A little about Playa Zipolite, The Beach of the Dead . . .

Playa Zipolite, Oaxaca, Southern Mexico, on the Pacific Ocean. A little bit about my favorite little get-away on this small world of ours.

Zipolite, a sweaty 30-minute walk west from Puerto Angel, brings you to Playa Zipolite and another world. The feeling here is 1970's - Led Zep, Marley, and scruffy gringos.

A long, long time ago, Zipolite beach was usually visited by the Zapotecans...who made it a magical place. They came to visit Zipolite to meditate, or just to rest.

Recently, this beach has begun to receive day-trippers from Puerto Angel and Puerto Escondido, giving it a more TOURISTY feel than before.

Most people come here for the novelty of the nude beach, yoga, turtles, seafood, surf, meditation, vegetarians, discos, party, to get burnt by the sun, or to see how long they can stretch their skinny budget.

I post WWW Oaxaca, Mexico, Zipolite and areas nearby information. Also general budget, backpacker, surfer, off the beaten path, Mexico and beyond, information.

REMEMBER: Everyone is welcome at Zipolite.



Monday, December 21, 2015

The Art of Making Mezcal in Oaxaca

The Art of Making Mezcal in Oaxaca

When I heard that Jonathan Barbieri was coming to the Bay A
rea, I canceled a date with my boyfriend, Scott, to meet the 
founder of Mezcal Pierde Almas at a pop-up taco event in 
Oakland. I had recently developed a taste for mezcal de 
pechuga, a specialty holiday mezcal distilled with seasonal 
fruits and raw chicken breast, and I knew he produced a 
high-end, artisan version called coñejo, made from wild 
rabbit. I was dying to know what the mezcal-misted meat 
tasted like afterwards.
“You wouldn’t want to eat that,” he said, staring into the 
clear glass copa of mezcal cradled in his palm. “Even if 
you use a big turkey breast, by the time you finish distilling 
it with mezcal, the pechuga is shriveled up to the size of a 

Heirloom pineapples at Central de Abasos, a.k.a. “piña ciolla.” All photos by the author.

He took a sip of coñejo, swallowed slowly, and lifted his 
gaze, mischief dancing in his eyes. “Now, what’s really 
delicious is when you take all that fruta criolla from the 
still, stuff it inside a pig, and cook it in an underground 
pit. That’s what you want to eat.”
And that’s how I found myself making a batch of mezcal de 
pechuga a few weeks ago at a backwoods still in Southern 
Mexico. The whole process required two visits to San Luis 
del Rio, a remote, 350-person village perched on the slope 
of a knife-edged mountain in the Tlacolula region of Oaxaca. 
Scott and I delivered the fruit on the first trip, then returned 
two days later with the pig.

Roasted maguey hearts.

When it comes to liquor, mezcal is as local—and as labor-
intensive—as it gets. The agave plant from which it is made 
is grown on-site or foraged from local hillsides. Of the 100 or 
so agave species—known locally as maguey—about 50 grow in 
the state of Oaxaca; the most common type in mezcal-making
 is espadín. Depending on the species of agave, it can take five
 to 25 years for the plant to reach maturity.
A ripe maguey heart, or piña, can weigh as much as 40 
kilograms. Workers harvest them by hand, with machetes, 
and burros haul them down impossibly steep hillsides to t
he mezcal production facility, or palenque. There, they are 
roasted in an underground pit for a few days, then dug up 
and cooled before being chopped into big chunks and 
transferred to a grinding circle called a molino, where t
hey are crushed and shredded beneath a tahona, a stone 
wheel turned by a horse with a little encouragement from a

A horse turns the tahona to crush the roasted maguey hearts.

When the shredded piñas begin to resemble clumps of horse 
hair, they are transferred to hot-tub-sized wooden 
fermentation vats, covered with water from the stream, 
and left to ferment naturally for at least several days and 
up to a few weeks. When the bubbling stops, the workers 
transfer the mash to a wood-fired alembique for several 
hours of high-maintenance distilling. Mezcaleros often 
spend the night by the still, babysitting the fire to maintain 
the perfect flame.
Mezcal is ready to drink as soon as it comes out of the 
still, but pechuga requires even more work. The mezcal 
is added back to the still with fruit, nuts, and spices and 
eft to rest for 12 hours or more. The next day, a chicken 
or turkey breast is suspended inside the still for another 
another round of distillation, so that the evaporating spirit 
captures the soul of the bird as it rises. Typically served at 
weddings and other special occasions, pechuga is 
traditionally distilled only in November and December, 
when the fruta criolla is ripe and abundant.

A market vendor selling platanos de castilla.

So, on a Tuesday morning in mid-November, Scott and I 
procured a dozen kilos of ripe fruit at Oaxaca City’s main 
wholesale market, the Central de Abasos. More accurately,
 we chased Pierde Almas’ perky, 38-year-old warehouse 
manager, Lorena Pavón, through the market as she 
bargained for bulging sacks of heirloom pineapples, 
apples, and bananas at a breakneck speed. She expertly 
navigated a seemingly impenetrable labyrinth of unmarked 
stalls stocked with elaborately displayed produce, live 
animals and butchered meat, plastic jugs of homemade
 pulque, and hundreds of hand-woven rugs and baskets. 
At one point, she shooed us aside to allow a small raft of 
ducklings to pass, kept in formation by a short man 
tapping a tall stick on the ground.
We quartered the fruit, packed it into baskets, and drove 
it three hours southeast to San Luis del Rio, where we met 
Maestro Gregorio “Goyo” Velasco Luis, a 38-year-old 
master mezcal distiller for Pierde Almas. The “Maestro,” 
as mezcaleros are known, greeted us at the far edge of 
town, where we climbed into the back of his one-ton work 
truck for the final, off-road trek to the palenque.

Heirloom pineapple and tejocote, which is similar to a crabapple.

Twenty minutes later, we emerged from a shallow riverbed 
into a sun-dappled clearing in the trees centered around a 
pair of copper stills, a dozen vats, and a molino. A head-
high pile of blackened maguey hearts flanked an open 
roasting pit lined with still-warm coals. The air hung heavy 
with wood smoke and the sweet musk of fermenting agave, 
bubbling away beneath a thick layer of masa—a doughy, 
mud-colored substance that forms on the top of the mash. 
A handful of young men mingled around the running still, t
ending the fire and checking the flow of freshly distilled 
mezcal into plastic jugs.
Goyo selected a piña from the maguey pile and carried it 
to the grinding circle, where he hacked it into chunks with 
a machete. He handed me a piece and said in Spanish, 
“This is espadín. Taste it.” I ripped off a fibrous strip 
and bit into it. It tasted like smoky, malted sugar cane, t
oo ropy to chew and swallow but sweet and juicy enough 
to warrant the attempt.

Fermenting maguey fibers.

Tobalá,” he said, handing me another chunk. This one—a 
wild variety of maguey in danger of over-harvesting—was 
nearly as juicy, but slightly less sweet. The third type tasted 
tart, tipping toward sour, with a woody texture. “Tepextate,” 
he said, with a grin. This wild maguey can take two to three 
decades to reach maturity, making it one of the rarest and 
most expensive varietals. Even after distillation and bottling,
 mezcal de tepextate manages to maintain its gamey 
When the distillation run ended a few hours later, Goyo’s 
work crew dove into the task of cleaning out one of the 
copper stills in preparation for the pechuga. Using water
 pumped from the stream and a long-handled, curved 
paddle carved from coconut wood, they scooped, swept, 
and hosed out the still before plugging the drain with a 
wooden peg and wet maguey fibers.
With a long rubber hose, they siphoned mezcal from 55-
gallon drums into the 250-liter still, then added several g
allons of sugar water before Goyo stepped atop the still to 
add the fruit. He gave the mixture a stir with the coconut 
paddle, replaced the copper bell on the alembique, and 
sealed it with maguey masa.
The sun was setting, and the fruit needed to rest overnight
 before Goyo could add the turkey and distill the liquor 
one last time. But I didn’t want to leave before meeting 
the guajolote, or heirloom turkey, that would be sacrificed 
the following morning. It was tied to a tree in the shade.

A Guajolote heirloom turkey.

“What is the turkey’s name?” I asked in Spanish.
Goyo shrugged. “Thursday’s pechuga?”
Two days later, we returned to the palenque with Barbieri 
and ten waiters from Casa Oaxaca, one of Oaxaca City’s finest 
restaurants, eager to learn more about the mezcal they 
served to their dinner guests. Goyo’s crew greeted us at the 
river’s edge and helped unload chairs and tables, plates and 
silverware, napkins and tablecloths, a case of wine, and t
en pounds of Oaxacan cheese, which was served as an 
The turkey was now gone, the pechuga was barreled up and 
ready to drink, and the mezcal-marinated fruit sat nearby 
in a five-gallon bucket, surrounded by bees. Several feet 
away, flames rose from a freshly dug pit at the edge of the 
Barbieri lugged a bin to the table and pulled out a clear 
plastic sack packed with pig parts.
“Originally, I planned on stuffing this sucker,” he said. 
“But the butcher suggested breaking it down so it would 
cook faster.”

Jonathan Barbieri of Pierde Almas.

A suckling pig had been cut into recognizable portions, 
including two perfect head halves, in profile. A thick red 
paste coated every surface, nook, and cranny.

“We marinated it overnight in a sauce we made made with 
orange juice, peppers, and some spices. It should only take
 a few hours to cook, once we get it in the pit.”
Working together, Barbieri and Goyo lined the bottom of a 
galvanized wash tub with moist, green coconut wood, which 
they covered with banana leaves before nestling the pig into 
place. Goyo spooned in fruta criolla, which Barbieri tucked
 into ears, under knuckles and beneath ribs, along with 
machete-chopped onions and garlic. When they could fit no 
more fruit into the pig nest, they covered it with another
 thick layer of banana leaves, and topped that with outer 
layers of piña from the maguey pile.

Maestro Goyo covers the “oven.”

Goyo covered the flames with split wood and roasted maguey 
hearts, laid down a metal grill, and lowered the bucket into t
he pit, onto the flat surface. After covering the makeshift 
oven with a woven mat, the work crew surrounded it with
 logs, spread a tarp over the top, and shoveled dirt over t
he entire pit, trapping everything—including the smoke—
Goyo strode over to a 55-gallon drum sitting in the shade 
of a tree and asked if I wanted to taste the pechuga.
He dipped a bamboo tube known as a venencia into the
 barrel and bobbed it up and down before retracting it and 
directing the tip into a traditional copa—just a round gourd 
cut in half.

Maestro Goyo and his venencia.

I couldn’t say whether the flavor of mezcal de pechuga 
is more heavily influenced by the fruit or the feathered 
bird. Quite honestly, it didn’t taste like either one. But 
something certainly made a difference, because this mezcal 
was silky smooth, as if the harsh edges had been rounded 
off and polished.
“What’s the alcohol percentage on this batch?” I asked.
Goyo filled his copa with pechuga, submerged one end of
 his venencia, and placed the other end in his mouth. He
 sucked some liquid up into the bamboo tube, then blew 
it back into the copa.

A palenque work crew member.

“Forty-seven [percent].”
“How can you tell?”
“The bubbles,” he said.
Goyo explained that smaller bubbles indicate lower 
alcohol levels, while larger bubbles—which tend to
 burst quickly when they fall to the bottom of the 
glass—indicate higher ABV. Using a venencia, any 
mezcalero worth his worm salt can identify the proof 
of his spirit within a degree or two of accuracy.

Crew members sample the mezcal.

While the pig cooked, Barbieri led the waiters on a tour of
 the palenque and broke out four bottles of Pierde Almas to
 sample. The waiters started off sipping and comparing 
different varieties, but quickly progressed to shots and 
challenges of one another’s manhood. When the bottles 
were empty, they surreptitiously refilled them directly 
from the still.
By the time the smell of roasted pork permeated the 
palenque, only half of the waitstaff remained standing. 
The maître d’ teetered out of his chair twice before 
his colleagues carried him to a dilapidated hammock 
strung up next to the still. The woven material had split, 
leaving a gaping space under
 his head, so they fashioned a sling out of banana leaves 
to prevent his accidental strangulation.
Goyo and his crew dug up the basin, pulled it out of the pit, 
and peeled away banana leaves to reveal a perfect puzzle of 
pig meat falling from the bone.
Barbieri pulled me aside. “As the guests of honor, you and 
Scott are entitled to the pig’s head. It’s considered the best 
part of the animal, I’m sure you know.”
“As much as I love pig cheeks, I feel it would be more 
appropriate for the hosts to enjoy the fruits of their labor, 
don’t you think?”
“You may have a point,” he conceded.

Fruta criolla, post-distillation.

I filled my plate with a ham hock, a scoop of fruta criolla, and a healthy helping of refried black beans. The pork was smoky, sweet, and succulent; the kind of meat you find yourself gnawing off the bone when you think no one else is looking. The beans had a latent spiciness, prompting me to rip off a strip of an addictive tortilla, hand-made from heirloom corn grown on nearby hillsides.
But the fruta criolla was the star of the show. Despite the fact that we left the skin on the bananas, the spikes on the pineapples, and the seeds in the apples, the fruit was soft, sensual, and satisfying, conjuring images of bacon-wrapped candied yams.

The roast suckling pig, fresh out of the underground pit.

Across the table, Goyo sliced off and savored the suckling pig’s left cheek before scooping out its brain with a spoon and slurping it down with unmitigated glee. To my right, Barbieri had picked his half of the pig skull clean, except for the upper ear and the tip of the snout.
Pulling every last morsel of meat from the bone and sucking it from my fingers, I surveyed the carnage. Of the four waiters who made it to the dinner table, two were slumped over, foreheads in plates. The other two were taking drunken selfies. Several more lay snoring in a heap, beneath a mango tree. The head waiter was passed out on a wood pile, next to a an equally hammered member of Goyo’s work crew.

The best part of the pig.

Barbieri chuckled at the body count. “I was a little worried we wouldn’t have enough pork,” he said. “But it looks like I may have underestimated the resilience of our guests.”
I remarked that the return trip would be hard on them. The curvy mountain roads were nauseating enough when sober.
Barbieri nodded. “Tomorrow will be even worse, when their hangovers kick in. Here in Oaxaca, they call it la cruda realidad, or the harsh, cruel reality. Some people are inspired by the spirit of the pechuga. For others, it is absolutely overwhelming.”

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