most commonly used in old-fashion mezcal palenque
tech machinery now used to make commercial mezcal in
mezcal production facility, a la Benevá;
hardly slow food
Danzantes & Alipus
One would be hard-pressed to take issue with Restaurante Los
Danzantes in Oaxaca as a supporter of the precepts of Slow
Food, given the restaurant ambiance, food quality and presentation,
and its pricing, at least relative to higher end non
Slow Food proponents in the city, and of course establishments
such as Don Emiliano. But mezcal at between 329 and 679 pesos
for 750 ml (blanco espadín and tobalá respectively),
hardly translates to accessible prices for consumers.
Los Danzantes produces mezcal under its namesake, and as well
works with palenqueros in a few villages to market their mezcals
under the name Alipus, to this extent similar to Ron Cooper
and his Mezcal del Maguey modus operandi. Alipus uses 12 varietals
of agave. Its labelling indicates village of origin
and palenquero, once again similar to Mezcal del Maguey.
Héctor Vázquez, an employee of Los Danzantes,
oversees the production of Alipus in the villages, and is
in charge of mezcal production at the Los Danzantes distillery
Héctor acknowledges that the Los Danzantes packaging
(bottle, stopper and label content) may be considered elitist.
He stresses that Los Danzantes does not run a family business,
and accordingly prices are inevitably higher than those of
producers who are helped, for example, by spouses and children
(i.e. Mezcal del Amigo). Los Danzantes bodes well in that
it employs several Matatlán residents in its production
facility, buys agave from campesinos, and has a reforestation
project; but its far from a small scale producer.
Los Danzantes bakes its agave the traditional means, using
mesquite, supplemented by encino negro. However, it uses propane
to fuel its stills. Héctor points to propane as a clean
fuel, and notes the debate regarding the use of wood as opposed
to propane or diesel. Héctor burns wood to maintain
the traditional flavour of mezcal. Los Danzantes planting
1,000 mesquite saplings annually seems to be a rationalization
for cutting forests, but of course it serves to maintain supply.
Héctor also points to the use of a special type of
cement used in constructing the stills, reducing heat loss
and accordingly fuel consumption. Others employ the same or
similar heat loss prevention techniques.
The facility uses an electric circulating pump to cool the
water in the serpentine side of the still. Solar energy is
being contemplated for the future. As in the case of Mezcal
del Amigo and others, Los Danzantes uses a sophisticated water
filtration system. Los Danzantes (including Alipus), as do
the producers noted above, ferments naturally, using no artificial
means to speed up the process.
Similar to the case with Mezcal del Maguey, its clear
that Los Danzantes and Alipus mezcals have improved the economic
lot of a number of producers and their villages. The unanswered
question, to be sure, is the extent to which the sharing of
economic wealth between the producers and the sophisticated
businessmen constitutes fair trade. Both Los Danzantes and
Mezcal del Maguey, by reducing prices to consumers, could
do even better for residents and their local communities and
improve their rankings on a Slow Food continuum. At its Oaxaca
restaurant, Los Danzantes charges between 65 and 125 pesos
for a shot of its own mezcals. In fairness, Los Danzantes
does sell other brands of mezcal as well; but it is effectively
selling its house mezcal at a premium.
is one of the largest and most sophisticated producers and
exporters of mezcal. Don Pedro Mateo and his wife Doña
Violeta remain hands-on in terms of overseeing operations,
traveling throughout the state to procure agave, as well as
in sales and promotion. Benevá is found on supermarket
shelves, in its own downtown Oaxaca retail outlets and in
restaurants. It is much more accessible to consumers than
Mezcal del Maguey and Los Danzantes, at 150 pesos for blanco,
and 160 190 pesos for reposado and añejo; although
the much more artisanal Mezcal del Amigo has comparative pricing.
It does not appear to produce mezcal using agave other than
espadín, and therefore would not be considered a designer
product. However, it does make a gran reserva añejo,
of similar quality to the Mezcal del Amigo añejo.
to other highly commercial mezcals on the domestic and international
markets, Benevá produces an excellent product. But
Benevá is big, commercial business, and as much as
it produces a spirit of reasonable quality accessible to the
general public, it is very close to one end of the continuum.
While on a tour of the production facility, when asked the
difference between mezcal as produced by Benevá, and
tequila, Doña Violeta readily admitted its simply
the variety of agave used, and climate in which its
Fueled with diesel, Benevá steams its agave in massive
stainless steel drums. The agave is crushed using sophisticated
machinery; the nutrients are then washed out of the fiber
in a similarly high-tech fashion. Stainless steel receptacles
with steam running through tubing in the middle are used to
ferment the baked agave juice in only 24 36 hours,
as compared to several days the natural way. Sophisticated
diesel-powered stills are employed. Mezcal is produced as
quickly and efficiently as one can imagine, in huge quantities,
employing a minimum of personnel. Is the Benevá technology
mezcal production of the future, surpassed only by Zignum?
Yes, Benevá is a family operation, and at its facility
one finds photos of Don Pedros father producing mezcal
the old fashioned way. But otherwise, the only vestige
of tradition is at the Benevá owned restaurant,
Rancho Zapata, strategically located several miles away from
the ultra-modern commercial production facility. Here, tourists
can see mezcal being made using the pit with firewood for
baking, horse for crushing, pine vat for fermenting, and copper
and brick still. But its a demonstration, albeit producing
mezcal, serving an important marketing function as
more and more producers who have discarded true tradition
have come to exploit.
Future of Mezcal in Oaxaca as Representative of the Slow Food
Is Slow Food in Oaxaca fighting a losing battle as Andres
Amato would seem to intimate? The changing nature of mezcal
production and distribution appears to suggest that indeed,
while artisanal production continues, there are several components
of contemporary manufacture which are at odds with the Slow
Food mission. A ray of hope is the effort being made by Hilarino
and his syndicate, in their attempt to battle COMERCAM . Certainly
there will be increased costs for small scale producers if
their own group becomes highly regulated, but hopefully not
to the extent of the checks and balances of COMERCAM and associated
The alliance between Slow Food International and Los Danzantes,
if in fact it can be termed as such, is based on good intentions,
and aside from the restaurants prices for its mezcals,
food is accessible relative to the competition in Oaxaca and
elsewhere throughout Mexico. Its mezcals are another matter.
Yes, Los Danzantes supports the Slow Food mission in terms
of supporting small scale production under its Alipus label.
But cost makes its Los Danzantes brand products inaccessible
to most consumers, effectively acknowledged by Héctor.
Mezcal del Maguey has almost everything going for it, so much
so that Slow Food International ought to forge links with
Ron Cooper. Perhaps inviting a representative from Italy to
visit Oaxaca, and look at the palenques in operation and the
standard of living of the producers and village life, would
go a long way to either illustrating that fair conditions
and pay are indeed at work, or working towards price adjustment.
It is suggested that regardless of the willingness of the
two sides to work together on all issues, an accord can be
Mezcal del Amigo, like many other palenques of its type, is
illustrative of family run businesses which will continue
into the future, and maintain their niches somewhere between
the highest priced sipping spirits, and the Benevás.
The Mezcal del Amigos in Oaxaca must adapt to survive and
maintain their placement, and this inevitably means changing
some of the traditional production methods. Survival is just
as much a part of Slow Food as any of the other noted indicia.
It is hoped, however, that what these producers lose in one
dimension of the Slow Food mission, they make up in another.
Benevá is not going to change dramatically. It will
maintain accessible pricing, because it can afford to do so,
and at the same time will enter untapped international markets,
such as Canada just as McDonalds, Burger King and the
rest did, and continue to do. Perhaps Benevá actually
assists the Los Danzantes, Alipuses, Mezcal del Magueys and
Amigo del Mezcals out there and there are many
since giving consumers an initial taste of a basic, agreeable
spirit might be just whats needed to whet the appetite
for a higher end designer product expensive, yet nevertheless
sensitive to the Slow Food movement.
As mezcal in Oaxaca moves through the 21st century, it must
become more accessible to consumers as a quality spirit, while
at the same time respectful of the Slow Food mission. Otherwise,
Slow Food in Mexico will remain for the rich, and yes, elitist.
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Machaya Oaxaca Bed & Breakfast ( http://www.oaxacadream.com
and his wife Arlene run Casa Machaya Oaxaca Bed & Breakfast
a unique Oaxaca b & b experience combining the comfort
of a Oaxaca hotel with the quaintness and personal touch of
a country inn and the privacy with full amenities of an apartment.
Alvin writes, consults to documentary film companies, takes
couples and families to the sights in and around Oaxaca, and
together with Chef Pilar Cabrera runs Oaxaca Culinary Tours
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