A Visit With Guerrero's Mezcaleros

Mezcal is making the news fairly regularly these days. The New York Times, Forbes, Bon Appetite…even Vogue—they’ve all written about it. If you have so much as a toe dangling in the mezcal world you’ll have noticed that nearly all of the attention is focused on Oaxaca. There are a few reasons for that. Oaxaca produces the vast majority of the mezcal on the market. It also is home to the CRM—Consejo Regulador de Mezcal (that’d be the folks who determine—for a fee—who can call their product a mezcal and who cannot), which makes it easier for a mezcalero with limited resources in Matatlan to get certified then, say, one in Durango.

Personally, I suspect there are really two main reasons that Oaxaca became the Mezcal Mecca: diversity of agave species and a pride in their native culture that withstood the onslaught of European racism—both socially and in government policy. Sadly, much of the rest of Mexico bought into the belief that it was shameful to be native. So while most of the country worked at shunning its native heritage in favor of European preferences, Oaxaca nurtured (some might even say flaunted) theirs.

Oaxaca well deserves the attention it gets. If you haven’t yet been, you’re missing out on one of the greatest gems in the Americas. (Side note: Noel and I are thinking to lead a small, food and mezcal–focused tour there. Let us know if that would interest you). The current boom in the agave industry has resulted in a barrage of ads for mezcal brands, tours, and tastings. Most of these, sadly, are industrial. It is very easy to sign up for a tour—industrial or artisanal—and be whisked away into the magical realm of agave distillates where you meet mezcaleros doing what they do on their palenque. This is a fantastic way to learn the basics and dive into some of the nitty gritty. And taste a lot of mezcal. The experience you have, however, depends greatly on where you go and who is your guide. (We know a couple of good ones—just ask).

An artisanal mezcal tour in Oaxaca is a very clean, civilized experienced. The palenques are often beautiful brick constructions with well–swept floors, easy access from a main highway, with lunch readily available in the vicinity. It’s a trip that most any type of tourist will feel comfortable on.

Guerrero, on the other hand, is the wild west—the last frontier. Don’t come here unless you’ve got your huevos securely fastened.

 
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My rhetorical huevos had developed a confident swing of their own after so many years of solo travel. Between that and having a bull–sized, highly intuitive native Guerrerense at my side, I’m pretty comfortable in this enchanting, yet troubled, state of warriors.

Noel and I (Lila in tow) visited Guerrero last month to see the mezcaleros in action. Unlike Oaxaca, where many people make mezcal year–round, in Guerrero, all work comes to a halt in the summer months during the rainy season (i.e., when Noel and I are usually traveling). We first went to visit one of our favorite producers who was distilling that day. It was the first time I’d seen them actually making mezcal in Guerrero, so I was pretty giddy. “El Don” gave us tastes of his most recent batches: a papalote hitting in at about 52%, a berraco, a berraco–papalote ensamble, a papalote with worms (just for personal kicks, he added agave worms to the finished product and let it rest for a month), and my favorite: what I’ve dubbed the “campesino”. This is a papalote at 65% abv—how the workers in the field often drink it. We also tried a 75% papalote. Drinkable, but certainly at my uppermost limit. 

The palenques (“fabricas” they’re called) in Guerrero are not what you’d find in the centerfold of a glossy magazine. Most of the mezcaleros we buy from live in tiny towns that never see a tourist. The chickens, goats, turkeys, dogs and donkeys run freely. Straw is strewn about. The environs are mixed, muddled, and chaotic to look at. Lunch you bring yourself, unless you want it in liquid form. That said, the hospitality is the best I’ve experienced, and the mezcal is out of this world.

The most interesting part of our visit was the trip to the horno—the oven. Here is where a big difference lies between Oaxaca and Guerrero. In Oaxaca (as far as I’ve ever seen), the agaves are roasted at the same site where they’re crushed, fermented, and distilled. In Guerrero they roast out in the fields, far from the rest of the process.

We drove over an hour, up a mountain side, down a mountain side, past herds of cattle and horses. Wild papalotes spattered across the dry earth as far as one could see. The windy, rutted, rock–strewn camino emptied out into a long valley patched with burnt and dried–up corn fields. At the far end sat the oven. Noel’s brother, Ismael, explained to me that it’s actually cheaper to bring all the workers and the agaves (which are harvested from the wild in the surrounding areas) out to where there are plenty of rocks to use in the oven, then it is to lug the rocks and agaves back to the fabrica in town. They use new rocks every time, and the gas to transport them from the fields to town increases the production costs significantly.

We arrived just as the morning was beginning to sweat. A pickup and two horses rested off to the side, waiting under the heavy swagger of the sun. My chancla–clad feet were devoured by minute mosquitos within sixty seconds. Twenty men rested, washing down breakfast with the beers we’d brought, waiting for the intense work to begin.

 
Rest before the work begins.

Rest before the work begins.

 

Two women offered us mole rojo, beans, and hand–made tortillas. We gulped them down enthusiastically along with a bottle of Victoria beer, while listening to the ghost story of the two men who’d arrived in the night to start the oven. A light had come down the mountain side and circled slowly around them, before hovering a while in the tree above and then disappearing. It had clearly given the men quite a shock.

“We thought maybe it was the devil,” one of them said, sipping on his cerveza.

“A devil come to ask for money,” another speculated.

“It must have been a really poor devil to come looking for money from me,” the first joked.

Everyone thought this was a good one, and that became the story: the poor devil who came down the mountainside to steal money from the campesino.

Jorge—our host and son of the mezcalero who would be buying all these agaves once cooked—introduced us to the men in charge. I was surprised to learn that they have a fogonero—a man who is specifically in charge of the roasting process. As far as I have understood, the palenques in Oaxaca always have one mezcalero in charge of the entire process. Here, the roasting is a separate, specialized trade that one spends decades mastering.

I wanted to take video footage and photos of the process. I knew these men wouldn’t be very comfortable being in front of the camera, so I explained to them our motive:

everyone talks about Oaxacan mezcal, but we want the world to know that Guerrero has some of the best mezcal in the country.

They nodded in accord, and the fogonero agreed to give a short talk about his experience for the camera.

The men got to work. The oven had been lit hours before to ensure the rocks were hot enough, but the fire only coals, so as not to burn the agaves. The manual loading of an agave oven is an impressive labor. Twenty men spent a full hour carrying the agave hearts—whose pencas (spikey “leaves”) had already been removed—to the oven, loading it just so with the larger agaves in the center and the smaller ones lining the outside. Some had been cut in half and a few were so large they had to be rolled across the ground to the oven. You could see the holes in some where a worm had burrowed in. Others you could tell were capón—a harvesting process where the flowering stalk is cut and the agave left to sit another 5–10 years to collect more sugars.

 
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The oven loaded, the men began to hack away at the earth and pile the dirt in circles over the agaves, lining each level with palm leaves.

“The leaves keep the moisture in the oven and prevent the agaves from burning or drying out,” Jorge told me.

The entire process of loading and covering the oven took about two hours. The men would track back to the village by truck, horse, or on foot, and return in 10–15 days to unload the cooked agaves. We thanked them all for their hospitality and sharing their knowledge, and headed back out of the valley. As we came closer to town we stopped at another oven they were unloading. I hurriedly snapped off a few photos—this batch wasn’t Jorge’s and the men weren’t overly keen on an outsider taking photos.

 
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We left Guerrero happy with the photos and footage we got, and more in love than ever with the region, her mezcal, and especially, her people. And I, above all, eternally grateful for the opportunity to experience the making of a diamond in the rough.

 
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