By Alvin Starkman, M.A., J.D for The Eye Magazine
When I read about the Year of the Ox, it reminded me of the resourcefulness and ingenuity of the hardworking Oaxacans who make mezcal. Why? Because not only is a team of oxen used to plow the earth, but the team is sometimes employed to transport agave hearts (piñas) from field to traditional family-operated distillery (palenque), or to crush them after baking. There’s no need to buy a horse or mule when you already have animals capable of doing multiple tasks. And their waste makes excellent fertilizer.
The start-up costs of building a clay pot (olla de barro) palenque in Oaxaca involve relatively little monetary outlay. However, the ongoing upkeep expenses have the potential to be out of reach for many distillers (palenqueros) of modest means … but for their ingenuity, resourcefulness, and sustainable practices.
Most clay pots used in Oaxacan mezcal production are produced in the town of Santa María Atzompa. They are made with locally sourced clay, water, and fire, and thus their cost is relatively modest, perhaps 800 pesos for the two receptacles required to make one still.
The housing that encases the bottom clay pot is made from clay and/or adobe bricks and mud, and nothing more. The adobe is made by mixing sand, mud, bovine and/or equine manure, and waste agave fiber (bagazo) discarded after distillation. Bagazo is often also used as compost or mulch, and when dampened, is typically employed in the baking process to insulate the piñas from the hot rocks.
Firewood goes at the bottom of the baking pit. Not straight logs the lumberjack sells at a premium to lumber yards, but rather seconds that the distillery is happy to acquire at a discount. Once the bake has been completed, where there once was firewood there is now charcoal. It is used a fertilizer to grow more agave (or other crops), or by the family for cooking and for sale.
Even the discarded agave leaves (pencas), once dried, have an important use as fuel. Entire Oaxacan communities live off them to cook tortillas, grill meats, make hot chocolate, and more. Clay distillation pots last from roughly a couple of weeks to a year and a half, after which time they must be replaced. The bottom pot, as opposed to the upper clay cylinder, presents the more significant problem.
Once it cracks, the housing must be disassembled, the pot removed, a new one inserted, and the encasement re-built. The life of that bottom olla is extended by using a wooden tree branch shaped like a fork, its prongs joined with rope or wire, and not a metal pitchfork, to remove the bagazo.
Still, through cracking, clay pots are inevitably rendered unusable for their primary purpose. When that happens the fermented liquid or the subsequent single distillate can seep out and be lost. The damaged and discarded pots are frequently used as planters, but that bottom pot can still be used in the fermentation process. Most baked crushed agave is fermented in wood slat vats, but some palenqueros ferment in clay pots partially embedded in the ground. After a damaged pot has been removed from the still, it can be repaired with cement and used for fermenting; a broken olla de barro gets new life.
For clay-pot distillation to work, a continuous flow of cold water is required. It often arrives along a makeshift wooden trough, falling into the small conical condenser through a length of giant river reed (carrizo). Carrizo is an invasive wild plant, but it has multiple uses, including in the olla de barro distillation process. Carrizo is also sometimes employed to guide the water out of the condenser, and the distillate out of the still into a holding receptacle. Yet another use for the reed is as a bellows to stoke the flame under the clay pot during distillation. Some palenqueros purchase waste from a lumberyard debarking process as fuel for their stills. The bark always includes some attached wood.
Long ago palenqeros used clay condensers in the distillation process. When metal became available, they switched. Originally, they used simple laminated metal, and some still do, although more recently stainless steel or copper have appeared. Some palenqueros have even adapted old aluminum construction worker hardhats. The shape is about the same, and with a little work they are almost as efficient as the others. When I visited a distillery in the town of Sola de Vega in 2012, the palenquero was still using hard hats as condensers!
Steam rises, hits the condenser, then the drops of liquid must fall onto something which then guides the liquid to the exterior of the cylinder, through the carrizo, down into the container. That something is typically a hand-hewn wooden spoon, or a small length of penca. The condenser is sealed to the upper cylinder, which is sealed in turn to the lower olla de barro, not with glue, but rather a paste that forms naturally on top of the fermentation vessel.
When the still is not in use, many palenqueros prefer keeping the opening underneath, into which firewood is placed to produce flame, closed off. Some state they don’t want young children playing hide-and-seek in the sooty and sometimes still hot orifice. Others don’t want their chickens laying eggs inside. A palenquero friend in Santa Catarina Minas keeps the opening closed using old metal discs from a plow.
I noted earlier the modest start-up costs for establishing a palenque for olla de barro distillation, and touched on the cost of the clay pots. The additional installations in clay (as well as copper) operations are almost free of out-of-pocket costs aside from labor: the baking pit in the ground, the ability to crush by hand using a wooden mallet and nothing more, and fermenting in an animal hide, a wood-lined hole in the ground or directly in a bedrock cavity.
The innate creativity of the palenquero distilling in clay is remarkable. And while we must admire his resourcefulness, it’s crucial that we not begrudge him for making technological advancements with a view to making life just a little easier, as his economic lot in life improves. Should not the romanticism we seek in rural Oaxaca sometimes take a back seat? The palenquero will retain most of his sustainable practices and continue to be resourceful, but surely deserves a break.