Saturday, October 9, 2010

Oaxaca Part 7: Mezcal & Weaving--two local specialities

The central Valleys of Oaxaca abound with small mezcal distillers. During our visit to the area, Carole and I took a tour which included visits to both a small mezcal fabrica (factory), and an artisans' center for weavers. The visits were delightful because we not only got to see and sample the finished wares, but we were able to see the ancient processes by which two of Oaxaca's most famous products are created. As many as 5000 businesses manufacture mezcal in the State of Oaxaca. Only about 150 are officially registered; the rest are very small operations, much like the one we visited which produces a brand called El Rey de Matatlan (The King of Matatlan). 

Mezcal starts with agave, a member of the maguey family. Wild maguey (pronunced "ma-gay") is found throughout Mexico, from the deserts to high mountain areas, and there are over 50 varieties in Oaxaca alone. However, over 90% of mezcal is made from just one variety, the espadín agave. Farms, like the one shown above, grow maguey in household garden plots until it is 2 years old. It is then transplanted it to the edge of fields to become a sort of fence until it is harvested. The plant was used by indigenous people for thousands of years before the Spanish arrived. They discovered its value as a fermented drink, and utilized it in religious ceremonies and as medication. In addition, the spiky leaf of the maguey is tipped with a long thorn useful as a needle, and the fibres of the leaf itself were used to weave rope and sandals. Many folks north of the border are familiar with tequila, made from blue agave. Tequila is a form of mezcal, but is only made in the State of Jalisco to the north. Another difference is that most tequila is made using stainless steel tanks and stone ovens, while most mezcal is made with the more traditional methods shown later in this posting. The overwhelming majority of mezcal produced in Mexico comes from the State of Oaxaca.

When agave is harvested for mezcal, it becomes a pineapple. When the agave is harvested, the leaves are cut off with a special tool called a coa by workers called jimadores. What remains is called a piña (pineapple in Spanish). It certainly looks like a pineapple, but it is several times larger than the ones from Hawaii with which we are familiar. The farmer who plants an agave should not do it when thirsty for mezcal, because it takes 8 years to mature to the point you see above. It also takes 7 tons of raw piña to produce 1000 liters of mezcal. The indigenous people fermented the juice of the maguey into a drink called pulque, which is still consumed in rural areas of Mexico. However, it was not until the coming of Cortés that the native people learned the art of distilling spirits, an art originally taught to the Spanish by the Moors, 700 years previous to the Conquest.

Stone-lined pits called palenques are used to bake the piñas. First, hot rocks are placed in the pits, and then the piñas. After covering them with agave leaves and earth, the workers leave the piñas to bake for 3-5 days.  During the baking, the piñas absorb the taste of the wood smoke and earth.

Golden brown piñas, recently retrieved from the stone pit. After baking, the piñas get a rest. They are piled up for a week before the next step.

Grinding piñas to a mash, the old fashioned way. After their siesta, the baked piñas are placed in a large flat pit lined with stone or concrete. The workers then bring in a horse, hitch it to the axle of a huge grindsone, and walk it round and round the pit. Gradually, the piñas are reduced to a fibrous mash.

Agave mash is placed in a large wooden vat. These vats generally hold 300-500 gallons. Workers stir the mash with a large pitchfork, seen above. They will add water, cane or corn sugars, and various yeasts to encourage the beginning of the fermentation process. After this, the mash is placed in vats to naturally ferment anywhere from 4 to 30 days.

After fermentation, the distillation process begins. Double-distillation is the usual method, with the fibres removed after the first distillation. The energy for distillation comes from blazing wood-stoked stoves. The first distillation produces a low-grade alcohol, which is then added back for a second distillation.

The final distillation process looks a little like a Kentucky "moonshiner's" operation. The "proof" or alcohol content has been reduced to 80, still capable of a respectable wallop. Workers then pour the mezcal into bottles or into wooden barrels for aging. Compared to other kinds of liquor, mezcal ages fairly rapidly. The greater the age, the smoother and darker the mezcal. Two months is the youngest, and that level of aging produces a clear liquid called blanco, capable of singeing your eyebrows. After 2 months to a year, the mezcal is called reposado (rested) and has a light amber shade and a smoother taste. At least a year must pass to produce añejo, the darkest, smoothest, and most expensive variety of mezcal. The famous worm (actually a caterpiller) is found at the bottom of bottles of blanco, put there as evidence that the alcohol content is capable of perfectly embalming the creature, called a gusano.

And now for the ultimate test. After our tour, we wound up at the mezcal bar, which displayed an incredible variety of mezcal. The bartender provided everyone with a thimble-sized cup and invited us to sample as many varieties as we liked. Carole drinks very little alcohol, and I don't drink at all, but the invitation was too tempting. Beyond añejo, reposado, and blanco, the varieties included chocolate, mango, coconut, and countless other flavors. A warm glow soon extended itself up from my mid-section to my head. Giggling broke out in our tour group. I was glad that I hadn't driven our car. Carole and I finally settled on a small bottle of mango mezcal, which we found excellent when mixed with coffee.

Oaxaca's world-famous weaving

Where it all starts. Oaxaca today is world-famous for its weaving, and Zapotec weaving was famous even when their world only consisted of ancient Meso-America. Zapotec weaving was traded to the Teotihuacan empire, and with the ancient Maya cities. Even at that time, the village of Teotitlan del Valle near modern Oaxaca was famous for its weavers. When the Aztecs invaded the area under Moctezuma I in 1457, they demanded woven cloth from the Zapotec towns as tribute. The Spanish, who arrived in 1521, introduced sheep and foot-pedal looms and Zapotec weavers quickly discovered the benefits of these new materials and technologies. With wool, one's supply of weaving material is relatively mobil, and not dependent upon the uncertainties of finding wild plant fibre, or the expense of importing cotton from the Gulf Coast lowlands. In addition, wool blankets and garments stay warm, even when wet. Above, two young girls herd their sheep along a mountain road.

After shearing the sheep, the real work begins. Carole and I visited an artisans' center near Teotitlan del Valle as part of the same tour on which we saw the mezcal fabrica. The weavers demonstrated the processes of preparing, spinning, and dying the wool, and the use of foot-powered looms whose basic design hasn't changed since the Conquest. Above, an artisan hand-cards the wool with two flat, square, wood paddles about the size of those used for ping-pong. The faces of the paddles are covered by short metal spikes and the raw wool is placed between them. Holding one of the paddles stationary, the artisan draws the other paddle toward herself in short, smooth motions that remove debris and smooth the fibres.

Next, a spinning wheel. The artisan turns the the wheel by hand. This, and the other processes we saw were completely human-powered. She periodically twists some of the raw wool together with the end of the spun thread, Gently drawing it backward, she creates another long section of thread. Within a surprisingly short period of time, she creates a considerable quantity of usable thread on the spool at the opposite end of the board from the wheel. Once she has accumulated a quantity of thread on the spool, she reverses the direction of the spin and creates a loose bundle of thread, ready of dyeing.

The coloring process is even more ancient than the Spanish Conquest-era technology. The ancient Zapotecs had long used the cochineal insect (Dactylopius coccus) to create a vivid, crimson dye called carmine. The insect thrives on the surfaces of nopal cactus paddles, such as the one seen above. The dusty, white material on the green cactus paddle is made up of thousands of the tiny insects. When the Spanish discovered the Zapotec's secret in making their crimson dye, they began to export cochineal to Spain and Europe. It remained an important export from New Spain for the next 400 years, second only to silver, until alternatives were developed in the 19th Century. The red color comes from carminic acid which the insect produces to deter its predators. Recently cochineal has become commercially viable again, because many competing dyes have been found to be carcinogenic while cochineal is not.

The technology of mano and metate goes back to neolithic times. The mano is the long cylindrical stone roller, and the metate is the 4-legged stone tray on which a variety of substances are ground, in this case cochineal. Despite its New Stone Age origins, one can buy a mano and metate at many present-day rural Mexican hardware stores. They are not tourist-oriented products, but working implements. The cochineal insects are killed by boiling or other heat processes before they are ground up into the dry carmine powder. It takes about 70,000 insects to make one pound of dye. When the powder is mixed with other natural substances such as roots and nutshells, it creates other colors such as scarlet and orange. The dye is mixed by hand in enormous pots, and the spun wool is swirled around in them with large wooden paddles until the correct shade is attained. 

Foot-powered loom. Like most such looms one finds nowadays, there are very few, if any, metal parts. The moving parts are connected with twine, and most or all of the supports are held together with wooden dowels. The technology of this loom is virtually unchanged from the days of the Conquest. The foot-powered loom was introduced in the 1530s and by the 1580s New Spain was one of the most productive areas for wool cloth. Still, the old customs have persisted, and one can still easily find wool and cotton cloth made by back-strap looms similar to those of the pre-hispanic era.

Weaver at work. Using one of the foot-powered looms, this artisan weaves a beautiful orange and black blanket. Many of the designs are ancient and can be found on stonework in the ruins of old Mixtec palaces nearby. Weaving in Teotitlan del Valle is a family affair. Children as young as 4 learn to card the wool, and at 8 they graduate to spinning. At 13 to 15 years old they learn the loom, beginning with simple designs. Until the late 19th Century, during the regime of Porfirio Diaz, all the weaving processes were conducted in the home. Diaz industrialized weaving and, until recently, the ancient methods were dying out. The re-discovery and popularization of hand-woven cloth has revived small artisan operations, contributing to Oaxaca's popularity as a tourist destination.

The finished products. The artisans' workshop had a wonderful display area but I had taken only a few pictures before I noticed a sign prohibiting photographs in this area. The artisans are very protective of their designs and don't want them copied by unscrupulous competitors.  Here, the man seen previously on the loom displays a complex weaving containing the design of the national emblem of Mexico. Behind him you can see a large rug with a more traditional geometrical Mixtec design. 

If you visit Oaxaca, I strongly suggest you take one of the many tours of the craft villages to see the weaving, mezcal making, pottery, woodworking and other crafts that Zapotec and Mixtec villagers are practicing. I hope you have enjoyed this posting. If you would like to leave a comment, you can do so in the Comments section below, or email me directly. If you leave a question in the comments section, PLEASE leave your email so that I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim


  1. Your photos of the artisans at work are great! Thanks. A word about learning Spanish. When my wire and I first moved to Peru to do a volunteer assignment, we strolled out about town separately. And each of us started up conversations with storekeepers and others. Immersion is a great way to practice and to learn the language. Bill

  2. Hi there,

    You look as if you'd be great people to know! My husband John and I thought about retiring but then decided to do another stint in the Peace Corps. We'll be arriving in Guadalajara on Nov. 11 to spend two years as Volunteers. I'll be working at Bosque La Primavera (your excellent post is how I found you) and John will work in Tek Transfer for Ciatejk. We are from LA - I was Executive Director of the Palos Verdes Peninsula Land Conservancy. Our first challenge is to find a place to live in this huge city somewhere between our work sites, then we can start exploring. Any advice would be welcome!
    Barbara Dye

  3. I feel like an idiot. I have been visiting Oaxaca for 45 years and have now inherited a home there but this is some of the best "Tour" information I have ever had. Everyone we know lives there, as will we as soon as our home in Texas sells, but they are not interested in touring so we're pretty much on our own. Thanks for the great article. When we go down for Christmas I will actually pay for a tour.

    Liz Groat

  4. econnecHi Jim

    I am writing an article about conchenille for a Dutch craftsmagazine. The Photo about the conchenille mano et metate i would love to publisch. Do you agree?
    Please let me know.
    kind regards


If your comment involves a question, please leave your email address so I can answer you. Thanks, Jim