Village Drunkards & Mezcal of Guerrero's Mountains
This was Noel’s tactic and it worked out perfectly. In a remote mountain village there are bound to be problems of alcoholism, but drunkards have their role in society as well - in this case, as our guide.
Guerrero may be one of the poorest states in Mexico financially-speaking, but when it comes to natural beauty and culture, it’s one of the richest. It also is home to hundreds of artisanal mezcal producers.
Noel and I had left the sunny coast of Zihuatanejo the day before and headed into the mountains to Chilpancingo – the state capital and Noel’s hometown. Chilpo, as it’s called, has really nothing to offer the visitor except the best pozole in the world and an incredible view of the surrounding mountains. There is one nice town square and one nice fountain that are pleasing to the eye. The rest of the city is, well…a motivation to leave. It’s also considered one of the most difficult places to live in Mexico, for both its poverty and the cartel-related crime and corruption. As you can imagine, I was keen to do business and get out fast.
Noel’s father had told us the name of a town in the mountains about an hour from Chilpo where they made excellent mezcal. Noel went alone the first day to meet the maestro, taste their mezcal, and talk about business options. (Bringing an American into unknown territory where the people are very closed and wary of strangers is unadvisable. This is one of the few cases where Noel’s obvious native ancestry is a bonus). He returned to Chilpo with an invitation to return on Saturday – wife in tow.
Two days, one hour, and three microbuses later, we arrived in a small and extremely poor village whose residents are mainly farmworkers or brick makers. Maestro Miguel Juarez Poblano met us at his front door and led us through town, past homes of mud and straw bricks, to the edge of a ravine where his fabrica is located. This day they were processing the maguey using a rented woodchipper to chop up the baked agave. I was a bit disappointed to see from the start that this didn’t comfortably land into the category of “ancestral mezcal”, but I reminded myself that these people are less concerned with categories than they are with feeding their families.
Maestro Juarez showed us around the fabrica: the wooden barrels, the three copper stills, the underground oven. Aside from the woodchipper, everything else was in line with the ancestral process. He introduced us to his son, Alejandro – a third generation mezcalero, he claimed (I was under the impression that the lineage went much further back, only the father and son had lost track of how many “greats” were involved in the grandfathering).
Alejandro explained the process: the agave is harvested from communal lands (the Juarez family cuts everything themselves, unlike many other mezcal producers who pay others to harvest the agave). It’s then baked underground, chopped, fermented in barrels, and distilled.
There were some notable differences in their technique. One was that they use palms to cover the agave piñas while they bake (other mezcaleros we’ve spoken with use textiles or even recycled political banners). Another is the baking and fermentation times. These always vary depending on the agave species, the altitude and climate, the number of piñas in the oven, etc., but typically the roasting processes lasts from 1 – 2 weeks, and the fermentation the same. The Juarez’s only bake their piñas for about 4 days, and ferment them from 4 – 6 days.
I’m not a maestro mezcalero so I can’t make any judgment calls on this, but it seems likely that the short times (along with the woodchipper) are to increase their productivity. Alejandro told us that they’d only been using the woodchipper for the last two years. Previously they chopped the agave by hand and it would take 2 people the entire day to make one barrel. With a machine the time is cut down to one hour. The family currently makes 300-500 liters every six weeks, working nine months of the year. This they sell in surrounding towns, and to the occasional person who comes asking.
We stood outside under a bright sun with the Maestro and Allejandro, while his grandchildren ran about, discussing the modernization of the industry. The family was in complete agreement about protecting and continuing the traditional process. We told them we were happy to pay a higher price for a fantastic mezcal, as we’re more interested in quality than quantity, and the Maestro agreed to make a special batch for us which we could come back to try in January.
Back in the Juarez home, we tasted his mezcal. It’s an ABV of 55%, and best in small sips. Unlike the papalote we have from Ojo de Vibora that is smooth going down with a heat in the stomach, this one is an upfront fire in the mouth, followed by hints of apple and spice. Maestro Juarez says that this is what the community drinks – the strong stuff – but he could make us something either smoother, or at a lower ABV (50%), or both. (Several days later, once in Oaxaca, I tried his mezcal again and found it much smoother than my first tasting. Another example of how different the same mezcal can taste depending on the food you’ve eaten, the mood you’re in, and numerous other factors).
The Juarez mezcal is good stuff, there’s no denying, but it’s clear that it can be something truly amazing. This is a perfect case of how the lack of resources or market can effect mezcal production. When forced to pick between feeding your family and producing the highest quality mezcal the choice is obvious. But what if mezcaleros could have their cake and eat it too? By helping them to sell the highest quality mezcal to a broader market, they can.
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