which is sealed in turn to the lower olla de barro, not with glue, but rather a paste that forms naturally on top of the fermentation vessel.

When the still is not in use, many palenqueros prefer keeping the opening underneath, into which firewood is placed to produce flame, closed off. Some state they don’t want young children playing hide-and-seek in the sooty and sometimes still hot orifice. Others don’t want their chickens laying eggs inside. A palenquero friend in Santa Catarina Minas keeps the opening closed using old metal discs from a plow.

I noted earlier the modest start-up costs for establishing a palenque for olla de barro distillation, and touched on the cost of the clay pots. The additional installations in clay (as well as copper) operations are almost free of out-of-pocket costs aside from labor: the baking pit in the ground, the ability to crush by hand using a wooden mallet and nothing more, and fermenting in an animal hide, a wood-lined hole in the ground or directly in a bedrock cavity.

The innate creativity of the palenquero distilling in clay is remarkable. And while we must admire his resourcefulness, it’s crucial that we not begrudge him for making technological advancements with a view to making life just a little easier, as his economic lot in life improves. Should not the romanticism we seek in rural Oaxaca sometimes take a back seat? The palenquero will retain most of his sustainable practices and continue to be resourceful, but surely deserves a break.

Alvin Starkman operates Mezcal Educational Excursions of Oaxaca (www.mezcaleducationaltours.com).

Women and Mezcal: Division of Labour between the Sexes

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

It is inaccurate to suggest that mezcal production in Oaxaca is by and large a man’s job or trade and that there are very few palenqueras, that is, artisanal mezcal distillers who are women. The female of the species makes mezcal. Women’s involvement in the process is essentially determined by the same criteria used to understand sex roles in other vocations in rural Oaxaca: strength and stamina, traditional child-rearing, and other household responsibilities.

Palenqueros (using the more generic term for male and female producers of the spirit) typically do not read books or watch YouTube videos to learn how to make the iconic Mexican spirit. They learn from their fathers, their uncles and their grandfathers, just as their relatives before them, over generations. Young girls, just as young boys, begin learning the trade virtually from infancy; watching, helping, and fantasizing their futures as palenqueros while in the course of interacting with their friends and siblings. I frequently witness this acquisition of knowledge.

Customarily women raise families, dating to the hunter and gatherer division of labor in humankind. Mothers remained close to home with the children, gathering fruits, nuts, berries, etc., and preparing meals, while their male partners were off on extended hunting expeditions, requiring that they be fleet of foot, and at times requiring more physical fortitude than women can muster.

With mezcal production, often the fields of agave under cultivation are far from home, and if wild maguey is sought, the palenquero is frequently required to walk a couple of hours into the hills before encountering his bounty. The same holds true for sourcing firewood to fuel ovens and stills. Furthermore, lifting the piñas (heart of the succulent used in production) can require more strength than women exhibit. Although the palenquero will sometimes cut the pinas into smaller pieces while still in the field, whether whole or halved they can weigh hundreds of pounds and must be lifted into trucks or onto donkeys or mules.

Once back at the palenque (the artisanal mezcal distillery), which often adjoins the homestead, women’s work making mezcal begins in earnest, although still subject to their priority obligation of preparing meals and tending to the children. Women are often an integral part of the baking, crushing, fermenting and distilling processes, working alongside and even directing men.

Back at the palenque, the task of cutting the agave into appropriately sized pieces for baking usually falls to men, once again for reasons relating to stamina and strength. Splitting logs and loading the oven with large, heavy tree trunks is typically men’s work as well. But when it comes to filling the oven with stones, wet bagazo (waste fiber from distillation), piñas, tarpaulins and earth, women participate as equals to men.

Even in the face of whatever remnants persist of the perceived macho mexicano, once the rocks in the oven have been sufficiently heated, it is important to second as many helpers both male and female to get the work of filling and sealing the oven so it is airtight.

Women as well as men remove the piñas from the oven once the carbohydrates have been converted to sugars, or caramelized. Later on, in preparation for a subsequent bake, once again individuals of both sexes empty the chamber. The women are the daughters, daughters-in-law, mothers, partners, nieces and granddaughters. I regularly see them all participating. They are as much a part of the process as their male counterparts, including being charged with decision-making.

When crushing the baked agave is done by hand, then yes, almost exclusively it is men who attend to this most arduous task. But the remaining tasks are often shared equally: working the horse; determining when the pieces of maguey have been sufficiently pulverized; loading the receptacles for fermenting, whether they be wooden slat tanks, in-ground lined pits, bovine skins, or something else; and distilling. Women can decide upon the optimum ABV (alcohol by volume) and how to achieve the best possible flavor.

But let’s assume that the palenquera is also charged with typical household chores. including family meal preparation and raising the children, including attending to their health, education and general welfare. She cannot, of course, be reasonably expected to look after all this, as well as partner with her husband in directing and attending to all of the tasks required in mezcal production. However upon hearing the shout or receiving the phone call from her male partner, cousin, son or father, she’s there, as needed.

In addition, she is the one remaining at home in charge of sales. She typically also prepares comida for the men, and in fact it is customary, when the home is not alongside the palenque, for women to bring food and drink for those (men) who are at some stage of producing the spirit.

Economic necessity on occasion dictates that a woman, to almost the complete exclusion of men, might become a palenquera. She plants, tends, cuts and harvests maguey; splits logs’ and crushes by hand. In one case a husband/palenquero died suddenly in a car accident, leaving his wife and four young children. She became a palenquera in the traditional sense, doing everything previously done by her late husband, in addition to raising the children.

In another case a single mother’s two children left home for the US in their late teens, leaving her and her mother as the householders. She had learned mezcal production from her grandfather. Currently she has a reputation for being one of the very few palenqueras who does it all, producing one of the finest mezcals in Oaxaca. She directs her underlings, that is, male cousins and neighbors, as to how to produce mezcal based on her exacting recipe. The foregoing are two exceptions to the tradition of both men and women working together, cooperatively with members of their families and communities.

A shift in paradigm is both warranted and strongly suggested when it comes to our perception of the industry being mainly within the purview of men. Women deserve to have their proper and important place acknowledged in the world of Oaxacan mezcal production.

Alvin Starkman operates Mezcal Educational Excursions of Oaxaca (www.mezcaleducationaltours.com).