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Posts from the ‘Making Mezcal’ Category

Thank GAD…

The Gracias a Dios lineup

I have to hand it to the guys at Gracias a Dios (GAD) or – that is one clever URL for the brand.

I had a chance to visit their palenque – a two birds with one stone event so I could see my friend Norma and visit the palenque. She lives in Teotitlan and puts on some pretty incredible textile and culture tours.

We set up a time to meet at the GAD palenque and get a special tour and tasting with Maestro Mezcalero Oscar Hernandez Santiago. Of course I got lost because my GPS disconnected and the directions sent us off in the complete opposite direction in Matatlan. Note to travelers – google maps is great and amazing, except of course when you have no phone reception which crazily enough, I didn’t in Matatlan. The palenque is on the edge of town as you head south on 190. It is a beautiful piece of property and will eventually be a centerpiece of the new style of mezcal travels in Oaxaca – a bread and breakfast on palenque property. It is now available to book through Airbnb. Read more

The Casa de Cortes model

The Tres Mezquites Palenque

Over my years of visiting Oaxaca, Asis Cortes and I have never managed to be here at the same time. This trip is no different, but luckily, I was finally able to get out and visit a few of the palenques they work with. Special thanks to Puro Burro and Zack Safron who used to be a San Francisco based bartender. He has since made the leap to Oaxaca which is quite a trend with bartenders. Zach occupies a fascinating spot in the mezcal world: He works closely with Puro Burro which leads trips to Oaxaca geared toward the hospitality industry, and is a bartender at Mezcalogia, Asis’ Oaxaca mezcaleria. Zach acts as a kind of connector for the Casa de Cortes “empire” with Mezcalogia and the world outside of Oaxaca. His love and enthusiasm for mezcal, and Oaxaca, cannot be overstated. Read more

Mixing your mezcals

A mix of agaves

You may have noticed the term ensemble on some mezcals, it’s just like the dictionary definition, the second one after “a group of musicians, actors, or dancers who perform together.” The one that reads “a group of items viewed as a whole rather than individually.” As applied to the mezcal world the same holds true, a variety of agaves are harvested, roasted, mashed, fermented, distilled, and bottled together.

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Meet Mezcal, Tequila’s smoky cousin


We are pleased to introduce our new correspondent on the ground Buzz Komil – this is his first piece for Mezcalistas…

So, there’s this amazing new spirit out of Mexico called mezcal. It’s kind of like tequila, but not really. It’s smoky, and mysterious, like that cousin you once heard of, you know, the one who lived out in the middle of nowhere and whose idea of a pimped ride was a donkey pulling a stone wheel.

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On sustainability

Sustainable: adjective

1.capable of being supported or upheld, as by having its weight borne from below.

2.pertaining to a system that maintains its own viability by using techniques that allow for continual reuse: sustainable agriculture. Aquaculture is a sustainable alternative tooverfishing. to be maintained or kept going, as an action or process: a sustainable negotiation between the two countries. to be confirmed or upheld: a sustainable decision. to be supported as with the basic necessities or sufficient funds: a sustainable life.


defendable, defensible, justifiable, maintainable, supportable, tenable


So it says when you do a basic search on Merriam-Webster breaks it down even more simply:

: able to be used without being completely used up or destroyed

: involving methods that do not completely use up or destroy natural resources

: able to last or continue for a long time

I looked this up the other day because given how much the word sustainable is being thrown about, I needed to double check what it actually means. Having worked in the world of sustainable agriculture and food since 2007, this is a word that is near and dear to my heart. To see it becoming as meaningless as natural or artisanal, makes me want to scream until every window is shattered within a two mile radius.  

Of course it’s not surprising  given the reality of the market we live in where nearly everything is commodified and relabeled as artisanal (Round Table Pizza?) because that’s the only way to distinguish it from other commodities. In the spirits world what distinguishes one whiskey from another? We love to champion individuality and distinctiveness in all things, especially food, wine, beer, and spirits. It’s practically cultish. But really, most of those things aren’t very individual, few represent or maintain an actual tie to the tradition that they lay claim to, even fewer are actually produced in a traditional manner. That costs too much, it’s difficult to export, it even tastes different. Because here is the dirty little secret that we rarely want to talk about – true craft or artisanal production really really really doesn’t scale – that’s the whole point.

While in Oaxaca in July, I traveled with reporter Grace Rubenstein, researching the subject of women in mezcal and sustainable maguey production. She has a great profile piece here in Craftsmanship Magazine on the subject which I highly recommend. When talking to people about the industry, we asked them to identify the top three things most important in the mezcal world: The common themes were – production (both the growing of maguey and the process of making mezcal), management of silvestres, and how palenqueros are paid. But to really understand what’s happening, a conversation I had with Ulises Torrentera goes to the heart of what is happening.

In a nutshell, this is the situation that Ulises and I discussed.

What you have enveloping the industry now are entities with money who live outside of the areas where mezcal is produced, contracting with people to find mezcal to buy, to bottle and brand and sell outside the area where it is produced. Often the owner of the brand has never met their producer, or actually researched how the mezcaleros are making mezcal, let alone where the maguey is coming from nor how it is being grown. The mezcal is a commodity which puts the  consumer so far from the process and origin of what’s in a bottle that it is possible to say anything while marketing the final product.

There is no transparency no matter how clear the substance of the bottle. And this is where Ulises became truly passionate – the system that produces that bottle has so many different levels of people and processes involved from growing the maguey, to the production, to the shipping, and finally to the market that by the time you get that bottle into your hands no one knows anything about it. We’ve seen what this has meant for our food supply: It was industrialized to the point of anonymity which inspired the backlash and the success of the Eat Local and Know your Food, Know Your Farmer  campaigns.

This is exactly why people love farmers’ markets and why wine tasting is such a big thing in the US and, increasingly, the rest of the industrialized world. It’s the reassertion of a connection with the concept of authenticity. But every time it’s used, it gets co-opted by marketing machines and the very process of production is industrialized to internalize whatever facets are important to that particular authenticity.

There has been more focus on this concept of sustainability in the mezcal industry – something we have written about for a while, most recently in Max’s piece on the CRM, and in other pieces like this, this and this. But so much of the discussion is focused on the production side, especially on cultivating maguey, but that’s just one part of being a sustainable operation. We need to start applying this term to the whole of the industry and factor in the pay, economics, impact on communities, ultimately applying true meaning and meat to the word, otherwise we’ll end up right where we are with everything else. So in the absence of standards or verbiage when it comes to sustainability in mezcal, I propose the following four “pillars” (to borrow from the sustainable food movement)  that must be addressed and answered for any brand or organization that uses the word:

1. Is it environmentally sound? Growing and production practices must be such that maguey is being replanted and it needs be diversified between seed and hijuelos. Silvestres cannot be over harvested, the wood fuel supply must not strip the land, water must be used responsibly, waste must be managed appropriately, and environmental impact must be minimalized.

2. Is it economically viable? The financial structure must include fair pair for all including a truly sustainable wage for each laborer involved in the production all the way up to the mezcalero. The business must be able to sustain itself through market gyrations and maintain a commitment to the community in which it operates.

3. Is it socially just? The business must demonstrate an awareness of its impact and relationship with the local community and proactively work to give back and renew resources from the its place of origin. There must be a conscientious decision to adhere to a triple bottom line of people, planet, profit.

4. Is it humane? This specifically refers to the treatment of animals in agriculture, but really should be a cornerstone of any business. Humanity can’t be left at the sideline as profit is pursued.

This may sound stark but this is pretty basic stuff. Consumers repeatedly say this is exactly what they want of their foodstuffs and we stand at a great point in mezcal’s development to ensure that it takes a different path from most other artisanal products. I am laying down the gauntlet and challenging every mezcal brand out there who refers to themselves as sustainable to clearly and transparently state their practices per the above pillars so that we can have some industry lead standards until anything official is adopted.

I encourage anyone who has ideas on these fronts to speak up. Post your comments, send us your questions, and tell us about the sustainability project you’re seeing. If you have a bigger thought send it to us – we might publish it in order to deepen and enliven the conversation. And – stay tuned – we’ll be doing a whole series dedicated to this issue of sustainability and the different projects out there.

On authenticity

A lovely run-in with Sara Deseran at EatDrinkSF’s Taco Knockdown got my writing juices flowing. I was just going to the event, not intending to write about it, take pictures of it, just to enjoy it. A crazy conceit – line up some of SF’s best restaurants and have them make their interpretations of tacos. I am not a purist when it comes to tacos – as long as that balance of savory, acid and crunch exists, and the delivery device (whatever variation of a tortilla) holds up and is not drowned out by too much on top, I am down. I remember giving an ex-boyfriend a mix tape of blues music with the explanation of how every culture has blues music if you step away from the strict chord structure definition – what is fado or flamenco if not a serious case of the blues? Needless to say, the tape did not go over well. Words were exchanged for many many many weeks.

That memory came back strong when Sara and I talked about authenticity and she reminded me of the article she wrote about the subject (well worth the read if you haven’t seen it yet) and it opened a whole floodgate of feelings on the subject. I remembered the panel discussion that SoCal based writer Gustavo Arellano organized and moderated at Eat Real LA in 2011 all about the subject of authentic Mexican food in the United States and basically called bull on the very idea. Even in Mexico it is impossible to put that label on things, and really, why does it matter?

I can’t follow a recipe to save my life which is why I don’t bake. When I read a recipe I see a starting point and flavor guidelines. And then I have to change it up a bit. A cooking teacher in Oaxaca was horrified that I made my chicken broth with some epazote – traditionally, that is not to be added until you are making the soup. But I love to smell epazote and I love the smell of broth as it is cooking and so I put them together and created a great base for my Sopa Azteca, rendering it totally inauthentic. But it tasted damn good.

And that’s the crux of it, because really, when you have an Ichi Sushi or Chaya Brasserie or Dosa or Mekong Kitchen making tacos, you have to know there will be nothing “authentic” about them, and frankly I have no interest in creating a taco denomination. But they will be pretty damn good, and like Sara, I think that is what is most important when it comes to pursuing food. 

But how does this relate to mezcal, or why should it? With more people traveling to Oaxaca because of mezcal, this inevitably will lead to lots of discussion about what palenque or mezcaleria or mezcal is authentic, and of course the one upsmanship over who has had the most authentic experience or what constitutes authenticity. Whether it be traveling via car, colectivo, foot or burro to visit a palenque – achieving your alcohol grade by distilling to it, mixing heads and tails, maybe adding just a little bit of water get that 1-2% difference – triple distilling – fermenting in wood or hide – making an ensemble – cultivating silvestres — what makes any of these more, or less, authentic?

Soon we’ll see the final rules and regulations from the Consejo (CRM, previously known as COMERCAM) that will define artesanal, traditional and industrial mezcal — but I doubt they will ever define authentic. This is good and important and gives us guidelines, but what truly matters at the end of the day is if a mezcal tastes good.

Oh, and the judges favorite taco of the night? The  simple and traditional (and delicious) birria de chivo from Trick Dog. The crowd favorite? The duck curry from Dosa.

Looking at the world of mezcal

Craft Distillers, the Ukiah based distributor of well known and loved brands like Alipus, Mezcalero, and Los Nahuales has launched quite an impressive series of blog posts that dig deeply into everything that goes into their mezcals. They start with this really fun post on shipping a Hoga still to Oaxaca

And work through all the steps in making mezcal while addressing some important process questions like the impact of shredders and yeasts.

It’s rare that someone takes this much care examining issues and techniques, let alone for someone in the industry to do it publicly so we heartily commend Ansley Coale’s crew for taking on this labor. It’s fascinating and provides great information for all the discussions that mezcal nerds have all the time. Take a look, you may end up spending your entire day working through their posts.

Women – the new face of mezcal?

Let’s get one thing clear, women have always been part of the mezcal industry. Historically mezcal production has been a family affair and women were intimately wound into most aspects from selling the mezcal at markets, to preparing the meals, to handling the finances, to actually making mezcal. What seems to be the new trend is women actually getting recognition for their part.

This has been an area of interest for me since, well, mezcal has been of interest to me. As a woman, navigating the very macho world of spirits in general, and then specifically mezcal in Mexico, I can’t help but be drawn to this.

Today, women who are running mezcal businesses are few in number, though perhaps growing. Graciela Angeles Carranza of Real Minero is perhaps the greatest example of a woman at the helm of a family business who has grown it exponentially and is now shipping product around the world. Then you have Reyna Sanchez who learned how to make mezcal from family and has been producing fantastic mezcals while she works her way through the labyrinth of certification. I first met her in November of 2012 when she was making mezcal out of her cousin’s palenque in San Luis Amatlan. Through a grant, she built her own palenque and is known in Oaxaca for her madrecuishe and tepestate. You also have women like Sosima Olivera Aguilar who works with a collective in the Sierra Sur of Oaxaca and sells to bars, restaurants, and mezcalerias in Oaxaca.  And of course you have others like Andrea Sánchez López of Aguas del Corazon mezcal, and Cecilia Murrieta of La Niña del Mezcal who have founded their own brands and work with mezcaleros in Oaxaca, and in the case of Cecilia, now Jalisco.

It makes for a great story: Women are beating the odds and finding economic opportunity in a male dominated industry! But I wonder just what the reality is. After all, Mexico really is a bastion of machismo in all its subtle and explicit varieties. So, this last trip I made a point of visiting the female mezcaleros I know and searching for any that I’d been missing.

I started by telling Ulises Torrentera – mezcal expert extraordinaire and co-proprietor of Oaxaca’s In Situ – that I was interested in meeting women who were making mezcal and he made it a point of introducing me to various women at the Maestros event I went to in Oaxaca.  I was fascinated by one in particular,Oliva Ramírez Laoreano, primarily because at 22 she is very young, and because she doesn’t fit the mold of the classic off the grid mezcalero that I frequently meet. I’m used to meeting men with hardened hands and little experience with contemporary life while Olivia was texting away on her phone and just like a 22-year-old anywhere. At the Maestros event Oliva was pouring tobala, espadin and some of her cremas. The latter lends itself to lots of confusion because the literal English translation is “cream” but no dairy products are present in a mezcal crema, they are actually fruit based mezcals, usually blends with jamaica or tamarind. We chatted briefly at the Maestros event and then made plans for a visit her in Sola de Vega, where she lives.

While at the Maestros event I also met anthropologist Ronda Brulotte, a professor at the University of New Mexico who is working on a huge research project about mezcal. We got together for breakfast a few days later in Oaxaca and talked through some of the issues and questions she has when discussing women and their role in the mezcal industry. While I tend to focus on the role of women as mezcaleras, Ronda digs deeper and has been asking whether the visibility of women in the mezcal world means that the deeper economics are changing. She wonders whether mezcal is actually bringing in more money to the families that make it and whether that’s changing the economics within the family income structure and whether women are getting more power or just sitting in traditional roles. After that breakfast it was quite clear that the story that we’d all love to believe, of  a trend of women making mezcal, just isn’t that simple. We are seeing more female faces in the business when it comes to marketing and pr but we don’t have any data to show there are more women making mezcal so it’s very possible that this whole idea is just wishful thinking. That really weighed on my mind as I got ready to meet up with Oliva.

The drive to Sola de Vega is beautiful – especially because it was the rainy season when everything is verdant. Coming from drought stricken California I felt like a broken record – it’s so green, oh my god look how green everything is, it’s just so, wow, green. Located in what is called the Sierra Sur, it is mountainous and reknown for tobala. Like all road trips, there is always a hitch, this one being we had no cell service and had to stop at a miscellenea to use a landline to figure out where were supposed to meet Oliva. I point this out to anyone wanting to do excursions outside of Oaxaca to more remote areas of Mexico – always have a communications back up plan, and consider making sure any cell plan is with Telcel as Carlos Slim seems to have negotiated contracts for the most coverage. We were supposed to head to a supply store and, after some initial confusion as to which exact supply store, we found one other and headed out to the palenque she was using.

In addition to Oaxaca’s own Mezcalista, Ana JB, and I there was Oliva, her brother, her uncle, and a cousin. Thankfully the drive to the palenque was only about 25 minutes and the road not so badly rutted. Located in a beautiful, narrow valley, the palenque was simple and, at this time, still inactive. There was one wood fermentation barrel, four clay distillation pots, and a chipper to crush the cooked maguey. I want to get back to the chipper question later, for now I have a clear appreciation for their utility given how labor intensive mezcal making is. Some people claim that doing all the shredding by hand or with the tahona creates a clear difference in flavor so I really want to set up a tasting to evaluate this question. There was also plenty of maguey in the surrounding fields. The palenque is apparently certified and I am sure that factored into the reason Oliva wanted to use space.

View inside palenque in Sola de Vega

View inside palenque in Sola de Vega

Clay pots in Sola de Vega

Clay pots in Sola de Vega

July is when people are usually planting corn so most mezcal production is on hiatus for these smaller guys. The palenque is owned by a great uncle who has been making mezcal his whole life. Oliva is learning from him and her grandfather. Her brother, who is younger, probably about 18 or 19, has been helping as well, providing the much needed muscle for this back breaking work. The two of them are without doubt, the most beautiful palenqueros I have ever met. Most of this was explained by Oliva’s uncle, who did most of the talking about the project. It is his hope to create a cooperative of female mezcal makers, a noble concept, which he was clearly passionate about.

I have to admit, I was skeptical of all of this. Was Oliva actually making mezcal, or was she reselling her great uncle’s mezcal? Was she a front for a great story or is this the beginning of what could be a great economic driver for women in the cooperative? And if it is a legitimate project, how many other female mezcal makers are actually out there to make up a cooperative? Then there were other questions – Oliva had studied psychology in school so why would she return home to make mezcal? As I spoke with her uncle, she was quiet and not engaged, and when I asked her why she wanted to do this she really couldn’t answer.

I ended up buying a couple of liters of espadin from her great uncle. A strong, what I call mezcal del campo, I paid 200 pesos to his wife before climbing back into the car to go to Oliva’s house near the center of town to taste her mezcal.

Maguey starts, Sola de Vega

Maguey starts, Sola de Vega

This was where everything changed and Oliva became completely engaged and animated- where she and her brother showed me the maguey starts they had going in the yard next to the house – a mix of tobala, tepestate, and sierra negra. We then sat down at the table, Oliva got glasses and began pouring – first cremas and then espadin and tobala. I am not a huge fan of the cremas, but I have to say, hers were pretty delicious and would make great cocktail mixers as well as playing key roles in the kitchen. I mentioned how they would be great reduced to syrups and poured over roasting meat or used on bread or tortillas with cheese. She immediately pulled out some queso and we began tasting the different combinations of the jamaica and tamarindo. And then there was the straight up mezcal which was quite tasty and showed skill and talent. Ironically, I would have bought the cremas, but she was down to very little until they started making mezcal again. We made do with the tobala, and I made her promise to get us the cremas as soon as possible.



We stopped for a quick meal before hitting the road home. We heard thunder in the distance and light rain danced on the tin roof as we chowed down on mole and tortillas and coffee. The sky was darkening as we climbed into the car and began the 2.5 hour journey home, chasing a storm the entire way back to Oaxaca.

Death by Ruta del Mezcal

It was a whirlwind of a Oaxaca trip – not so much in time but in all that was done in two very short and long weeks.

The pretext for the trip was a wedding – my first Spanish teacher in Oaxaca marrying her Danish love, and former classmate of mine. Despite already being married for four years (in Denmark) the shindig in Oaxaca was huge, fun and no less of a celebration. Honestly, if it hadn’t been for Marisol and her introductions to her friends all those years ago, I am not sure my path in Oaxaca would have led me where it did (to mezcal).

From those crazy and late-nights beginning to the trip, everything just steam rolled through till the last day. My last trip to Oaxaca, in December of 2014 after a two year absence, was more family vacation, so sneaking in nights to the newest restaurant, mezcaleria, bar, etc was challenging. This trip I was flying solo and made the most out of it – from trekking out to pueblos, to hitting the new spots, to eating whatever and whenever I could. And of course to do this in the middle of the gorgeous and insane Guelaguetza, well, the sleep when I’m dead mantra seemed close to becoming a reality.

So overview thoughts before I start diving into these over the next couple of weeks.

  1. There has always been that fine line of parallel city existence between Oaxaca and San Francisco -two joined souls. And never did this seem more clear with the unbelievable gentrification that has happened in Oaxaca over the past three years. The money poured into welcoming tourists is quite obvious (wow that new airport, the newly paved roads – though still laden with topes, the new andador on Garcia Virgil…) The new mezcalerias – I think there are now 8 or 9 now? The prevalence of high end restaurants, cafes and their specialty roasted coffee, a cerviceria – your basic food hipster paradise.  It is quite overwhelming and with an incredible exchange rate (15.5 pesos to the dollar) well, heavenly, for me, not so great for the average Oaxacans who have been dealing with increasing wage inequality and inflation. Which leads to…
  2. Mezcal is expensive in Oaxaca. The new rules and regulations of both CRM (Comercam) and the government body that oversees business registration have created an interesting market in the city where pretty much everything now sold in bars, restaurants, stores has to be branded. The newly regulated industry has opened some pretty big doors for the middlemen who seem to be the ones getting rich. Now getting a decent copita means paying 30 pesos at the least all the way up to 200 pesos for rare stuff. Again, this is not so much a problem if you are either wealthy or a foreigner, but as an average Oaxacan well suddenly your mezcal is pretty damn expensive, unless you have a connection.
  3. The looming (or not) agave crisis and sustainability issue of the industry. The price of agave has come down, more agave is being grown, but still, it is a fragile balance and the slightest thing could throw the whole thing out of whack (another agave shortage/pricing issue in Jalisco where they have been known to use the Oaxacan agave sugars for fermentation; blight; economic shifts of pay, inflation, etc.) And of course the fact that there is no overseeing body regulating the cultivation, re-planting of wild agave, etc despite everyone talking about this for years, and well, you have a kind of mishmash or desmadre of a situation brewing.
  4. The growing influence of the European market on mezcal. It’s an easier market to enter for the most part, it’s educated when it comes to complex spirits, and of course, so much easier for travel as Oaxacans don’t need to jump through the demanding US Visa hoops.
  5. The growing visibility of women in the industry. Always a part of it, but now coming out of the shadows a bit as people/brands/cooperatives recognize the great marketing opportunities and stories to be told. Also there is the increasing independence you see as women become more educated and are waiting to have children, or have more control over when they have children.
  6. And perhaps finally, the increasing lack of transparency you see in the industry – ironically at the same time of increasing CRM regulations. These regulations have allowed for a greater disconnect between the mezcalero and the end consumer, creating even more of a market where the drinker, and sometimes even the head of the brand, really has no idea where the mezcal comes from.

It was an amazing trip, as always, and no matter how many times I have been there, no matter how much time I have spent, each trip reveals something completely new – can we say mole amarillo with conejo?

Guelaguetza dancers

Guelaguetza dancers

Maestros del Mezcal tasting

Maestros del Mezcal tasting

Reyna Sanchez in her palenque

Reyna Sanchez in her palenque

Feria del Mezcal

Feria del Mezcal

Flor de agave in Sola de Vega

Flor de agave in Sola de Vega

Mezcal price list in Mezcalogica

Mezcal price list in Mezcalogica

Quick look – Mezcal Vago tasting in Oaxaca

Had the chance to meet up with Judah Kupor yesterday and taste though the whole Vago line at his tasting room/office/bottling facility in San Felipe del Agua. Pretty amazing stuff, especially when you are able to do it side by side and really get a sense of the flavors that are being pulled out by the mezcaleros. Stretched out several hours (important when you are looking at 12-15 mezcals), the conversation rambled over tons of topics including the controversial ones of adding water (distilling to ABV vs playing with colas, puntas and yes, water), sustainability around the agaves, wood, just how many mezcaleros to work with under a brand, fair pay, challenging the mezcaleros to move beyond their flavor comfort  zone and tradition, and well, you get the picture of a wonderful long afternoon. At some point I’ll be able to go through the notes and put those ramblings to paper.

But the mezcal – if you haven’t already had the chance to give it a try, they produce some pretty incredible stuff and are playing around with some new ones as well. Tasting some Espadins side by side – from their very first batch on, it is quite the trajectory of flavor. For anyone who ever says, oh, that is just an Espadin, well shame, because the variety and complexity of this maguey is pretty extreme.

Three Tobalas

Three Tobalas

Also tasting side by side three Tobalas was also pretty interesting and again pointed to how much is determined by terrior, water, and distillation and storing – clay/copper/glass.

It is impossible to name stand outs – Madrecuixe, Tepestate, Mexicano, Sierra Negra (with 10% Espadin) – all compete equally and really just depend on the personal palette of the drinker. Me, I still want to go for the Elote every time because nothing quite puts the flavor memory of Mexico into a bottle quite like that one, and presents equally the vital role both maiz and maguey play in life down here.

I am looking forward to a trek out to Candelaria Yegole next week to see the full operation and of course what further hours of conversation will unveil.