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

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.


Griffin C. Manos.

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