NEW LAND CREATION PROJECT (3/3)

April 9th, 2019

Sustainable Expansion of Paciano Cruz Nolasco’s Palenque, San Luis del Rio, Oaxaca

At any palenque you are likely to see piles of bagazo, the fibers left over after both fermentation and distillation.  In reasonable quantities the vinaza (liquid by-product) and bagazo, if cooled and separated, can both serve useful purposes.  The bagazo can be used as or converted into feed, fertilizer, mulch, or compost.  Certain local vegetation also naturally neutralizes and even utilizes vinaza as organic nutrients.  But as demand and production increases so does the amount of vinaza and bagazo.  Despite the current lack of government oversight in this area, we, as some others do, feel it is our responsibility to figure out how to meet demand while managing our waste naturally, organically and sustainably.

Sustainable Solutions in San Luis del Rio

In 2018, we began working with Alejandro Montes Gonzalez and his company COAA, who have advanced experience in the formulation and resistance testing of compacted earth construction.  In the case of Mezcal, Alejandro studied and assisted with the traditional adobe making techniques in Santa Catarina Minas with Graciela Angeles of Real Minero that utilizes earth, bagazo and vinaza.   He also collaborated with the forward-thinking team at Sombra Mezcal to offset much of their by-product generation with a novel assembly line of adobe brick production that benefits communities in the Mixe, Santiago Matatlan and other communities in Oaxaca. This is an amazing program, and it is functioning quite well with the different brands around Matatlan who are participating.

Bagazo Management

Del Maguey needed to implement a different system in San Luis del Rio due to its remote location and limitations on the banks of the Rio Hormiga Colorada River.

Making New Land

The answer, thankfully, came from Ron Cooper, who said, “Why don’t we just build new land?” We just had to find a method that was economically and sustainably feasible.

The first iteration of new land construction in San Luis del Rio created an extension of the Palenque that measured 4.5 m in height x 16 m in length and 9 m wide. Using a formula based on the principle of 30% vinaza, 30% bagazo, 30% earth, and 10% lime, Alejandro and COAA began work on an enclosed structure that was filled with this material, a material that when tested in earthquake conditions, is more resistant than many other building materials, including cement and concrete.

This extension to Paciano’s palenque incorporated over 100 tons of bagazo, 150,000 liters of vinaza and 60 tons of earth set between prefabricated concrete walls and columns.

We sponsored a scholarship for Alejandro to continue his studies at ETH Zurich in Switzerland, where sustainable compact earth construction is a vanguard approach to land development.

In the meantime, Del Maguey has continued to build new land.  Since July 2018, Del Maguey has incorporated 600 + tons of bagazo and 500,000+ liters of vinaza in this project. It has effectively created a large patio that will act as a petri dish for phyto-remediation projects, a river causeway, and the base on which another vinaza neutralizing project is underway. These combined projects will occupy all of Del Maguey’s by-product generation for years to come.

Gravity Fed Filtration + New Land

Gravity Fed Filtration

An important part of the process of neutralizing the vinazas before they can be used is regulating their pH.  Alejandro helped design a simple and effective gravity fed filtration system to decant bagazo fiber and sediment from vinaza liquid.  As the vinaza decants, it cools. This regulates the pH level of vinazas which is one of the most harmful aspects of releasing this organic by-product into waterways. The gravity-fed system ends in large 25,000 liter cisterns, where the liquid continues to cool.  Step by step, we are constantly improving our methods to neutralize contaminating effects of this organic by-product.

Mezcal Es Vida

The Future

We are very happy and proud to share with you the work we have done with Paciano over the past few years in San Luis del Rio.  We are excited to be working with forward-thinking scientists, engineers and producers who are constantly striving to improve our practices while not compromising the tradition and culture of Mezcal.  We will continue to actively pursue opportunities to use our waste in ways that will be beneficial to our producers and the communities we touch and we will continue to update the blog with our progress along the way.

 

Stigibeu!

 

SCALING UP WHILE PRESERVING TRADITION (2/3)

April 5th, 2019

San Luis del Rio, Oaxaca

In November of 2016 Del Maguey broke ground on a project to scale Paciano Cruz Nolasco’s palenque in San Luis del Rio without compromising the traditional methods of production.  Throughout this project we have collaborated with Paciano and his family, scientists, engineers and architects in order to develop a facility that maintains the artisanal methods of making Mezcal while incorporating aspects of modern technology to render the operation sustainable and environmentally friendly.

Underground Roasting Pit/Horno

Our first challenge was to meet a growing demand for Vida while maintaining the cornerstones of traditional Mezcal production.  For Del Maguey that means being mindful of the following aspects of production:

  • Sustainable planting, growing and hand-harvesting only completely ripe magueys
  • Roasting the maguey in a conical, earthen horno on heated stones fired by wood
  • Ambient natural fermentation in open top wooden tinas using only local yeasts with no inoculation or additives to enhance the process
  • Distillation by hand including agave fibers in small, direct fire alembic stills

Fermentation

In order to scale in an artisanal manner we have replicated production by increasing infrastructure.   At the completion of this latest project Paciano’s palenque in San Luis del Rio will have a total of four hornos (roasting pits), three electric molinos, 92  wooden open-top fermenters, and 18 small, 300L copper alembic stills.

Distillation

For those who are fans of Paciano you will notice that with the completion of this project San Luis del Rio will be using electric molinos.  As we began to scale, simple computing showed us that in order to meet the growing demands for VIDA we would need dozens of horses as well as dozens of workers for their care.  Several years ago the Mexican government issued gas powered desgarradoras (shredders) to minimize this labor-intensive work.  While functional and well within the norma for artisanal Mezcal production, we wanted to keep moving towards a more environmentally friendly solution.

Working with engineers, we set our sights on creating an energy efficient, clean air electric molino as an alternative to gas-powered motors and overworked horses. In addition to preventing the release of fluorocarbons, early results indicate that they may also increase yields from the maguey, decreasing the amount of raw material needed for each liter of Mezcal and lessening the stress on the burgeoning demand for agave.

THE EVOLUTION OF VIDA (1/3)

April 1st, 2019

GRACIAS.

Thank you so much.

We at Del Maguey are deeply honored and humbled by the overwhelming acceptance and appreciation of Mezcal VIDA by the trade since we first brought this liquid art to the world in 2010.

Ron Cooper founded Del Maguey in 1995, at least a decade before the beginning of the Mezcal Renaissance we are living in now.  Since the beginning we have been dedicated to preserving the ancient culture of Mezcal by protecting the traditional methods of production that have been passed down generationally for centuries. We remain committed to making each Del Maguey Single Village Mezcal by hand in the traditional way.

Don Paciano Cruz Nolasco

In 2006, Paciano Cruz Nolasco took a trip to Chicago with Ron and while there, they visited Paciano’s son, Marcos, who was working in Indiana.  Although Del Maguey had been around for over ten years, at that time only a few discerning members of the trade had come to appreciate the craft of the Del Maguey producers.  While traveling, Paciano astutely recognized that the 45+ ABV was still too strong for much of the U.S. palate and suggested the development of a lower proof traditional Mezcal to introduce the beauty of the category to a wider American market.  Our mission was to produce a handcrafted Mezcal using artisanal production methods that bartenders could sip, savor and enjoy in a copita, but could also be used in cocktails.  What we didn’t know was that the success of this Mezcal mission would also result in economic influx and employment in San Luis del Rio that would diminish the need for community members to cross the border in search of economic opportunities as Marcos had done.

Marcos Cruz Mendez

This user-friendly Mezcal we were seeking had to be true Mezcal, made traditionally, and had to represent the core values of Del Maguey.  Paciano spent the next few years developing what would become Vida, a Single Village Mezcal full of flavor and acidity that is distilled to lower proof without compromising his art or traditional practices.

When Vida was launched in 2010, there were only a few of us out there trying to get people to embrace handcrafted Mezcal.  Today Mezcal is reaching an ever-growing group of consumers beyond the bartenders, chefs and sommeliers who embraced this spirit years ago. If you trace the history of the growth of Mezcal globally, all roads take you to Paciano, the village of San Luis Del Río, and ultimately the launch of VIDA. It was VIDA that made Mezcal accessible, gave bartenders their chance to feature Mezcal in affordable cocktails, and led to Mezcal becoming popular enough to be acknowledged by the trade as its own category.

As the interest in Vida spread, we knew that changes would have to be made in order to scale up the production to meet its growing popularity.  At the same time we remained deeply committed to maintaining quality, embracing the inherent flavors of Single Village artisanal Mezcal, and honoring the traditional methods of production and the hand of the maker, Paciano.  Even as we fostered organic and sustainable growth, this growth created new challenges and dynamics to scale responsibly with conscious environmental stewardship.

Inauguration of Paciano’s New Palenque 10 March 2018

Over the next several blog posts we will be sharing our journey with you.  There have been challenges and frustrations and ever-expanding timelines along the way, but through our work with Paciano, Marcos and their family as well as talented scientists, academics, and engineers we have built a Palenque that is respectful of the tradition, heritage and culture of Mezcal production while addressing the sustainability issues being faced in the growing category of Mezcal.  We are excited to share with you the results of our nine-year trek.

Stigibeu!

Communications Tower in San Luis del Rio, Oaxaca

December 11th, 2018

Communications 101

Communications with the outside world in the small maguey growing and mezcal producing community of San Luis del Rio, Oaxaca have developed at their own pace. The first telephone line was installed in one location in the village around fifteen years ago. Anyone calling for one of the pueblo’s five hundred inhabitants would call this line. The responder would take a message and ask the caller to call back in fifteen or twenty minutes. The message would then be broadcast over the village megaphone, still a staple in this, and many other Zapotec and remote villages, with ejidal or land grant privileges.

The scratchy mega phone would announce that Don or Doña (insert name here) had a phone call and if they were hearing this, could they please come to the little house, or caseta, to wait for the caller to make their second, or third, or fourth attempt at the connection.

 

Above: The village megaphone playing music for Asunciona, Paciano’s wife, at the crack of dawn on her birthday.

Communications 201

Satellite television arrived before most homes could be outfitted with their own private landline. Even still, the private lines did not have Oaxacan area codes, tapping into a system fraught with fallibility. Del Maguey’s producing partners, the family of Paciano Cruz Nolasco, went through five different phone numbers and landline variations between 2014-2018.

Nariz a Nariz

The beauty of this pockmarked version of progress entailed that all real interactions had to be done in person, or nariz a nariz (nose to nose) as Ron Cooper, Del Maguey Founder and Keeper of the Customs frequently adages.

View from Hill where communications tower is installed.

Yet San Luis del Rio is not particularly close to what some might like to call “the action.” As the roadways have steadily improved over time, it remains a two and a half hour drive from Oaxaca de Juarez, and two hours between the Del Maguey bottling bodega in Teotitlan del Valle.

Townspeople intent on conducting their maguey cultivation or mezcal production businesses via cellular networks could catch their first whiff of a signal in the town of Totalapam, one hour from San Luis del Rio towards Oaxaca, or in the maguey growing community of Soledad Salinas, another hour in the other direction, towards the Mexican Isthmus.

Communications 301

As far as internet goes, the story remained the same, with brief glimmers of a breakthrough into the breathtakingly gorgeous, and signal stopping valley leading to the town. In 2017, one family managed to install a basic satellite internet system in their home. They would sell fichas, or time chips to those patient enough to wait ten or twenty minutes to pull up their email or Facebook account.

If there is line of sight between the tower and a home/palenque, it is possible to transmit wifi at speeds up to 5MB/s

As a result, Del Maguey’s team in Mexico has spent the last few years exploring various options to learn if there were any viable technologies available to bring either telecommunications or a dependable internet service to the village.

In Teotitlan del Valle, we found success bringing competition to that village in order to convince the national communications giant that these villages deserve improved infrastructure and customer service.

Skynet-No not that one

After enough research and budgeting, we received the news from Sky Net, a rural internet provider in Oaxaca, that it would be possible to install a tower to tower radio wave signal in San Luis del Rio.

A handful of other providers had always told us that yes, it would be possible to install this type of system in the village, but due to the outlay of the valley, we would most likely have to install a series of towers, at quite a high cost, in order to deliver the signal there.

With Skynet, they explained that with one well positioned tower near the Oaxaca-Veracruz border, there was an opening created by the dip in the rolling hills above San Luis del Rio.

Installing a Signal

We set out one morning in August 2018 with machetes in hand, and made our way to the top of the hill where the receiving signal tower could be installed. It took us about three hours clawing and chopping through under and over brush, but we found the ideal spot for the tower.

From there, everything moved extremely fast. Del Maguey was already happily committed to paying the installation costs for the first twenty families who wanted internet.

Getting the tower ready. Burro looking on!

The tower was installed within two weeks, and the twenty homes (including the DM Palenque) all had internet signal before the end of August. Not only that, because no telecommunications companies are working in the area, each house now has an outside line that allows them to make any phone call across North America, for free, for five minutes. Then the connection is stopped and they simply have to call back again, if need be. A lot of important conversations can be had in five minutes. Add in Whatsapp, and wifi messaging, and San Luis del Rio has access to nearly every medium afforded the rest of the state.

Communications 401

Reception dish in SLR palenque

After a couple months of observation, the installation appears to be a success. There was always some hesitation thinking of certain negative circumstances that come with more accessibility to any kind of information, but that preoccupation has been short lived.

Access to education and information is a basic human right, one that has been denied or seriously impeded in many Oaxacan communities over time.

View of hill with tower + another receptor installation/SLR Palenque

As a result, we are happy to have accomplished this task from the purview of social sustainability, and are looking forward to continue reporting on various other projects that are underway.

Stigibeu!

Preserving Del Maguey Traditions

August 27th, 2018

Norma Oficial Mexicana 070

NOM 070

In April, 2017, the Consejo Regulador de Mezcal (CRM) implemented the first revision of the Norma Oficial Mexicana 070 (NOM 070) since the inception of the Denomination of Origin of Mezcal in 1995.  NOM 070 provides the compulsory standards and regulations for the category of Mezcal and since 1995 this NOM was strikingly similar to NOM 006, the equivalent regulation for the category of Tequila.  The revisions to NOM 070 were first proposed in 2015 and the goal was to create a Norma created specifically for the category of Mezcal that would protect the producers while providing category designations and labeling requirements that would make information more readily available to the consumer.  The announcement of the proposed revisions was then followed by a period of discussion during which there were a series of meetings that provided producers throughout the DO an opportunity to offer opinions and feedback about the proposed revisions.  During this time traditional mezcal producers, including the producers of Del Maguey, organized and advocated for modifications to the proposed revisions that would protect the culture of artesanal mezcal.  This organization of mezcaleros successfully advocated for the removal of restrictions on the levels of acidity, the backbone in the spirit of Mezcal.   However, at the same time, lesser-known amendments were made to NOM 070 that are affecting artesanal producers throughout the Denomination of Origin of Mezcal.  As a result of these amendments, over the next few months you will see an increase in the ABV of some expressions of Del Maguey and we would like to explain why.

The revision of NOM 070 resulted in new restrictions on the levels of furfural and methanol in Mezcal.  Furfural and methanol contribute to the flavors and textures that we have all grown to love in traditional Mezcal.  They are necessary and essential components of this beloved beverage.

Chemical components in Furfural and Methanol

Furfural is an organic compound that occurs during traditional heat treatments such as cooking, canning and jarring.  During the distillation of Mezcal, furfural appears towards the colas, or tails.  Previously the CRM did not regulate this compound and the TTB (Alcohol and Tax Tobacco and Trade Bureau) and FDA (Food and Drug Administration) place no limitations on levels of furfural.  Methanol is an alcohol that is derived from pectin and fructan, two components that occur naturally in agave. The new restrictions that have been placed on methanol by the CRM are significantly lower than the restrictions that are in place through the TTB and the FDA.

Del Maguey had a few options to consider in order to be compliant with the new restrictions.  The most common and easiest way to reduce furfural and methanol is to proof your mezcal with water.  None of the Del Maguey producers have ever added water to their mezcal post distillation.  Instead the bottling proof of our mezcals is obtained through a combination of the heart of the run and the first part of the colas (tails) where furfural and methanol are most prevalent.  Del Maguey is a company committed to preserving traditional production practices thus to consider the addition of water to any of our mezcals is not a viable possibility for our organization.

Other Alternatives

Other alternatives for compliance would require manipulating fermentation through the addition of nutrients or inoculation with proprietary yeast strains.  The Del Maguey producers are committed to open-air fermentation using ambient yeasts, so this too was not an option.

After months of investigations, the answer that would allow for us to maintain the integrity of the traditional processes of our producers while being compliant with the new regulations of the CRM is to raise the proof of a few Del Maguey expressions. By raising the proof we will be minimizing the use of colas that will enable us to meet the new requirements in regards to methanol and furfural while still maintaining the traditional processes of our producers.

New ABV’s

You will begin to see a few Del Maguey expressions with a new ABV in the coming weeks.   The first will be Chichicapa which will now be at 48%.  The flavors you love will still be intact in each expression but expect a richer mouth-feel and texture.  The Chichicapa you have been enjoying until now had been certified previous to the changes in NOM 070 and was in full compliance with the CRM.

Even as we make adjustments in order to comply with the Consejo, we are dedicated to bringing you mezcals of the highest quality steeped in history and tradition.  We look forward to continuing to work with fellow producers within the DO to advocate for Normas that protect traditional mezcal.

If you have any questions about the choices we have made or the changes that will be taking place, please feel free to email Misty Kalkofen at mistykalkofen@delmaguey.com and Steve Olson at steveolson@delmaguey.com

Stigibeu!

Increased Access to Potable Water In Teotitlan Del Valle, Oaxaca

May 16th, 2018

Del Maguey Donates a Pipa/Water Tanker Truck

Providing increased access to potable water in partner communities is one of Del Maguey Single Village Mezcal’s driving principles. In many of the communities we work in, there are pockets of the town or village that still lack access to a steady supply of potable water.

On May 11, 2018, Del Maguey donated a Ford F350 3500L tanker truck to the town of Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca for use in sections of the village that do not have a dedicated water supply.

Convivio con el Presidente Municipal y Sindico Municipal de Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca

This truck was presented by Del Maguey founder Ron Cooper and bottling team, to the Honorable Ayuntamiento de Teotitlan del Valle, distrito Tlacolula de Matamoros, estado de Oaxaca, Mexico, the Presidente Municipal y Sindico Municipal (periodo 2017-2019).

The Del Maguey team was greeted in the local municipality, by the municipal government council, where a formal handover of the truck and its documentation was met with gratitude and a convenio of around 60 people who sat and shared a “convenio por entrega del vehiculo.”

All parties present admired the truck, exchanged formal greetings, then sat down to a wonderful comida of cegueza; a pre-hispanic type of mole, accompanied by prickly pear cactus horchata, beer, and mezcal.

Donations of this nature are not terribly common and the atmosphere reflected the joy shared by both sides to complete the highly anticipated moment.

Del Maguey is happy to have engaged in this important endeavor whose only aim is to help the townspeople who don’t have access to potable water remain included in municipal plans for expansion.

As land is redistributed further from the traditional town center, pipas like this can be necessary parts of local government services in Zapotec communities.

Thank you to the community of Teotitlan del Valle for supporting Del Maguey and it’s efforts to keep helping in ways that are core to our principles.

To many years more!

Stigibeu!

 

Vida Lessons- An Intern in the Oaxacan Sierra – Part 3

March 3rd, 2018

From June-August 2017, Del Maguey accepted a request from a University student heading into his Senior Year to live and work in the family palenques where Del Maguey Vida is produced. His name is Griffin Manos. He is a bright young man with a  promising future, and the desire to work hard in order to satiate his curious appetite for knowledge and experience. This is part three in a three-part email exchange between he and Ron Cooper to reveal some of the complexities and romanticism that accompanied his experience.

If there is anyone else who is curious enough to take a similar leap, opportunities like this do exist if approached properly; with curiosity, humility, respect and vigor. Thank you Griffin for taking the leap. The Del Maguey family misses you, especially our family in San Luis del Rio, and wishes you the best in 2018 as graduate school peeks around the corner.  

Griffin Manos’ Response to Ron Cooper

Hey Ron,

Thanks for the thoughtful and encouraging response.  You can guess that I took some time to get all my thoughts out to you, and I’m happy that you reciprocated the effort and recognize how seriously I am taking this internship.

I am also happy to read about your thoughts regarding efficiency.  By all means, the most important part about production (aside from producing enough high quality spirit) is involving the people who live in town and providing a livelihood for them.  I have enjoyed seeing different people filter in and out of the palenque daily, it also seems to facilitate social interactions that are valuable to all involved.  Seeing someone come in the morning, empty the horno and stay in the afternoon for a beer or mezcal and chat is something that illustrates just how much of a lifestyle the work is.  It is also encouraging that you see this as valuable. It is not by luck that Marcos and Paciano trust you. It’s clear that you have earned their trust and that you recognize your responsibility towards not only the family but the laborers and producers as well.

The question of reducing wheelbarrow and bucket work is a difficult one.  I was originally thinking about the way brewers work, attending to tasks in the same way but not needing nearly as much hard labor.  When brewers finish their conversions, the grain is separated from the wort (the unfermented and sugary wash).  Marcos also separates the tepache and the bagasse before distillation, to measure the correct ratio for each to go into the ollas.  The tepache is moved via bucket, and the bagasse via wheelbarrow (in Marcos’ case up the steep ramp to the ollas).  To separate grain from wort, brewers use what is called a lauter-tun.  In my home-brew operation, this is literally an igloo cooler with a false bottom.  The cooler goes on a chair above my stock pot, and wort is able to flow through the false bottom and pool without any grain in it.  The tina is responsible for an enormous amount of flavor and healthy yeast cultivation, there is no way this could change.  What might be able to change, however, is how the tepache is extracted from the tina.  This may look something like the water pump that is used to get river water to the tinas, with a specialized hose head that could filter out the bagasse while still transporting the tepache.  As far as transporting the bagasse from the tina to the olla, gravity is definitely important.  My initial thought was something like a moveable slide that could be placed on the edge of the tina, so that bagaso could be shoveled directly into either an olla or a wheelbarrow that would only have to travel a few feet, instead of up a steep ramp.  A series of chutes (think simple tournament bracket) could eliminate the wheelbarrow altogether, while still requiring someone to manage the task.  These could easily be attached to the underside of the palenque roof structure, to be out of the way and pulled down only when in use.  I understand that this may sound a little ludicrous or even over designed, but I think there is an elegant way to implement some updates that could compliment the ingenuity that the palenques already are so full of.  Keep in mind that these are also just my first thoughts on solutions might look like, and I’m sure with more time and effort more (promising) ideas would be abundant.

I have realized that design is important to me not only in distilling and brewing, but my other interests as well.  It serves as a common ground, but also as one of the most rewarding parts of each of my interests.  Constantly experimenting, learning, and making are what make my interests interesting.  I’m thinking about looking at masters programs in Industrial Design, visiting RISD, Pratt, Parsons, and maybe Philly.  I think it would compliment brewing and distilling well, and would also allow me to be in school with a specific focus compared to the liberal arts education I’m currently receiving.  You have helped me immensely by letting me learn and work with the village, which has pushed me to come to encouraging conclusions about my future and opportunities ahead.  I really couldn’t ask for more.

Marcos speaks English well, it is all understandable although sometimes “without salt,” meaning that there are little things left out from phrases or sentences that a native speaker wouldn’t leave out.  Marcos and I converse a lot, he really enjoys learning American sayings like “join the club.”  As far as my Spanish goes, I am nowhere near fluent but I am much more comfortable holding a conversation.  I can definitely understand more than I can speak, and it is helpful hearing things people say in real life that I haven’t learned online or in school (chido, gabacho, etc..).  I have talked to Marcos about leaving early, and he has communicated that he understands.  He knows I have learned a lot, made a lifelong friend in him, and have done my share of the work as well.  He also understands that there are important reasons for me to get back home with some time before school starts.

These past few days I have been able to go exploring on Marcos’ land, deep in the wilds and far from any road, as well as horseback riding on another laborer’s (Chalo “loco”) land where I was able to eat honey from a wild bees nest and also see how proud village residents are of their stake in the process.  It’s amazing that everyone is involved and is able to have some land with agave or milpa somewhere in the hills.  It’s also nice to know that I can rely on my Spanish to communicate with a laborer like Chalo when we take the day to see the land.  I feel as though I have really been able to get a peak into what life is like for a number of people who live and work here.

I think it is possible that this internship would be helpful for others.  It would be problematic to try to work with village producers without understanding crucial aspects of their daily lives, and what production looks like on a regular basis.  An internship like this allows relationships and trust to form, as well as information that might not be learned during a day visit.  For example, Marcos likes to talk about effort and work ethic a lot, and has mentioned how he thinks there should be someone to act as a manager while laborers work.  Sometimes he gets frustrated with the hours that people work, or the breaks that they take, or even the liberties that they take with the mezcal that waits in the tambos.  He takes his job seriously and is an extremely good leader.  These are things I was able to see and talk to him about because of the relationship of trust that we have built over the past six weeks.  An internship like this would be amazing training for anyone who would want to work with Del Maguey and closely with anyone who lives in the village.

I hope that this internship wasn’t only for my benefit, and that you can see me as a resource for any other opportunities in the future. I do feel like I have built relationships in San Luis and would enjoy continuing working with Del Maguey in the future, whatever that may look like.

Once again, I want to express my gratitude for this opportunity, and for the thoughtfulness and understanding in your correspondence with me.  This summer has been invaluable to me.

Stigibeu,

Griffin C. Manos.

Vida Lessons – An Intern in the Oaxacan Sierra – Part Two

February 22nd, 2018

From June-August 2017, Del Maguey accepted a request from a University student heading into his Senior Year to live and work in the family palenques where Del Maguey Vida is produced. His name is Griffin Manos. He is a bright young man with a  promising future, and the desire to work hard in order to satiate his curious appetite for knowledge and experience. This is part two of a three part email exchange between he and Ron Cooper to reveal some of the complexities and romanticism that accompanied his experience.

If there is anyone else who is curious enough to take a similar leap, opportunities like this do exist if approached properly; with curiosity, humility, respect and vigor. Thank you Griffin for taking the leap. The Del Maguey family misses you, especially our family in San Luis del Rio, and wishes you the best in 2018 as graduate school peeks around the corner.  

A Letter to Griffin Manos From Ron Cooper

Griffin and Gabe,

Dateline New Orleans

No excuses but have been traveling extensively.

Griffin – I enjoyed your long letter and thorough analysis and shared with my two partners… took time for them to get back.

I know it’s hard to adjust to life in the village and the rhythm of the work in SLR. You and I are the only outsiders who have done this with Paciano and family for longer than a couple weeks.

That alone means a lot and it reveals to me your desire to get close to the process and understand it from a unique perspective, all the while achieving personal goals.

I appreciate your insights and enjoyed reading your reflections. It takes quite some time to master mezcal and no one expected you to accomplish this, this time around.

If you do decide to leave, understood. You have done a great job so far and I am pleased that it was romantic, difficult, lonely, and invigorating.

No matter where your path may lead, you will never forget how you spent the last month in San Luis del Rio, contributing as a valued laborer in the production of Vida and San Luis del Rio Del Maguey Single Village Mezcal.

First of all, these are good questions. You are working hard every day and developing an understanding for what makes Vida special.

Check out this link. Of course we value efficiency but we also value culture. We are proud that the growth of the brand and the industry gives people jobs. Paciano is able to offer employment to many people who left their homes and families behind because there was no work in San Luis.
I have looked at palenque operations and thought about how to speed up various facets of production and then realized that most steps to speed up production cause a loss of quality. This job has enabled many villagers, not only in San Luis, but throughout our producing villages, to avoid the hardships of illegal immigration, or return from an uncomfortable, foreign land where their efforts were exploited and their freedom as human beings was not recognized.

Nonetheless, your observations are important.

I am interested to see a sketch or design of the machines that could reduce wheelbarrow work. Would they use electricity? Diesel? Could they be powered by the flow of the river?

This can be immensely useful, not for eliminating labor, but complementing it. Remember we value culture as much as we value quality liquid.

It’s not a failed commitment to leave early and I understand that preparing for your future is a good reason to do so. What kind of grad program are you interested in? Is there anything we can do to help?
You did make a commitment with Marcos to stay on with your original plan.

How is his English? How is your Spanish?

The intricate complexities of making mezcal, along with this full immersion was another challenge that I hope has borne some fruit.

By all accounts your approach to this internship has been valued by everyone you have interacted with and that too means a lot, whether this helps in your future endeavors or if you are interested in pursuing more opportunities with Del Maguey.

Steve and I enjoyed meeting you and Gabe speaks highly of you as well.

Do you see this type of internship being useful to others?

Best,
R

Ron Cooper

From the heart of the maguey and the soul of the Village.

Vida Lessons – An Intern in the Oaxacan Sierra – Part 1

February 8th, 2018

From June-August 2017, Del Maguey accepted a request from a University student heading into his Senior Year to live and work in the family palenques where Del Maguey Vida is produced. His name is Griffin Manos. He is a bright young man with a  promising future, and the desire to work hard in order to satiate his curious appetite for knowledge and experience. This is part one in a three-part email exchange between he and Ron Cooper to reveal some of the complexities and romanticism that accompanied his extraordinary internship.

If there is anyone else who is curious enough to take a similar leap, opportunities like this do exist if approached properly; with curiosity, humility, respect and vigor. Thank you Griffin for taking the leap. The Del Maguey family misses you, especially our family in San Luis del Rio, and wishes you the best in 2018 as graduate school peeks around the corner.  

 

A Letter To Ron Cooper

Hey Ron,

As the end of my first month of work approaches, I thought I would write to you with a check in.  I feel pretty good about my adjustment into village life, and getting into the rhythm of working, eating and sleeping that Marcos and the other laborers have.  Adjusting to the simplicity of the lifestyle, the remoteness of the village, and the loneliness that accompanies being a visible outsider who doesn’t speak the language has been a process, but a process that has been fulfilling and rewarding.  The labor has also been rewarding, although hard and seemingly neverending.  Suffice to say, my experience thus far has been a positive one that has afforded me a lot of knowledge on a truly craft process.

There is a lot that is romantic about this job, and there is a lot that is not at all romantic.  I love seeing the passion that people have for raising agave or wild harvesting agave and eventually seeing it through to a world class spirit.  That being said, there are definitely times where it is clear that a job is being done because the job pays, and it is being done by a person because there exists no resources to have the job be done by an efficient machine.  I have been able to inhabit both of these roles, feeling intimate with the bagasse while massaging it into a tina with my hands, and feeling like a machine while throwing the chopped piñas into the molino for days at a time.  There isn’t, however, a moment where I am not reminded that no matter what the job is, it is essential to producing a spirit that will be consumed all over the world.  This is what making real craft spirit looks like, and I don’t think even the most well versed mezcalistas could imagine that Vida is born from a process that looks like this.

I have approached this project with goals, that change daily, which I think are important to reflect on.  First off is getting accustomed to the life that the producers live.  Without wifi, a pillow, hot water, or the option to continue being a vegetarian, the first days here made me feel out of place and as if it were possible that the world outside San Luis had forgotten about me.  After the first week here, I felt as at home as I could be in a home that wasn’t mine.  I have always liked to believe that it doesn’t take much to facilitate happiness, but this is a true illustration of how happiness can be achieved without so much of what we in the gabacho (USA) think is necessary for a fulfilling life.  This is especially true when there is a vocation that can afford fulfillment and reward.  This goes hand in hand with the rhythm, which I think I have also adjusted well to.  Waking up early daily, finding a job to do with the laborers, coming home to eat, shower, read and sleep, or spending the day and night in Marcos’ palenque while watching the fire and dozing when possible have become rituals that will be hard to break when I end up leaving San Luis.  It is essential to both feel comfortable in this lifestyle, as well as adjust to the rhythm, so that one can not only understand the way that Vida is produced by a village, but also earn the place as one of the village producers.  Both of these goals have been met to my standards.

Next, is basic understanding of the processes.  I feel as though I have not only been able to see all of the processes that are involved in producing this spirit, but I have been active in taking part as well.  The most important to me has been watching the fire and changing the ollas, being attentive to the nature of the spirit as it changes while the run progresses, and observing the characteristics that determine which actions should be executed.  That being said, even when I am doing other work, chopping piñas, filling the horno, emptying the horno, moving spent bagasse, I feel more like one of the laborers than I do a tourist or observer. This is extremely important to me, to be treated as a valuable asset instead of a tourist or burden. What is important is that I have been able to experience mezcal distillation like a laborer and catalogue that knowledge, all while feeling like a true asset to those who want to see the hard work get done.  This makes me extremely happy and satisfied with my experience thus far.

Another goal I have set for myself has only really become apparent after I started working.  I am afforded a lot of time to think during labor that doesn’t require excess attention.  For this reason, I thought it would be helpful to think critically about the process and the design of the system.  Thinking critically, as an outsider, can become dangerous so I have adopted a strict “generous orthodox” approach.  This is a term that I first heard in a podcast by Malcolm Gladwell called Revisionist History.  The idea is that if change is possible (generous approach), it is only by way of the traditions (orthodoxy) that make the process or system unique.  As a small and traditional production facility, that runs as a business that has growth goals, I believe that this term is especially appropriate.

Some of the things I think about are spirit specific.  How would the mezcal taste if it were distilled three times instead of twice?  How about if only the hearts were used and not even the very heel of the spines?  How about if it were filtered through charcoal after final distillation?  Obviously some of these are very big changes, which may compromise the tradition that makes this craft spirit a spirit that is so widely acknowledged.  But that’s the idea behind generous orthodoxy, finding the balance and testing small change using the existing system instead of designing a new one.  How much can/would you want to get away with before the character is so altered that it is not the same spirit?  For the most part, this is a creative exercise that has little ground in reality, but it is definitely worth thinking about as I plan on working in distilleries once I finish school, and possibly owning my own whiskey distillery one day.

Besides being critical of the spirit itself, I have also been thinking about the design of the system and the palenques.  I have a basic understanding of raising agave and methods of reproduction (quiotes and pups) and the differences that cannot be ignored between these two methods from an economic and agroecological standpoint.  I plan on doing more research when I have access to wifi, but already feel that it is important that I recognize the implications of farming methods of the plant, whether it is ecological, or economic (which really are not mutually exclusive by any means).  One of the things I appreciate immensely is that everyone in town has some stake in mezcal, because everyone has land somewhere where their agave is being raised.  Most distillers in the US are much more removed, most not growing their own grain, malting it, or even using grain (and instead using bulk bought factory spirits) to make their “craft spirit.”  I appreciate the heavy involvement of so much of the town almost more than anything else about the process.  It is intimate, and personal for everyone who lives here.

Beyond farming systems, I have also been thinking about the design of the Palenque, that as long as there is an opportunity for growth, the current palenque archetype should be challenged, even if that means realizing that no change is necessary or even possible to execute without changing the nature of the spirit. There are a lot of ways to explore the design of the palenque, with little risk involved as long as a generous orthodox approach is used.  In this case, growth means opportunity for change that has the potential to boost efficiency in ways that don’t effect the spirit or the sacred traditional processes that are responsible for it.

Working with Marcos everyday has given me the opportunity to think critically about the system, while applying my thoughts in a way that respects the fact that Vida has been made the same way for years, and it exists the way it does only because of the processes that are responsible for its creation.  To me, this is another goal met.

Whether this internship means preparing myself for more work in Mexico with the hardworking people who make mezcal, or getting insights to valuable takeaways that can be applied to American distilling practices, this opportunity has been more than priceless. I recognize that I have only scratched the surface and that it would take years to have the experience that Marcos or Paciano has.  This all being said, I have to think about the fact that I am about to enter my senior year of college and this should require a considerable amount of preparation and attention.

I hope you have enjoyed reading my (long) email and that you know how much this internship means to me as a rare opportunity to become part of a truly beautiful process.  I am extremely grateful that you and Gabriel have taken the time and energy to give me this opportunity.  I look forward to hearing from you.

Stigibeu,

Griffin C. Manos

 

 

 

 

 

Teotitlan del Valle

November 7th, 2017

Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca

Since its founding in 1995, Del Maguey Single Village Mezcal has operated out of the village of Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca. This Zapotec pueblo, known the world throughout for its vibrant traditional weavings and natural dyes, ruins, architecture, exquisite moles, seasonal soups and temezcals, or steam baths, lies in the Central Valleys of Oaxaca, about forty minutes driving from the capital, Oaxaca de Juarez.

It is rare to find Mexican nationals residing in indigenous villages around Oaxaca. This is primarily due to land grant laws that help preserve the resources and customs of each area. Local Zapotec government’s policies are designed to protect the welfare of citizens by providing land parcels for living and farming in exchange for voluntary services that serve the pueblo’s needs.

Thus, it was no common occurrence for someone like Ron Cooper, who first visited the village in 1970, to return for good in 1990 and encounter a community and culture that welcomed his presence and admiration with respect, joy and humility.

As the village grew an international reputation for its craft and quality, a few more foreigners, from within the country as well as outside, salted the social fabric with their presence and respect for Teotitlan’s deeply traditional culture. But there were not many, and still are not. Within this milieu, Ron began his project to introduce his friends to mezcal.

The Bodega

Del Maguey Single Village Mezcal Bodega

Del Maguey Single Village Mezcal Bodega and Neighborhood

Local Bottling Crew

Del Maguey’s mezcal producing partners live in 8 different communities around Oaxaca and Puebla. Once their liquid art is produced, every single expression and green bottle enjoyed within Mexico and around the world has always been and is still bottled by hand in the Teotitlan del Valle bodega, by local Teotitecos.

Cosme “Mito” Martinez Martinez

As the company steadily grew, so too did its bottling crew. Today, the entire bottling operation is run by manager Cosme “Mito” Martinez Martinez and an unfailingly committed team.

Del Maguey Bottling Crew with visitor Yosh Han

It is often difficult for first time visitors to imagine that there is no automation in the bottling facility. Slight shock and puzzlement reflects an initial disbelief at what this team is capable of accomplishing on a daily basis. This realization serves as a constant reminder that Del Maguey’s guiding principles of respect, quality and attention to detail shine through in every aspect of this labor of love.

Ron Cooper with Adolfo Alavez Bazan and Zenon Bazan Sosa

Community Support in Teotitlan del Valle

Outside of the bodega, Del Maguey has had a positive impact in other aspects of the community.

A number of computers have been donated to local schools; digital libraries are soon to follow. The company sponsors a local basketball team, Los Barbaros.

One project in particular, an extension of a women’s collective that sells fresh milk at the local market, is for a Centro de Curandación, or Healing Center, for visitors to experience the traditional Oaxacan steam bath, or temezcal. These projects certainly do not happen overnight, and the center still needs some finishing touches. Nonetheless, Del Maguey donated all the material necessary for the center and in December 2016, this building was inaugurated with a celebration and fireworks.

Future Healing Center/Centro de Curandación

Internet Access

As in many parts of Mexico, for decades there has only been one telecommunications company that provides coverage around Oaxaca. Some years ago, the company tried to install a cell phone tower in Teotitlan. Eventually the project was rejected.  Many parts of the village, which is dotted with picturesque, free standing hills at the base and plains of a jagged and formidable mountain valley, remained out of service.

Worse yet, for years, the same company provided the only internet service in the few villages they were willing to reach outside of Oaxaca City. Following the cell tower decision, internet service in the village began to deteriorate. By 2015, new customers were not allowed to sign up, and existing customers became increasingly frustrated to learn that no matter how many calls or visits were made to the regional office center, nothing mattered. The internet in Teotitlan had reached abysmal levels.

In early 2016, the Del Maguey team threw their hat in the ring to help find solutions. Before long we learned that a new company had recently formed in Oaxaca to provide an alternative to the monopolized communications infrastructure. This company was working in communities around the Central Valleys and even some remote mountain villages by transmitting internet signals through the air through line of sight connections.

Del Maguey brought the company’s founder and head engineer to Teotitlan and introduced him to the local municipal president and council. Meetings with the council are very formal and not typically reserved for outsiders, as the business of the pueblo is almost exclusively conducted in the native Zapotec. After a few visits and more than a little deliberation, the council was convinced that a 5 meter wooden post with a receiving dish and self powered solar panel was a secure, fast and novel solution to the recurring internet problem.

The council allowed the engineer to install his post on what they deemed public land, or, at least, land that would serve as a public good. There was only one more catch. The new company would not begin unless twenty different customers signed up for an installation fee and two year contract. The installation fee was too steep for everyone interested, including the municipality.

At this moment, Ron and Del Maguey pledged to pay for the installation of the first twenty homes, buildings, or schools. Within three weeks of the engineers first visit, twenty different locations were receiving a stronger signal than the homes who were still contractually tied to the whims of the large company. At last, competition had arrived.

Internet Installation/Teotitlan del Valle

Thankfully, this was the necessary impetus for the incumbent company to act. Within two months, the unresolvable problem that had lingered for years was magically repaired.

New customers were allowed to sign up for service again and existing customers saw their bandwidth reach the level promised in their contracts.

Although this was never meant to be considered the most benevolent act ever, it is another example of Del Maguey’s commitment to the village, one formed through mutual respect, the honoring of traditions, and an interest in educational improvements for future generations.

There are more projects in development between the village, the municipal government and Del Maguey. For now, we are eternally blessed to call this valley home and our neighbors compadres. Stigibeu!

Teotitlan del Valle- Night at the Town Dam