Earl Fish and Graciela Angeles. Mezcal de Los Angeles, Ocotlan

Earl Fish and Graciela Angeles. Mezcal de Los Angeles, Ocotlan

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Is Mezcal in Crisis?

By Earl “Popeye” Fish
All photos by Alan (el Jaguar) Goodin

The most concise answer to that question is “That depends…”

In my short acquaintance, the lady has surely been growing up. What kind of woman will she be, or rather, is she becoming? There is still a bit of mystery for she is a débutante, barely come of age (even though she is pushing 500).  As a mezcaloco my love affair is as a lover of a fine art that has the potential to be swamped in a sea of greed and destroyed.

I started out on a normal trip to visit some palenques, this time in the company of a photographer/writer and, ironically, a retiree from the California Department of Corrections, all in one, Alan Goodin. He is also, coincidentally, the editor and publisher of Jaguar Speaks http://www.morknme6.wordpress.com. I decided to start out with one of my favorite and more accessible valleys south of Oaxaca that wanders east from Ocotlan to Santa Catarina Minas and on to San Dionisio Ocotepec. I know lots of people there and as always, there is much more to be discovered.
First stop, Pancho Garcia.1. This guy makes some of the best pechuga I have had. I also kind of like the ornery old cuss that he is. The first time I met him, his daughter let me in the house and the old man came in from the other room.
“You Pancho Garcia?” I asked. “No, he’s dead,” the old man replied. “Who are you then?” “His ghost,” he smiled.
So Alan and I went first to the house. When there was no reply, we went a couple of blocks down the road to the palenque. From way in the back, behind the fermenting barrels, we got a reply to our hollering at the unlocked gate. I saw his sombrero and I started in as Pancho came out to meet us halfway. I could see right away that he was in one of his surely moods. “No pictures,” he said, as Alan raised the camera. “Que pasa, Maestro? We have come for some of your famous pechuga.”
“No hay, don’t have,” he replied. “There is no maguey.” And I remembered the cautionary note I had been given a couple months earlier by Erik Hernandez, one of the very knowledgeable producers. He produces for Ilegal and holds the Number One in registration numbers. He told me that all of the magueyes were being bought up by buyers from Jalisco and the price had quadrupled.
I asked Pancho, “But what about your exporter, he can’t help you?”
“We haven’t worked together for two years.”
“But, Maestro…”
“What! You don’t believe me?” Whoops! By the tone of his voice, Pancho was in one of his moods and there is no mollifying them. Time to leave!
Alan and I moved up the road a few hundred meters and found a new palenque that I hadn’t been to before. It was small and very traditional with clay stills. No horse, just a wooden ball bat to crush the cooked agave for fermenting. There was a young man and his mother who were very accommodating as they showed us around. We were taking production methods back 400 years. It almost made me forget Pancho—almost.

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After lunch we proceeded to San Dionisio Ocotepec where some very good friends make Wahaka brand mezcal, which has been moving out into the US markets with good reception. As oftentimes happens, when I come unannounced, they were between production processes and there was not much action there.

We moved on to Matatlan (not far from Mitla), “The World’s Capital of Mezcal,” to complete our journey. Here we passed through Don Tacho’s place where they make Real Matlatl, another brand which is making very good progress in the U.S. with the help of Charles Collins, a crazy Irishman who has been exporting and distributing for the family. They were in the process of loading up the oven with some piňas of the espadin agave. There was no apparent shortage here, but then Don Tacho grows his own agave.

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A good time was had as we watched and “helped,” load the horno. A few days in the oven (pit filled with red hot rocks) and it would be moved to the fermenting vats. Lastly, on the way out of Matalan, we passed through the new palenque that produces for La Niňa del Mezcal, the lady and the place where we held one of the first meetings of the mezcalocos.

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It was here also that we made the first mezcal float. I think I broke the glass half-way through. Just as a ritual by the way. As we passed through Armando Hernandez was busy getting ready for the opening of his new restaurant on Easter Week. He also is busy making mezcal for the Niña and his brand Mal de Amor. A very nice end to a good day…
But, the crisis still loomed in the back of my mind. What about Pancho? What would happen to him, and were there more little guys that were going to be affected by the illegal action of the tequila giants? I was damned sure going to do little investigating with my friends in the mezcal world.
1The name has been changed to protect the guilty. Don’t want to piss off my man.

The Crisis

Then I read a full page article in Imparcial, one of the local newspapers.1
The header is that the tequileros are coming down to loot the agave used to make mezcal. It’s Ilegal! they’re shouting. Almost none of the agave from Oaxaca is the Blue Agave used to make tequila. The article pointed out that 79% of mezcal in Mexico2 comes from Oaxaca and of the 109 cases of adulteration detected only 12 were in Oaxaca. The article stresses that it will be the little producer, the small palenquero, who will be hurt… Pancho.

Earl turns Investigative Reporter.

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The Imparcial article plus the memory of Pancho prods me into looking farther. I tried to talk to people I know in the trade.
My “interviews”, such as they were, consisted of bullshit between friends.3
One of the earlier bullshit sessions was with the Prof. I’d met Alberto a few years earlier, a short time after I’d read his book about mezcal4. He is a dedicated professor of agronomy at the Technological Institute and I mean a pro at the technical side of mezcal and proud to be a Mezcaloco. I wish I had a picture of this guy. What a face. I first spoke with him on the telephone. Yup! He’d heard. He was about to write something about that himself. “It is a cyclical thing.” he tells me. “They have been doing this every several years.” This is, of course, is a rough translation, but I think he might have used the word pendejos (assholes) somewhere in this conversation. I might be mistaken. That is a very unprofessor-like word to be throwing around.
Later, over a cup of coffee, the Prof offers to talk to a friend out in Santa Catarina about getting some agave for Pancho.
But mainly the crisis is a cyclical thing perpetrated every few years by the tequila people.
So, with a bit less enthusiasm and conviction, I keep asking around. I spoke with Leon Langel, at the Mezcaleria Los Amantes but he was at work and we did little more than trade bullshit. “Sure it’s __________, but some of the people growing the agave are making some dough this year. Here, have a shot.”
I move on that same night and talk with Sandra Ortiz Brena and Ulises Torrentera from In Situ.
In the process, Alan and I go out on another tour day. Poor Alan, sitting and smiling, had to sit, drink mezcal, and wait while I interviewed5 Graciela Angeles for an hour or so.

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Probably more like so. Anyway, Graciela is one of my earlier attractions to the industry. For several reasons: she makes a very good if pricey hand-made joven mezcal called Real Minero http://www.realminero.com.mx. Along with that she is smart and very attractive. Along with that she is pretty. In brief, her summary: the price of agave has a small part to do with the price of the product, and yes, the tequileros have been thieving for years, and Pancho is just a rasty old fart. This is a newspaper. When you got some news… I toasted that. Course I toast damned near everything Graciela says.
Earl "Popeye" Fish

Earl “Popeye” Fish

1Yes, unlike US cities, there are several. One might say many. And very different from one another
2Read, the world
3Tho some may not even want to be identified as friends. 🙂
4Oaxaca, Tierra de Agave y mezcal, Alberto Sanchez Lopez
5Read “Shmoozed”
Glossary for the Uninitiated
Palenque: In Oaxaca, a distillery. A palenquero is the head of the distillery.
The process of making mezcal:
The agave: Get it at its best. Just as it starts to flower and before all that good sugar heads upstairs. This can vary between 6 and more than 25 years depending a lot on the type of agave. There are more than a dozen types used to make mezcal, although 95% is made from the type espadin. How many types of agave is another storey altogether. There is a very good explanation on the web by the “Phd of Mezcal.” For those interested in mezcal, this is a very interesting blog site and this person does in fact have a Phd whereas I am a high school dropout.
Cut and cook: When the agave is ripe take it out, cut it up into reasonable sized chunks and put it in the oven, commonly called El Horno. The oven can be a hole in the ground lined with rocks and filled with burning coals which can vary a lot in size. I can also be a steam oven, sometimes used to conserve wood.
Grind it up: This can be done in many ways. The most common is with a horse drawn millstone wheel. Less formal is to put it into a concrete hole and beat it with a club. Some use machines of varying sizes.
Ferment: With a couple of exceptions the cooked fibers are put into a wooden fermenting vat. Those exceptions ferment only the juice in order to increase volume and reduce fermenting time.
Distill: Most stills are fashioned from copper. There are basically two other materials used in constructing a still: barro (an earthen clay pot) or stainless steel. Normally there are two distillations. There are exceptions like pechuga where fruit is added and for the third distillation a chicken breast is hung so the steam passes by to reduce the sweetness.
Aged: A practice not used so often with mezcal as it is with tequila. There are three types: not aged is called joven, less than year reposado, more than a year añejo. Aging is done less with wild agaves than the more common espadin. Unlike tequila, mezcal can be made from many types of agave or maguey and many of the subtle differences in taste can be lost in the aging process.


Jean Foss

Jean Foss

The house Jean Foss grew up in was filled with color and design—Persian rugs on the floors, intricately patterned tiles in the bathrooms, paintings on the walls, the carved furniture dressed in embroidered table clothes, and woven runners, footstools with needlepoint designs, chairs adorned with colorful handmade pillars. Her parents both came from immigrant families – from Holland and Norway, and much of the design and color came from things that had been in the family for many years.

Everywhere Jean traveled with her family; her parents exposed her (and her two siblings) to art and architecture. Jean’s mother, herself an artist and scholar of art history, narrated the details of all that the family saw, often staying up late on the nights before giving a family tour, to read about and refresh her memory about the site. Throughout Jean’s upbringing, the Fosses took their children to many museums and art galleries in Europe and the United States. As a child, she was particularly taken by Russian folk paintings and by primitives of all kinds. Later, as an adult, she became fascinated with Latin American folk art, which contains similar elements.

In her artist bio, Jean writes, “Mexico is a country charged with color and sound, both in its natural world and its culture. From my first trip to Mexico, in 1997, I was drawn to the vibrancy and spirit of the people and to the colorful culture here.”

In 2001, she completed a B.S. in fine arts, at the University of Oregon, after which she started looking into MFA programs in Mexico, as an excuse to follow her dream of returning to Mexico, after falling in love with it on her first trip. Her advisor suggested that since she didn’t want to teach, it would make more sense to skip the MFA program and just to move to Mexico to paint. Jean asked many friends and acquaintances who were familiar with Mexico, where a good place to live and paint would be, and they unanimously recommended Oaxaca. She moved here in July of 2001.

Before studying art at U of O, Jean studied art and creative writing at the University of Iowa (in Iowa City). After moving to Oaxaca, she took a print-making class from el Maestro Shinshaburo Takeda (a professor at the School of Art at UABJO, The University of Benito Juarez, Oaxaca) at Bellas Artes, in Oaxaca.

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From the start, she felt at home in this culture of strong ties to family, akin to the culture with which she grew up. In fact, Jean felt so at home upon moving here, that she said she “felt like she had been born in the wrong country.” She was also immediately taken with the layering of ancient and modern traditions in everyday life and the blending and clashing of pre-Columbian and post-conquistador elements of the culture. All of these things became the central themes of her work, which Jean refers to as “Stylized Realism.” She paints with acrylics, either on wood or on locally hand-made paper.

Some of Jean's finds while walking the hills of Oaxaca

Some of Jean’s finds while walking the hills of Oaxaca

When asked to talk a little about her technique, she began by talking about her early experiences, here in Oaxaca. “As soon as I arrived, I began exploring the valley of Oaxaca on foot, walking or taking public transportation out to small towns and the surrounding foothills. While soaking up all the visual beauty and ambience of my new home, I began to find prehispanic art– mainly broken clay pots with designs carved into them– but also quite a few clay heads– animals, humans, deities. Oaxaca is such a magical place–and I wanted to try to incorporate some of that into my work.”

“I started off by painting some of the clay heads, but with modern bodies and personalities attached to them. From there, I went on to paint people in scenes from the villages I passed through, with very faceted — almost mask-like faces, influenced by painting the prehispanic heads. I’ve always used a wide pallet of bright colors–often associated with Latin American art– even before moving here and painting Mexico. I also have always liked to experiment with styles, all of which are grounded in strong black outlines. I like to paint from a mix of photos, my memories, and my imagination. My work varies from quite realistic to cartoon-like.

From 1997 to 2000, I worked with potter/painter, John Fleenor, painting pottery with a whole world of weird cartoons. Recently, a number of collectors of that work (sold as Beast Ware, by Flying Hippo Pottery), have suggested I do paintings in my old cartoon style. I’ve recently started playing around with something akin to cartooning again, in a series of work which is largely about gastronomical traditions here. I’ll include some of that new work in my up-coming show in June.”

In her artist statement, Jean writes, “Here in my adopted country, surrounded by color and light, I try to capture the vibrancy of the land and the vitality of its ancient culture, which bring me daily happiness.”
She describes herself as being a slow and meditative person, by nature, and, by the same token, not a fast painter “I’d say I’m a painstakingly slow perfectionist,” she elaborated. She says that she was therefore very happy to learn about Giclée prints (pronounced zhee-clay) a relatively new process for art reproduction, which allows her to offer beautiful and accurate reproductions of her work at accessible prices. Jean stressed that the quality of Giclée printers varies greatly, but that the small art press she uses (Sterling Graphics in Springfield, Oregon) makes extremely accurate archival-quality reproductions, almost indistinguishable from originals.

Jean says, “I hope, through my paintings, I can convey some of the beauty and flavor of Mexico to other parts of the world. I also hope that, locally, my work reflects the beauty in everyday life here, elements of which are often overlooked, as people strive to replace traditions with more modern conveniences or styles. I greatly appreciate all of the encouragement and feedback I have been given, both here in Oaxaca and in the U.S.”

Up until about a year ago, Jean was concentrating most of her shows in Oregon, but decided she would be better off trying to take advantage of being in a large tourist town, which directly relates to the theme of her work. She had a solo show at El Museo del Palacio (The Museum of the Palace of the Governor), from July to October of 2012, and will have another solo show in June, at Hotel CasAntica, in Oaxaca’s historic Center. She will also have another solo show in the fall, in a relatively new gallery in la Colonia Reforma of this city, called Atelier et Galérie D’Audiffred (owned by long-time Mexico City resident/artist Fernando Audiffred).

Jean’s studio is in the rural village of San Andres Huayapam, where she lives with her husband Chucho and daughter Xochitl. Chucho makes all of Jean’s frames and is an artist himself, specializing in paper mache sculptures and wood-cutting. Jean’s art can be seen on her website at http://www.jeanfoss.com.
For more information, or to arrange a studio visit, you can contact Jean Foss at jeanmfoss@yahoo.com and follow her on Facebook: Jean Foss’s Facebook page.

Jean Foss--Photo by Alan Goodin

William White Gallery, Eugene, Oregon (solo show)
Mayor’s Art Show (juried), Eugene, Oregon
Mayor’s Art Show, Springfield, Oregon
Opus 5, Eugene, Oregon (solo show)
Centro Latino Americano, Eugene, OR
Oregon Census Bureau, Eugene, Oregon
Island Park Art Gallery, Willamalane Recreational Center, Springfield, Oregon (invitational, with one other artist)
Espresso Roma, Eugene, Oregon (solo show)
Café Soriah, Eugene, Oregon (solo show)
Springfield Library Invitational, Springfield, Oregon
Emerald Art Center Art Gallery, Springfield, Oregon
Mills Gallery, University of Oregon, Eugene, Oregon (invitational)
Museo De Ferrocarril, Immigrant Day’s Invitational, Oaxaca
Las Truchas Gallery, Eureka California
Galeria de Design y Diseño, Oaxaca
Nueva Babel, Oaxaca (solo show)
Taller Rufino Tamayo, Oaxaca
Galeria La Zancada, Oaxaca
Hotel Camino Real, Oaxaca
Museo Del Palacio Oaxaca (solo show 2012, collective exhibit 2013)


Hotel Casantica, Av. Morelos, 601, Historic Center, Oaxaca (Solo show opening June 22nd, 2013)
Atelier et Galérie D’Audiffred Emilio Carranza #123 Col. Reforma, 68050 Oaxaca, Oaxaca
(Opening date not yet set, but planned for fall 2013)