The Eye of the Viper
Oaxaca may be the mecca of mezcal, but that doesn’t mean she’s got it all. The state of Guerrero, though scarcely represented on the market, offers her own heavenly elixir. The species is Agave cupreata (commonly known as papalote or papalome) and it’s the only agave species used for mezcal in this warrior state. It’s a silvestre (wild) maguey that’s closely related to the prized Tobalá of Oaxaca. A Papalote mezcal tends to be complex, spicy, and powerful – much like the people of Guerrero. Noel and I have been testing one producer’s papalote on the market in Baja, with great response. Jose Salud Corea is the 4th generation maestro mezcalero at hisfabrica (palenque or a kind of farm where mezcal is made), and his son Omar has helped him to begin to register and market their mezcal under the name “Ojo de Vibora”. As a small family business with limited resources, the registration of the mark has been eight years in the making. Omar met with us Sunday in Zihuatanejo to explain their history and goals. The months of production in this region are March through June. By September the rainy season is well under way and the fabrica is difficult to access (i.e., we settled for a vacation condo, which is why I don't have great photos for you this week). The family runs about 10 distillations during the three months of production, and this they rely on selling throughout the rest of the year. Everything is done traditionally – no machines, no chemicals. A limited production time means limited sales, and this is one of the factors the Corea family is attempting to tweak. An interesting fact about papalote is that is doesn’t produce clones. (As you may have read in other pieces I've written, tequila industry has made clones of clones of clones of the blue weber agave, and are now facing a crisis due to the weakened species). Agaves destined for mezcal are harvested before they flower, which means that they don’t have a chance to reproduce. The Corea family is making an effort to increase their number of agaves (and therefore their production), by planting more papalotes. To ensure genetic diversity and strength, they leave the best agaves to flower and reproduce, and harvest the others. I asked Omar if he’s heard about tequila companies buying agaves in Guerrero to supplement their production. He told us that thankfully, it hasn’t really affected them so far. However, about ten years ago some tequila companies came and managed to persuade a number of local farmers to plant blue weber agave, offering to pay them 10 pesos/kilo once it had matured. The long-awaited harvest time finally arrived, but the tequila companies didn’t return to buy. The farmers were forced to truck their agaves up to Jalisco and search for someone willing to by them. By and large, producers here have been left in peace to make their mezcal as their ancestors have. One of our concerns with working with mezcaleros in Guerrero is the narco-trafficos (drug gangs) who have an unnervingly strong presence here, and are apt to “collect taxes”. Fortunately, the Corea family hasn’t had any troubles to date, primarily because their production is too small to peak the interest of a mafia that has bigger fish to fry. (They do, however, have to disassemble their copper alembic at the end of the season and move it to a more secure location to avoid theft. Such are the tribulations of mezcaleros de Guerrero). Oaxaca and Guerrero (along with Chiapas) are the poorest states in the country, and like their Oaxacan neighbors, the familial, small-batch producers of Guerrero lack the resources to register their product with the COMERCAM, enabling them to market their product and sell it beyond their community. Oaxaca-based mezcaleros, however, at least have the advantage of being within spiting distance of the registrating board. Those in Guerrero have to pay 10,000 pesos just to bring representatives of COMERCAM to their fabrica. It’s a daunting price for most of these families – and that doesn’t include the cost of covering their travel expenses, or any of the wildly pricey registration fees. And let’s not forget taxes, which for mezcal, run between 65 - 73%. The Corea family is selling their Ojo de Vibora in Zihuatanejo’s eco-tianguis (artisan market) and at the occasional regional event. They offer a joven and a reposado (aged 9 – 11 months in white oak barrels), as well as sabores de mezcal – fruit-infused mezcal. They also offer a smooth and nicely balanced 55% papalote, but only by request.
To the purist, flavored mezcal elicits a cringe, but for a family struggling to make ends meet, food on the table takes precedence. In the case of the Coreas the sabores began as a school project for Omar’s sister. They were so popular with the local women that they began selling it alongside their other products. Fruits such as blackberry, passionfruit, and nanche are added to the pure mezcal (ABV 50%). Nothing else - no chemicals, preservatives, or coloring. Nada. The result is a slightly sweet and fruity mezcal with a lower alcohol content (about 40%). What really caught my interest in our meeting with Corea was our discussion on registration. I had been under the impression that in order to mark your product as “mezcal” you need the COMERCAM’s official stamp. Corea, however, informed us that if a producer is located within 1 of the 8 “mezcal states” they can mark it as such, only they won’t be able to sell it in large supermarkets. (With the proliferation of small, family owned shops and bars in Mexico, that is much less of a problem than you might think). Pedro Jimenez’s work with Mezonte seems to back this statement up. It may be that this is the key to growing Amor del Diablo organically: supporting small-batch producers while working to get another large-batch production ready for wider domestic sales and export. The answers wait for us in Oaxaca. Next stop: Chilpancingo, Guerrero.
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