A new documentary offers an intimate peek into the lives of mezcal producers.
In the agave-spiked Oaxacan town of Santa Catarina Minas, Graciela Angeles mixes sugar into instant coffee and sets out a plate of pastries. Angeles runs Real Minero, a mezcal distillery forty kilometers outside of Oaxaca City, and she and her brother Edgar, who helps with the business, are taking a rare moment to sit down, but not to relax; they’re finalizing plans to build a community library before heading to their smoky palenque, a traditional outdoor distillery, to oversee mezcal production. There, huge agave hearts, or piña, sourced from nearby fields are roasted in massive underground pits, chopped up, fermented in vats, then distilled into the spirit that has captivated and sustained her family for over one hundred years.
Angeles is one of the subjects of Agave: The Spirit of a Nation, a forthcoming documentary tracking the distinctive tradition, and imagined futures, of mezcal, a spirit deeply rooted in indigenous Mexican heritage that is, in many ways, at a crossroads. The film, which will likely hit festivals in early 2018 and be released widely next summer, explores the implications of mezcal and tequila’s massive global growth on the communities who produce it. Shot by Matthew Riggieri and Nicholas Kovacic of Digital Cave, whose most recent project, Decanted, offers an inside look into Napa Valley, Agave centers the rural producers who are struggling to meet growing demands while also honoring the spirit’s heritage. Meanwhile, larger brands continue to create a premium global market, often at the expense of the communities making the mezcal, and a new generation of mezcal producers have grown increasingly reluctant to go global.
"I would prefer to keep mezcal only here in Mexico," a rural studies student at Chapingo University says. For her senior project, she is working at the community palenque created by mezcalera Sósima Olivera Aguilar, located in San Francisco Sola. When she graduates, she wants to make mezcal like her grandfather did, and she's disinterested in the growing global market. "Sometimes the people who make mezcal can't even afford mezcal," she says. "Outsiders don’t know all the work that goes into it. That work, it has to be here. There are mezcal companies that only sell in America and Europe. I don’t like that."
At the community palenque, Graciela Angeles and Sósima Olivera Aguilar take a look at the distilling process. They are pros by pretty much every rubric; for example, they can estimate the mezcal's exact alcohol content by observing how many bubbles pop up when the liquid flows. While Angeles has created a veritable business with her production, Real Minero, Aguilar says she's been on the fence for years about whether to sell her mezcal formally, rather than just to people she knows in town or meets at conferences. Like many, she is worried about diluting the tradition of mezcal, which, she points out, used to be considered a spiritual drink, consumed by the gods. Still, the spirit is passed around on special occasions, like births, weddings and engagements.
"Education is so important to me because people should know how long it takes to make and what it means," Aguilar says. "Mezcal signifies the closeness of the community. Culturally, it is very difficult to make a gringo understand what it takes. They’re just like, 'Yeah, drinking mezcal is fun.'" If she takes her sales global, or even national, she worries about not being there to educate each and every person who buys a bottle. Her passion is infectious. Aguilar's 11-year-old daughter has wanted to be a master mezcal maker ever since she was small (or smaller.) She already knows how to make it, sniff it and taste it like a professional.
Watching Angeles, Aguilar, Aguilar's daughter and the young Chapingo student discuss a giant pile of mulch for twenty minutes, I wonder if women will assume the jobs of educators and producers, bearing the traditions of mezcal in a way that is sustainable but also, as Aguilar puts it, spiritual.
Yet women mezcal makers are relatively rare. Angeles is the first to admit this. A 38-year-old single mother of two, Angeles does not look like the typical master mezcalera, though every moment of her life—even leaving town to earn her Ph.D. in rural development—has led her here, back home, to continue the work of her family. She returned to help her father with the family’s fourth-generation mezcal business, and before he died last year, he decided that she should take over the distillery, breaking from tradition.
“Clients and producers treat me differently for being a woman,” she said. “It’s not that they act like gentlemen, though. When I’m lifting something, they don’t run over and say, ‘Oh no, please, don’t do that, let me help.’ It’s usually more like I’ll start doing something and they’ll say, ‘She doesn’t know how to do it.’”
Throughout her education, Angeles was always the youngest and, arguably, the most ambitious. She finished college at 21 and her masters by 23. The jump from academia back to mezcal always made sense to her, even though she was part of the first generation of her family given the blessing to do whatever they wanted. "The mission for my father was that everyone go to college," he says. "You could decide what you wanted to do and where you wanted to go." Yet they all came back to Minas, which surprised everyone. They could have done anything.
“I asked myself when I was younger: What could I do that wasn’t going to be monotonous? That would be limitless and could allow me to be part of my identity?” she says. The answer was mezcal. “Everything you see at Mezcal Real is a puzzle of everything I got to know of Oaxaca in my years studying. I was born and raised here and have always lived in Minas, but I’ve always been connected to the outside world.”
While her family has been selling mezcal over a hundred years, they only started the formal business in 1994. When selling it was illegal—as it was for most of the 20th century—her family had to get creative.
"The men used to make it, and women were in charge of the distribution and the selling," she says. "They never searched the women. My great-grandmother was a very tiny woman, and religious. As you can see, this house is full of saints. She had a bag knitted from the agave fiber, and she wore it in front of her covering the mezcal. She put a blanket on top of that, so everyone thought this tiny adorable woman was carrying a baby when she was carrying nine liters of mezcal."
Now they sell throughout Mexico and a bit in Europe. "It's always harder for small producers," Angeles says. "But I want to do this forever."