Be a local in Oaxaca
Sit down with local producers, ask questions, imbibe, learn about the making of mezcal and discover “the norm” before the spirit became trendy and subject to mass tourist interest and export.
While most tourists to Oaxaca come to experience its unique cuisine, colonial architecture, pre-Hispanic ruins, or quaint markets and craft villages, some make the pilgrimage to learn about mezcal.
But getting to really know mezcal takes more than hopping on a tour bus and stopping for 15 minutes at a mezcal factory geared for tourist sales and commercial production; and sampling pulque is even more elusive. But the adventurous traveler wanting a truly real Mexican experience can indeed have more in-depth and revealing encounters. Here’s how.
OAXACAN MEZCAL AND PULQUE: KNOWING THE DIFFERENCE
To allay any confusion or misconceptions, one must first distinguish between the two inebriants. Pulque is a fermented drink which has been imbibed in Mexico since before the arrival of the Spanish. Any one of a certain variety of agave plant, generically known as pulqueros, can be hollowed out in the middle, preferably at maturity (12 – 20 years). The “well” continuously produces a sweet liquid known as aguamiel. Aguamiel ferments naturally as a result of contact with yeasts in the environment. Fermented aguamiel is known as pulque. Pulque has a colorful and storied history which has been chronicled through paintings by indigenous peoples over centuries if not millennia, and by the conquistadores.
Mezcal, on the other hand, is a distilled drink produced from different varieties of agave, most often agave espadín. While studies have suggested that indigenous groups in Mexico were distilling before The Conquest, best evidence indicates that distillation was introduced by the Spanish as early as 1578. Traditional production begins with cutting off the leaves of the agave at maturity (generally 8 – 10 years), then baking the remaining piña or heart of the plant in a deep airtight pit over firewood and rocks for about five days. The sometimes charred, cooked agave is then crushed by a horse, donkey or mule dragging a multi-ton limestone wheel over it. The resulting fibrous mash is then naturally fermented in pine vats, with the addition of water, for a week to 12 days depending on ambient temperature. The fermented liquid is distilled, normally twice, usually in a cement or brick encased copper still.
Take a One-Day Mezcal & Pulque Adventure
But venture off the-beaten-track and marvel at a totally different mezcal culture, mezcal as a sustainable industry, and perhaps even have a peak into a pulque producer’s home. Either find a cabbie in the city who’ll take you where you direct him, rent a car, or hire a guide or driver who will listen to your instructions and not try to convince you to go to his customary stops.
Head out from Oaxaca towards Mitla, along Highway 190 (the old secondary two-lane highway en route) into the Mixe region. The signage indicates Zacatepec, San Lorenzo Albarradas or Hierve el Agua. Stay on that highway and over the course of the next half hour or so you’ll pass by no less than five traditional mezcal palenques before you reach the turn to San Lorenzo Albarradas and San Juan del Río.
On balance, between these five traditional, old-style palenques, you’ll have an opportunity to witness every stage of artisanal mescal production. Sit down with the producers and ask questions, take photos, imbibe and learn about making mezcal for domestic consumption, the norm before the spirit became trendy and subject to mass tourist interest and export. These palenqueros are just as curious to learn about you, so you’re apt to have engaging conversations.
One rarely encounters non-Mexicans at these mom-and-pop mezcal operations; so one might ask how these palenqueros stay in business without international export or the tourist trade:
- They sell to residents in their own and nearby villages.
- They have patrons who are Oaxacan bar owners who come by to purchase in bulk, for resale back in the city
- They have patrons who are Oaxacan bar owners who come by to purchase in bulk, for resale back in the city.
- Many Oaxacans have a favorite producer in the hills, so will periodically stop by for a 10 or 20 litre container of the mezcal of their choice; blanco, reposado, añejo, gusano (with “the worm”), tobalá or pechuga.
- Occasionally a tourist van coming from nearby Hierve el Agua will stop by so the driver can purchase for his family.
- Commuters between Oaxaca and the Mixe often buy their mezcal at these facilities.
- Oaxacans with a large upcoming fiesta often buy their mezcal from one of these palenqueros, enough for a party of 200 – 500 guests.
Once you’ve sampled, taken photos and exhausted your ability to interact with the first palenquero, carry on up the road, stopping from time to time until you’ve seen it all. If one of the owners happens to be out in the fields harvesting agave, his wife or a son or daughter will likely be in charge. Ask if you can go into the fields to watch the process. You might be met with a surprising answer: “Let me hop into your car with you and I’ll take you to where my dad is working.”
Heading back towards Oaxaca, when you reach the Mitla interchange, rather than continuing on to Oaxaca, take the turn at the sign reading Tehuantepec & Matatlán. Plan on being near this intersection mid to late afternoon. Matatlán, a few minute drive down the road, is known as the “world capital of mezcal.” As you enter the town you’ll see a copper still stretched above and across the entire highway, with these words as proof of where you are. Get out of the car and begin asking people where you can buy pulque.
There are four or five pulque producing families in town, two of which live within a few blocks of the highway.
Everyone in Matatlán knows where these families live, and will tell you that there’s a sign out front of their homes. Knock on any door with signage reading “se vende pulque.” Ask to buy a cup, and enjoy. Ask if you can try something a bit stronger, or más fuerte. Begin to engage in whatever conversation you choose, with a view to learning, and eventually asking when he or she will next be going out into the fields to harvest aguamiel. Ask to come along. If the timing isn’t right, ask if you can come back tomorrow, or the next day, either early morning or late afternoon when the two daily harvests usually occur.
If rushed for time after your trek into the hills to learn about mezcal, and simply cannot make it to Matatlán for a pulque experience, there are usually pulque vendors a short drive from Oaxaca in the Friday Ocotlán and Sunday Tlacolula markets.
Even if you don’t have an opportunity to go out into the fields with a Zapotec family to harvest aguamiel or agave, just leaving town and experiencing mezcal and pulque the way Oaxacans do will leave you with memories of a true, rural Oaxacan adventure, rarely encountered by visitors to Mexico.