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Mezcal Tosba: A Oaxaca Success Story Beyond NPR Expectations
In January 2014, NPR reported that people who follow mezcal and the growth of the market believed that the new kid on the block, Mezcal Tosba, “could really do it” (Planet Money, Episode 512: Can Mezcal Save A Village). By February, the 25-minute podcast had gone viral and become a hot topic of conversation (at least in Oaxaca, the state in south-central Mexico where Tosba’s agave-based liqueur is produced) not only for fans of the spirit, but also for many interested on microfinance, issues related to migration, and the difficulties of rural Mexicans.
Shortly after the broadcast of the program I had the opportunity to hear the story more directly, from the mezcal producers, at a presentation and tasting held at the mezcalería In Situ in the center of Oaxaca. I figured that if what I had gathered was half as accurate, I would eventually have a chance to learn for myself by visiting the palenque (a small artisanal distillery as it is known in the state) and enjoying a session with the master palenquero, Edgar González.
Edgar and his cousin/business partner Elisandro González started with no background in agave production or mezcaldistillation, and without money, yet were intent on doing everything, by themselves, through learning; how to grow agave in his community, build a palenque, hire locals with no experience in the business, how to get the subtleties and secrets to make a quality mezcal, and finally how to market his spirit in the US without agents or distributors.
The Mezcal Tosba partners are from the town of San Cristóbal Lachirioag, district of Villa Alta, where the palenque is located. Their non-acting/academic backgrounds and family dynamics, their motivation to enter the mezcal business and their early guarded success are well chronicled in the NPR story. It wasn’t until my November 2014 visit to Lachirioag with Edgar and the cousins’ friend and promoter Oaxaca resident Darinel Silva that I first listened to the actual NPR account. From the perspective of a mezcalophile and someone who regularly praises the positive attributes of the state of Oaxaca, the Tosba saga of the González cousins offers much more, without diminishing that quality story.
Darinel and I together with a mezcal friend from Seattle leave Oaxaca before 6 in the morning. I learned that the drive would take about five hours. Not wanting to spend the night in the village, we decided to prepare for a lot of driving and return to the city the same day.
After climbing to more than 9,000′ ASL and traveling through simply spectacular countryside with remarkably diverse vegetation (including the majestic Agave americana Oaxaquensis) and dotted with quaint colorful villages known for mainly agricultural production, we descend into Lachirioag – after just four hours. An unremarkable breakfast in a village commodore under our belts, we drive another 20 minutes into a lush river valley where the palenque is located. On the way we stop to look at Don Edgar’s plots of cultivated Agave angustifolia Haw (espadín), grown from seed.
Over the past quarter century of drinking mezcal in Oaxaca, and more to the point visiting artisan distilleries and talking to the masters who produce the spirit, I almost always say of the palenquero that he learned to make mezcal from his father, his uncle, or his grandfather , with the tradition going back as long as oral history would allow him to remember; usually four or five generations. Some have been well taught, and others produce spirits of questionable quality, of course still good enough to keep the family income at a reasonable level above subsistence.
How then is Don Edgar (let’s just say Edgar, because after all he’s only 30 years old), self-taught and without a family mezcal pedigree, able to make mezcals that rival or better the quality of palenqueros produced for similar ones? of del Maguey, Pierde Almas, Koch, Vago, Alipus and the rest?
Edgar began by experimenting, and claims that he continues to do so; first by planting agave on the slopes of his own land, from seeds initially germinated a little more than a decade ago, and then finally to start distilling over the last two years.
We start with Tosba’s pechuga. My northwest coast agave aficionado exclaims that Edgar’s pechugo is the best he’s ever tasted, and I can’t disagree. I have been a fan of this mid heel incarnation for the last ten years. But what Edgar’s pechugo brings to the table is remarkable; a subtle blend of fruity flavors and just a hint of sweetness, but most importantly it maintains or perhaps better still enhances the agave notes. Even those who crave the spirit and aren’t fans of pechuga would be hard pressed not to ask for a second.
All the fruit used was grown on Edgar’s land. Since it is harvested throughout the year, some are initially frozen and brought out for distillation along with the seasonally fresh ones:
“No, I don’t put the fruit in the copper pot with the mezcal. I hang it in the heat over the liquid in this bag. [showing us a polymer mesh bag, similar to those used to sell supermarket grapes and other fruit], along with the turkey breast. No one ever told me any different, and I didn’t know if there was a right or wrong way to do it, so I just did it that way.”
We explore the vast palenque, and then the equally large interior rooms, where we encounter the stainless steel sterilizing and bottling machinery. To date, Mezcal Tosba has exported to the United States only four pallets totaling no more than 4,000 bottles. The equipment is certainly impressive, far more advanced than that of many operations that ship 20,000 bottles a year. “Yes, there was the odd setback, but we’re back on track now,” he explains, then continues, “now let’s try some espadín, first a little light, and then at 48% and at 50% because I want your opinion on which of the two higher ABVs do you like best when we start sending our mezcal up north again, real soon.”
“Please watch the ribs while we’re down at the falls,” he instructs his only worker for the day, doubling as sous chef and a soft of the two stills drip mezcal. Three pieces of pork back ribs hung on a wire about 15″ above a brick base charcoal pit. They had been marinated for a while and now needed to be slowly cured over low heat for a few hours before grilling.
With four shot glasses and a bottle of pechugo in hand, we walk along a long winding and rather steep overgrown dirt road, until we reach a flowing stream with crystal clear joints. “All year round we catch white freshwater salmon, langoustines and a type of catfish, but we use nets rather than fishing rods,” boasts Edgar, then in response to my question about fly fishing he elaborates, “let’s look at the deeper ones.” points, because the current may be too strong for such fishing.”
We then go back up, but only a little until reaching a steep spring fed falls. We sit on a series of large flat boulders as we drink and chat. To the continuous sound of water cascading over rocks we discuss Edgar’s longer term plan to eventually have some cabins to accommodate guests, and a slightly more formal outdoor kitchen area than currently exists. His friend Darinel, my mezcalmaven and I each enter our opinions on how much more formal he might want to make this already exquisite natural setting. I’m already excited at the prospect of bringing groups of mezcal lovers to learn more about mezcal and agave while participating in the process, and including nature walks, swimming, maybe even hunting, and digging into Oaxacan regional cuisine. Talk turns back to spirits and agave.
Edgar has a plot of land under cultivation with maguey nearing maturity. But this field of dreams is not just any espadín plot. This one is completely surrounded by coffee plants. The region is known more for coffee production than mezcal, despite the notoriety the NPR episode brought. He tends to harvest, bake, ferment and distill the fruit of this particular crop more than others, and asks if I think the mezcal will taste different from other batches. I investigated the effect on mezcal flavor of agave in close proximity to different cash crops affecting land. I assure him that what comes from that field will indeed have a special nuance. It has to. We discuss environmental yeasts in this particular microclimate effected by the rich diversity of fruits harvested at different times of the year. No wonder his mezcals are so special, apart from Edgar’s dedication to the business and penchant for learning through questioning and experimentation.
We are tempted to jump into the base of the falls. “Wait until the warm season,” Edgar advises, “about February to May, when the water will be much more pleasant in terms of temperature.” Anyway, time marches on, and I decided not to come back after dark.
Before returning to the palenco we go up to look at seedlings in two flower beds, and rows of five different varieties of maguey that he grows. Edgar is particularly proud of one row of 2″ – 3″ tall agaves:
“These here, I don’t know what you call this maguey. It’s native to this region and as far as I know nobody even has a name for it other than silvestre. [wild]. I once made a small batch of mezcal from it, liked it, so decided I’d like to make more. So I harvested some seeds, and now here we are. I don’t know how many years it will take until these plants reach maturity and are ripe for harvest.”
Back at the palenque the ribs are ready to be placed on the grill. Off to the side, a thick iron comal sits on a rebar stand, just above the flames. Masa prepared by hand on a well-worked stone mat is pressed into tortillas then carefully placed on the comal.
On the way to San Cristóbal Lachirioag Darinel commented that only a few days earlier Edgar had distilled a batch of ensemble made from four agaves. Now, just before digging into the ribs, tortillas and salsa, seemed like a good time to ask for a sample. “It’s not ready yet, too high in alcohol at 60%, so I have to reduce it, maybe with necks from tobalá, so next visit,” advises Edgar. I beg him though. “Why would you want to try something I don’t like,” his curiosity then took over.
Finally, during a meal described by my Seattle friend as the best meal he experienced during his two-week stay in Oaxaca, Edgar brings out the ensamble, 25% espadín and each of three wild agaves he chose not to name. Maybe he thought I wouldn’t know local lingo used to describe everyone.
We all agreed that the dominant note of the ensemble was sweetness, and none of us could quite understand a particular tone or flavor. Edgar was right that with a little adjustment the mezcal would be much stronger. Perhaps so, but I suggest that there is a reasonable probability that after resting in a glass for six months, a delicate blend of flavors and a pleasant nose could emerge. I manage to extract two liters from the reluctant master mezcalero.
Fully satisfied in every way, we drive back to the village, Edgar accompanying us so we can meet his lovely wife and two young children in their home. It’s already 4pm, so arriving back in Oaxaca before dark is not in the cards.
As dusk approaches on the return trip we hit clouds, then light rain, all making negotiating the hairpins on the dirt roads somewhat challenging. I had completely forgotten that up in the mountains, at this time of year, 6pm is dark. However, we safely return to the Oaxacan valley, remembering every detail of our visit to the Mezcal Tosba palenque, and the warmth and hospitality of Edgar, or considering despite his youth, yes, Don Edgar.
Mezcal Tosba is a brand to be reckoned with. It will be around for a long, long time. After all, you can’t spend a decade putting your heart and soul into a project, not only for your own but also for the benefit of your fellow villagers without something great emerging. And let’s not forget the growing complement of mezcal fans relying on cousins Edgar and Elisandro González. Their continued success can only help the reputation of mezcal in the global spirit market to rise, even faster and faster.
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