Mexico: In the heart of Oaxaca’s Mezcal Region

The maguey plantThe maguey plant

Abel Ortiz steps out from his palenque – the name given locally to small-scale workshops in which the alcoholic spirit mezcal is produced – shadowed by smoke from the fires that he has kept steadily burning for the last two days, and bathed in the heavy, sweet smell invariably produced on heating fermented vegetable matter.

The fifty-four-year-old is greeted by a sun that shines warmly on his hometown of Santa María Sola, in the Mexican state of Oaxaca, congratulating him on the several hundred litres of spirits produced over the couple days of work. Abel is one of a number of men in the town of 250 inhabitants who earn their living from the artisan production of mezcal – one of Mexico’s three iconic spirits, alongside tequila and pulque.

The maguey plant

The maguey plant

Santa María Sola lies within the municipality of Villa Sola de Vega, one of the seven administrative areas that make up Oaxaca’s ‘Mezcal Region’ – the national heartland of the drink’s production. The climate and mountainous terrain of the area create ideal conditions for the cultivation of the agave plant, locally known as maguey (pictured), that is used to produce mezcal (as well as tequila and pulque). Abel, like almost all of Oaxaca’s mezcal producers, relies upon traditional technology and techniques to extract the spirit from the heavy maguey hearts, which weigh upwards of 100 kilogrammes. These methods have remained largely unchanged since mezcal’s first appeared in the time of the Spanish colony.

The maguey hearts are left to cook and to soften for three days in ‘ovens’ (pictured) – large pits in which stones are used to transmit a fire’s heat. From there they are chopped and milled, and placed in large wooden tubs known as ‘canoes’, in which they are left to ferment for several days. The fermented maguey is then distilled twice through being heated within earthenware pots (pictured), and condensing and collecting the resulting steam.

A pit 'oven' used to cook maguey

A pit ‘oven’ used to cook maguey

The earthenware pots used to distil mezcal

The earthenware pots used to distil mezcal

Speaking of his product, Abel says, “It has to have a very smooth taste; you have to be able to drink a glass of mezcal and afterwards want to drink another. Some mezcals are too strong, it’s got to be gentle so that you can drink it without problems. We don’t have any special equipment to help us get it to that point, but as we’ve been doing this for years, we just know how it has to be”.

Abel, like most local producers and consumers, is quick to highlight the benefits of the simple fermentation process, “Mezcal is different from tequila, from all other types of liquor, because liquors that are sold in other places contain chemicals. Mezcal is natural, it doesn’t contain any chemicals. Just maguey, the juice of the pure maguey”.

Mezcal produced within small palenques is sold almost exclusively to meet local demand. Small producers do not have the financial resources, and often the knowledge, to meet the official standards required for the certification of their product, which would allow for sale on the wider market. As a result, Abel and those that share his craft sell their mezcal informally in improvised plastic containers to customers in surrounding towns.

Demand within the local market is high, as mezcal is by far the drink of choice in rural Oaxacan populations, outselling beer and spirits brought in from further afield. Additionally, beyond its role as an alcoholic drink, mezcal is noted by the anthropologist Toomas Gross as having important social functions within these communities. This is particularly documented within Oaxaca’s indigenous groups – Oaxaca is regarded as the ‘most indigenous’ of Mexico’s 31 states, with roughly half the population regarding themselves as member of an indigenous people.

Gross reports that the drink is used during ritual occasions, for example, it is left on the altars created during the Day of the Dead celebrations. Furthermore, as well as being considered an aphrodisiac, it is widely thought to have medicinal properties and is used to treat a range of ailments, including the common cold. A local saying expresses the expresses the extreme importance that mezcal has in these communities, ‘for everything that is bad, mezcal, and for everything that is good too’ (para todo mal, mezcal, y para todo bien también).

Unsurprisingly, mezcal’s main appeal is its alcoholic content, and its consumption is a key element in the celebration of the many festivals and public holidays held in the towns of the region. It is also the drink of choice for groups of men in local parks – those present sit in a circle and drink from a lone bottle, thus reinforcing the importance of sharing within the community, in a way that Gross compares to mate drinking in Argentina.

This emphasis on the local is also to be noted in the teaching and learning of mezcal’s production process. Palenqueros (palenque operators) openly share their skills with others in the community. Abel says, “If you came and just said, I want to learn, just through working you’re told how things are done”, “for example, if others want to learn they come here, lots come. That’s how I learnt, just by watching I got into it”.

However, in recent years mezcal production has had to face challenges. In the period of 2000 to 2002, tequila producers from the nearby state of Jalisco faced disaster as disease affected much of their crop of blue agave – the plant used to produce tequila. As a result, these tequileros turned to Oaxacan maguey as a solution to their crisis. The large tequila companies were able to buy up Oaxacan maguey at prices beyond the reach of mezcal producers, resulting in a scarcity of the materials needed for mezcal production. As the maguey needs seven to nine years to reach maturity, producers were unable to quickly compensate for the sudden disappearance of supplies. Consequently, it is reported that a large proportion of the region’s producers were forced to close their palenques.

After solving the problems affecting their own crops, the tequila companies returned to Jalisco in 2002. However, their incursion left further problems in Oaxaca. Following the arrival of the tequileros, many Oaxacan maguey cultivators planted increased numbers of the crop, anticipating a continued surge in demand. With the tequileros’ return to Jalisco, a large surplus of maguey has now been created. The result has been a big fall in the price of the plant, and consequently also in the price of mezcal.

Despite these recent events, Abel is optimistic regarding the current state of the mezcal industry. He notes that his town, Santa María Sola, has largely escaped the effects of the ‘Jalisco invasion’. The town has seen a dramatic rise in the number of palenqueros in recent years, expanding from the lone palenque that operated at the turn of the millennium, to now host five. “Lots of people are making a living from this, because lots of people have learnt how to produce mezcal”.

Recent years have also seen a great increase in the popularity of mezcal amongst visitors to Oaxaca, as authorities have endeavoured to incorporate mezcal into the state’s tourism sector. It has been heavily advertised as a key element in the indigenous spirit of the state; marketed as an exotic, ‘magical’ beverage to tourists. This drive has seen the number of people employed within the mezcal industry in Oaxaca rise to an estimated 29,000, and the drink now contributes 6.5% of the state’s income.

The state, through advertising, has attempted to link mezcal to Mexico’s ‘indigenous essence’. This forms a great contrast to the traditional image of tequila tequila, the nation’s most successful drink on an international level. Tequila earned great popularity in the 20th century as it was seen as separate from poor, indigenous communities, and instead represented a modernising, mestizo Mexico. Consequently, a drink previously restricted to poor, marginalised populations, is being converted into a national symbol. This is reflective of a shift in the idea of ‘Mexicanness’ that the state wishes to portray both to its own citizens and to those visiting the country from outside.

However, it appears that small producers such as Abel won’t be guaranteed benefits from this new popularity. Larger companies, akin to those that produce tequila, have been created to meet increased demand. These companies leave behind much of mezcal’s traditional production techniques, but have the financial solvency to meet certification standards for wide-scale nationwide and international commercialisation.

As a result, two parallel markets may be observed: small-scale artisan production serving local markets, and industrial production to meet the needs of expanding popularity originating from outside the region. The extent to which these new companies will impinge upon the role held traditionally by small producers is yet to be seen.

It would be an irony if artisan mezcal production, which seems to have survived the threat represented by invading tequila companies, were to be brought to its knees by the internal changes in the mezcal industry stimulated by the drink’s own success on national and international markets.

For the time being at least, it seems that the traditional chains of supply operating in communities such as Santa María Sola are set to continue undisturbed, as demand for artisan-produced liquor remains high. It is only to be seen how the drink’s important role on the local level in rural Oaxaca will be affected as mezcal takes its place alongside tequila as a symbol of Mexican identity on the worldstage.

Sources:

Bautista, Juan Antonio, & Smit, Mascha A. (2012). Sustentabilidad y agricultura en la “región del mezcal” de Oaxaca. Revista Mexicana De Ciencias Agrícolas, 3(1), 5-20.

Bautista, Juan Antonio, & Melchor, Edit Terán. (2008). Estrategias de producción y mercadotecnia del mezcal en Oaxaca. El Cotidiano, 23(148), 113-122.

Toomas Gross. (2014). Mezcal and Mexicanness: The Symbolic and Social Connotations of Drinking in Oaxaca. Folklore : Electronic Journal of Folklore, 59, 7.