I went on an incredible adventure the last time I was in Oaxaca. It was one where I knew I’d suffer from lack of sleep the next day, but also one that I knew was too amazing an experience to pass up.
As with most of my Oaxacan adventures, it all started with a text from Omar (aka @Oaxacking). “The guys at Lalocura are cooking, and they’re telling me to go there. Wanna come?”.
Forever IN before I’m OUT, despite the fact that it was 11pm, I found myself in a car 10 minutes later heading towards Santa Caterina Minas.
I have visited Lalocura many times over the years and every time it’s been a welcoming and warm experience. I, like any mezcal lover who’s gotten to spend time with Maestro Lalo, revere him and will jump at any opportunity to learn more from him.
Eduardo “Lalo” Angeles’ is a fourth generation mezcalero whose initial story mirrors many I’ve met in my Oaxacan experiences. Lalo grew up in Santa Caterina Minas working alongside his father, learning about and producing mezcal. As a young adult he left for the United States but returned to Oaxaca after a few years. He went back to work with his father but had visions of what he’d like his own mezcal production to look like and built Lalocura palenque.
Lalo produces his mezcal in the ancestral method where the baked agave is crushed by hand, placed in wood vats for open-air fermentation, and distilled in hand-crafted clay stills.
A visit to his palenque shows that he is a man with a deep understanding of sustainability. His fields of corn and squash grow wildly together with his planted agave and his goats, chickens and cows feed off of the remnants of what’s growing in those fields. Past these fields are the greenhouses filled with seedlings growing from seeds of wild agave plants harvested from the mountains.
His house and other buildings on his property are made from spent agave fibres mixed with earth and water to create bricks. Whenever I walk around the grounds of Lalocura palenque I feel a deep connection to the land. It’s not a feeling I get to experience in my every day life and one of the reasons why I will always jump at the opportunity to spend more time there.
Lalo’s passion for mezcal runs so much deeper than the end-product. He is a man of great vision. He is committed to his community not only through his sharing of knowledge and craft to the younger generation but also by supporting the broader community and economy though the purchase of supplies such as clay pots, machetes, and fermentations containers that support his mezcal production.
During my past visits to Lalocura, I’ve been taken through the process of making mezcal. I’ve seem the team crushing the agave with large wooden clubs, I’ve tasted fermenting agave in the large wooden vats and seen (and sipped) the wonderful clear liquid that is mezcal pouring out of the ancient looking clay stills. Each visit to Lalocura has ended with a in-depth tasting which has deepened my knowledge, appreciation and love of Lalo’s mezcal.
I am a sponge when it comes to my mezcal education, especially when it involes Lalocura mezcal, so given the chance to learn more of the process, of course I was going to jump at the opportunity.
Omar and I arrived at the palenque in darkness with gifts of beer and snacks to find the crew sitting around the large oven (dirt pit), feeding rocks to the fire. Wanting to participate rather than just witness I grabbed a beer, and joined in the circle around the pit. It was a cold evening in the country but I was warmed by the heat and found the act of throwing rocks onto the fire to be therapeutic. Building the oven was a slow process though, as each layer of rock must heat before adding the next.
In between the rock throwing, some of the team transferred already fermented agave from the large open wooden vats into the clay stills, while others chopped the espadín piñas, (that I’d helped to unload a few days previous), to get them ready to be baked.
I fell asleep on the palenque floor watching this methodical work but woke as the light changed in the sky to find that the oven was ready. The crew, directed by Lalo jumped into action to start adding the agave to build la tapada, which translates to “cover”, but refers to the mound of agave in the oven.
The round espadíns went into the oven first, cut side down. They were packed in tightly to create a strong base.
The long tobasiche were the second to be added, creating a ring around the espadin base. Due to their slender shape, this layer took the longest to carefully fit each piece in properly.
Finally the oblong barril was the last layer placed top. It was like witnessing a complicated game of Tetris as they shifted and moved different pieces into place to create an impressive mound.
When the agave was finished being piled, dried agave fibres, leftover from previous distillations were packed in between the layers. A tarp then covered the agave before the final step of covering the mound with earth. From here, the agave will bake for 5 days, caramelizing the sugars in the piñas.
The morning process took over 3 hours and I watched mesmerized by all of the movement. It was hard heavy work and more technical that I realized. Feeling spoiled by the experience, I picked up a rake and broom and worked alongside Lalo cleaning up the debris left behind by the morning’s work. While my contributions were minute in my overnight experience, I was able to participate in the process of making mezcal, something not many people get to do.
As I sat across from Maestro Lalo at breakfast, I wished I had the words in Spanish to convey my deep gratitude for being included in such a special experience. A trip to Lalocura palenque has always been incredible for me and most of my knowledge in mezcal comes from these visits and tastings. But this experience was above and beyond. Watching the men work to build the tapada as the sky was changing colours with the sun coming up over the mountains was worth the compromise of lack of sleep I felt the next day. I will never look at a bottle of mezcal, actually a drop of mezcal the same way again.