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

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

 

 

 

 

 

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