Saturday, October 5, 2019

Making Mezcal: The Livelihood of Juan de Dios

Juan de Dios and his team of oxen
Juan de Dios is a mezcalero, a distiller of the maguey cactus that is the signature alcoholic spirit of Oaxaca. He has been in the mezcal business for forty-six years, since he was five. His still is on the family ranch in Santiago Yogana, Oaxaca, where his father farmed and produced mezcal before him. It is a trade that is passed down in a family and you learn by doing. You inherit the land and the work that goes with it.
I first met Juan de Dios at my friend Luis’ place, in Ejutla, an hour and a half outside of the city of Oaxaca. Luis is a leather artisan and a participant in my “oficios” (occupations) project. I had told Luis that I was looking for a mezcalero to photograph and interview and he told me he would introduce me to one. The next time I visited Luis, Juan showed up and invited me out to his still the next day to photograph. I gladly accepted.
El Equipo: The Crew and me
I arrived in Ejutla early to take the cooperativo pick-up to the small, isolated pueblo of Yogana. I told the driver where I was going and he said he would let me off near Juan’s place. Forty-five minutes later he dropped my off at the end of a dirt road that ran into a river. “It’s just across the river, you can see it from here. There is a foot bridge to get across”. And sure enough, I found Juan at his still waiting for me.

Grinding the maguey cooked piñas
Since that day I have been to Juan’s several times to photograph and interview him. Since I always try to do business with the people who are kind enough to share their stories with me, Juan has become my “mezcalero”. He showed me the whole process from start to finish. He brought out his team of oxen to grind the maguey hearts (piñas). A good team of oxen costs around 50,000 pesos ($2500 US) and lasts about two years before they need to be replaced. He took me to his earthen “horno” (oven) where the piñas are cooked and showed me several different types of maguey used in making mezcal.
Delivery of Tobalá piña
He explained that he plants some of the maguey plants such as Espadin and Arroqueño,and buys other wild maguey like Tobalá and Cuishe which are now difficult to find due to the boom in the popularity of mezcal around the world. It takes a plant six years to reach maturity and Juan plants 100-200 plants a year. But the wild maguey like Tobalá and Cuishe are dying out and are being over-harvested to meet the public demand. 
Juan is a small producer. He still does things the way that his father taught him many years ago. He does not have the right to bottle and label his mezcal and thus has to sell his product in bulk at a very low price. He sell his mezcal for 150 pesos for five liters. ($7.50). That is $1.50 a liter. In high end bars in the Oaxaca, mezcal is going for 100 pesos a shot ($5). He dreams about finding a market in the USA; he even suggested that i might help him with that. But I am afraid that is well out of my realm of expertise.
When I asked Juan what was the most difficult thing about his work he said,"being a mezcalero is not work. Some youth choose to go north to the USA to earn money. You need to have "ganas" (desire) to be a mezcalero. I enjoy my work, I learned how to do it well, I am proud of the mezcal that I make, and it allows me to provide for my family". What more can a man ask for?