A Travellerspoint blog

Craft Beer in Oaxaca, Mexico Steals Mezcal Thunder

Small Batch Brews Increase in Popularity with Opening of Oaxacan Beer Store

Alvin Starkman, M.A., J.D.

Rosario Maza’s beer store in the Oaxacan suburb of San Felipe del Agua has been operating for less than four months. The astute businesswoman is already preparing to open up another, this time downtown. Maza, a descendent of the famed Mexican Margarita Maza, wife of Mexico’s first indigenous president Benito Juárez, says that the time had come for Oaxaca, known more for production of mezcal and gastronomic excellence than beer consumption, to have its first beer store. Hence she opened Bier Stube, restricted to craft brews, otherwise known as beer produced in microbreweries.

Maza had been an event planner arranging for the needs of Oaxacans preparing to throw all manner of fiesta; weddings, anniversaries, birthdays, 15 años, and whatever other rite of passage came her way. But she was also the representative of the Mexican beer Cucapá.

“My customers liked Cucapá, and while the brewery has always produced a variety of beers, they began to ask for other artisanal beers, brews that weren’t available in Oaxaca, or at least not on a consistent basis,” she explains. “Then it just clicked,” she continues, “I knew that the time was right, and that I could supply a broad range of artisanal beer week in and week out, both domestic and international brands [with a view to avoiding definitions and the controversy surrounding the issue, I employ the terms craft, artisanal (most commonly used in Mexico) small batch and independent, interchangeably, cognizant of the politics regarding terminology].”

Indeed the problem in Oaxaca until now has been consistency. You can buy a modest diversity of craft beers in Sam’s Club, but once the shipment is sold out, you don’t know when that particular beer will next appear on the shelves. And supermarket chain Soriana has always had difficulty with keeping even staples in stock.

Although craft beer in Mexico is nothing new, at least in this part of the country the beer drinking public needs a helping hand in learning about the different independent brews, and pairing. Maza consults with a beer sommelier on a regular basis, and attends beer festivals out of state, mainly in Mexico City and Guadalajara. In addition she’s an avid reader of anything related to cerveza.

Maza spends a lot of time with her customers, educating and advising them, imparting them with the knowledge she’s gained over the years. Her buyers are still learning and honing their palates. Hence she tends to still be selling mainly single bottles, on average three or four bottles of small batch beer per customer, instead of cases. “But gradually they’re learning,” she beams, “and they’re coming back for cases of their favorite artisanal brews much more often now. I sell a lot of the German beer Paulaner Salvator by the case lot.”

“Don’t get me wrong,” Maza cautions,” Oaxacans do know about different flavors and other nuances, body, and so on. Having mezcal connoisseurs amongst my customer base has actually helped. It’s now simply a matter of training their palates in an alternate direction, extending their appreciation to beyond simply being able to discern between the different commercial beer products. Once I’ve accomplished that, more will start to return to buy their preferred artisanal brews by the case.”

Of the approximately 100 different beers in Bier Stube, German brews are the biggest seller, followed by Belgian beers and then Mexican. Maza actually carries between 13 and 15 Mexican brands of craft beer. They’re made by independent breweries in Mexico City, Guadalajara, Mexicali, Tijuana, Querétaro, and yes even Oaxaca. Other countries represented on the shelves include England, Czech Republic, Holland, Denmark, Poland, France, Italy, Spain, Japan, France, Scotland, Argentina and Cuba. Some of her beers have won international awards, such as Delirium Tremens.

Small batch brews range from stout and porter, to pale ale, lagers, wheat beers, pilsener and others. Bier Stube carries beers fermented with apple, banana, cherry, raspberry, coconut, coffee bean tequila barrel, and even a mandarin peel / star anise / cilantro fermentation. Pricing is anywhere from 28 pesos a bottle for the German Bitburger, to 90 pesos for a St. Peter’s Honey Porter. Maza is always prepared to order cases of beer not on her shelves. “I know far from everything about artisanal beer and all the products available on the marketplace, so getting in something special from an artisanal brewery for a customer helps me to learn as well.”

Restaurants in Oaxaca have also jumped on the beer bandwagon. Popular bistro – style eatery La Biznaga carries some of Maza’s products, even though the restaurant continues to buy from Sam’s and other stores – Maza tries to shelve beers not otherwise available in the city. La Biznaga carries about 45 different types of beer, roughly 35 of which are produced in microbreweries. Competitor restaurant La Jícara, another Maza client, also stocks both commercial and craft beers. When the restaurant holds special events it makes available upwards of 100 different beers, depending on the request of the particular patron. Downtown Oaxaca restaurant La Olla has held beer tasting evenings, most recently with representatives of Mexican microbrewery Tempus supplying the beer, and the restaurant providing appetizers for pairing.

Maza laments that it won’t be long before someone else opens a beer store in Oaxaca. That was part of her motivation for jumping ahead with a second brew outlet. “But I don’t worry about it too much,” she assures, “since I just have to keep my customers happy and stay ahead of the game when it comes to marketing and promotion. The more artisanal beers are accepted in Oaxaca, either purchased from me or someone else, the more it helps all of us,” she rationalizes. “After my second opening I’ll begin working on opening a bar which specializes in artisanal beer.”

Beer is a long way off from displacing mezcal as the alcoholic beverage of choice in Oaxaca. Clearly craft beer will never become as popular with the locals as mezcal, or even commercial Mexican beer brands. But a burgeoning Oaxaca craft beer market providing the diversity of small batch brews we’re now beginning to see, does give both visitors to and residents of Oaxaca more ways than before to both enhance even the most exceptional Oaxacan culinary experience, and sit back and imbibe with friends.

Bier Stube: Avenida de las Etnias 113, San Felipe del Agua, Oaxaca
T: (951) 520-0548
W: http://www.bierstube.com.mx

Alvin Starkman is a mezcal and pulque aficionado, living full time in Oaxaca. He takes visiting couples & families up into Oaxaca’s mountains to sample and learn about mezcal and pulque, as well as to more traditional tourist sights. Alvin is finally beginning to gain an appreciation for Mexican craft beers. Alvin is a paid contributing writer for Mexico Today, a program for Marca País – Imagen de México. He operates Casa Machaya Oaxaca Bed & Breakfast (http://www.casamachaya.com) with his wife Arlene, and Oaxaca Culinary Tours (http://oaxacaculinarytours.com) with Chef Pilar Cabrera.

Posted by titosarah 09:17 Archived in Mexico Tagged craft beer mexico in beers mexican oaxaca mezcal Comments (0)

Learn to Cook the Best Food in Mexico

Visit the Local Molino (mill) in Oaxaca

Alvin Starkman, M.A., J.D.

While on vacation in Mexico, consider visiting a local molino (mill) to learn cooking techniques and about the food of Mexico that even the best cooking schools don’t teach. Of course there’s no substitute for a good cooking class. But while visiting Oaxaca in particular, whether you’re a novice cook, a student of Oaxacan gastronomy, or even a chef, you’ll learn valuable and important nuggets of information about the preparation of Mexican cuisine.

Part I: Not All Mexican Molinos are Created Equal
From its exterior the molino at Calle Porfirio Díaz 710, downtown Oaxaca, is as non – descript as could be; an open doorway on one half of a narrow, neatly painted powder blue building, with a laundromat occupying the other side. The mill has no name or other outside markings even hinting at its interior functioning; the churning out of some of the best milled food ingredients in all Mexico.

Using a diversity of different machines, some of which are dedicated to milling only one ingredient, this molino churns chiles for making chorizo and other typical Mexican meat mixtures, purées beans, liquefies aguas frescas (fresh fruit juices), mixes mole ingredients, and of course mills cacao for chocolate and corn for tortillas.

Opening before 7 a.m. and closing its doors at 5 p.m., one can come by for any type of milling at any hour of the day. By contrast, many molinos, particularly in the pueblos, have times for grinding different ingredients. For example a town mill with a brisk corn business might open its doors at 5 a.m. for the queued up tortilla, tamale and tejate crowd anxious to get breakfast under way; but the cacao molinos might not be operational until several hours later, once the morning rush has run its course.

Most Oaxaca city molinos which specialize in chocolate such as La Soledad and Mayordomo, often have an extensive lineup of mills dedicated to the two stages of the cacao, almond, cinnamon and sugar grinding process. But they also have a couple of other macerating machines just to service a select clientele; the owners of nearby market restaurant stalls who need ingredients prepared for making moles, black bean mixes and other eatery fare.

Molino 710 services restaurants, caterers and householders, from around the corner, across the city and throughout the suburbs; as well as both shoppers and vendors from the adjacent Sánchez Pascua market. The mill’s strategic location in front of the market, yet only a minute’s drive from both the heart of downtown and Oaxaca’s main east-west thoroughfare (Niños Héroes de Chapultepec), reveals only half the story of its success.

One would be hard-pressed to find another general purpose mill with higher standards of care for sanitary conditions and cleanliness. The floor is continually scrubbed with a squeegee; mills are washed down after each use to ensure not a hint of one client’s negro finds its way into another’s verde. As custom dictates, preparations which will ultimately end up cooking on the stove, comal or grill are mixed with tap water. However at Molino 710 there is also a separate mill with a purified water system. It’s used for grinding ingredients which will not be cooked, such as those used for making horchata, one of several aguas frescas.

Part II: Spend an Hour or Two of Your Vacation at a Reputable Mexican Molino; Experience Oaxacan Culture, Learn to Combine Ingredients & Cook Like a Mexican

We arrive at the molino at 1 p.m. with a large plastic bucket of fried, seeded chiles – mulato, pasilla mexicana and chilhuacle – and a smaller bowl with more than 20 other ingredients, some raw others roasted; everything for the recipe which must be ground. Chef Pilar Cabrera Arroyo is preparing a batch of mole negro paste to be packaged for sale in La Olla, her popular Oaxacan restaurant, or offered to students at her Casa de los Sabores Cooking School. Today I’ll learn from everyone but Chef Pilar. I’ll watch, ask, smell, then ask again to be sure, and as a last resort confirm with Chef Pilar that I finally got it right.

Several Oaxacans, mainly women, are in queue to have their beans, their chiles for making chorizo, mole and salsa ingredients, and of course their corn, all crushed to their exacting specifications. They are generous with their knowledge, advice, and secrets passed down to them through the decades by their mothers, grandmothers and great grandmothers. They patiently await their turn, often the better part of an hour, longer if fiesta time is approaching. Accordingly, these connoisseurs of the craft of the kitchen have all the time in the world to impart their generational gems of knowledge.

A woman sits waiting to have a rather small batch of mole verde ingredients milled. “Why bring this here when you can easily grind it at home in a blender,” I ask. Her retort is more complete than I expect:

“Using a blender I lose some of the mix because it doesn’t grind it completely, the way I like it, and I then have to put it through a sieve and discard the little pieces. The mill grinds it all, and I end up with the texture I want. The stone wheels in each of these mills are made with volcanic rock, so I get the texture I used to get years ago with the molcajete [mortar and pestle]; and let me tell you, the flavor is different grinding with stone rather than a metal blade and plastic or glass blender jar.”

I next ask a youngish señora waiting to pay for having three buckets of boiled beans blended, why one of her mixtures is thicker than the rest, and about the ingredients used to make bean purée. This reply is just as clear and complete as the last:

“For the beans to make enfrijoladas I want the texture lighter, looser you can say, meaning more water is added to the beans as they’re being ground. I know the lady working the machine. She’ll just ask if I want them for the enfrijoladas or to use as an accompaniment for barbacoa or other main dishes, and she knows immediately how much water to add.”

“And what about the ingredients,” I ask. She continues:

“Well, I always use onion, chile de arbol to give it a bit of a bite, and either avocado or poleo leaves. But look at how small the avocado leaves are; they’re criollo, not from commercial avocado trees. It makes a huge different, gives the beans a nice hint of anis; that’s why we use avocado. But if I want a mild minty flavor instead, I use hoja de poléo [leaf of pennyroyal], a medicinal herb often made into a tea to resolve stomach problems. But here we use it to flavor beans.”

Before beginning to mill a batch of corn, the worker alongside the machine asks if the customer wants the corn for tortillas or tamales. After being told it’s for tamales she begins grinding, then hands her patron a sample to try, just to be sure the consistency and texture are right. Different Oaxacans make tamales with different textures. The customer is new to the mill so the miller wants to be sure to get it correct.

I question three or four other women about their mixes, and receive equally comprehensive answers. Finally it’s Chef Pilar’s turn with her own two batches of mole negro ingredients. She’s taught me before, so I don’t have to ask why it’s not all milled together at the same time, how to bring out the flavors, or the importance of the perfect texture. Anyway, the most I could ever hope to learn in one short lesson is but a fraction of what she’s been taught about food preparation in Mexico, by her own grandmother while growing up in a traditional Oaxacan household.

I’ll never learn it all, but the combination of taking Mexican cooking classes, and going to the mill in Oaxaca to watch, and to ask, sure helps.

Alvin Starkman operates Casa Machaya Oaxaca Bed & Breakfast (http://www.casamachaya.com) with his wife Arlene, and Oaxaca Culinary Tours (http://www.oaxacaculinarytours.com) with Chef Pilar Cabrera. Alvin takes couples and families into the central valleys of Oaxaca to visit the sights. He is a mezcal and pulque aficionado. A paid contributing writer for Mexico Today, a program for Marca País – Imagen de México, Alvin has written over 230 articles about life and cultural traditions in Oaxaca, including several restaurant and cooking school reviews.

Posted by titosarah 08:37 Archived in Mexico Tagged food mexico in cuisine schools cooking mexican oaxaca lessons molinos Comments (0)

Mexican Art at Auction and Oaxacan Charity

Reaching Beyond State Borders and Mexico to Attract Charitable Donations

Alvin Starkman, M.A., J.D.

CORAL (Centro Oaxaqueño de Rehabilitación de Audición y Lenguaje) is a non-profit organization providing assistance to the deaf and hearing impaired and their families in Oaxaca, one of the poorest states in Mexico. While most of its funding comes from private donations and local charitable foundations, over the past couple of years CORAL (http://www.coraloaxaca.org) has held benefit auctions of Mexican fine art in order to maintain and expand operations.

The auctions have been held in Mexico City, touting works by predominantly Oaxacan artists. In 2012 the charity will be casting the net even further, by bringing the auction to San Francisco. CORAL recognizes that art, as an important component of material Mexican culture, holds a strong allure for collectors.

Fundraising in the US for worthy Oaxacan causes is nothing new. In fact most charities (CORAL included) are affiliated with American charitable organizations or are otherwise registered so as to enable donors to obtain the benefit of a tax deduction. FOFA (Friends of Oaxacan Folk Art) holds an annual sale in New York to raise funds for young, promising Oaxacan folk artists.

Reaching beyond the borders of the state of Oaxaca to auction its fine art isn’t difficult to understand. Megan Glore, in charge of auction fundraising for CORAL, clarifies:

“For decades Oaxacan art has had not only a national reputation for quality, but many Oaxacan artists have garnered international acclaim; take for example the late grand masters of Mexican art Rufino Tamayo and Rodolfo Morales, and of course Francisco Toledo.

“For next month’s auction in Mexico City (November 9, 2011, at the Hotel Radisson Paraíso) we’ve hired one of Mexico’s top auctioneers, Paco de la Peña from Guadalajara, to auction off works of strictly Oaxacan artists. On the block we’ll have works by prominent artists including Demián Flores, Rubén Leyva, Sergio Hernández, Dr. Lakra, Enrique Flores, Guillermo Olguín, Arnulfo Mendoza, Shinzaburo Takeda, and yes, even Maestro Toledo. We’re continuing to put the works up for auction on our auction webpage (http://www.coralarte.org.mx).”

Glore’s belief is no doubt nurtured by the fact that Mexico City is home to some of the wealthiest Mexicans, many of whom are patrons of the arts, and in fact aware of the work of the charity. CORAL’s four-pronged program has grown steadily since 1988 when the seeds for the present organization were first planted with the pioneering work of Oregonians Dr. Richard Carroll and Dr. Nancy Press.

CORAL now boasts one of the most impressive multi-faceted and comprehensive outreach programs of its type in all Mexico:

• An audiology clinic for testing and diagnosis, repairs and maintenance to hearing aids and hearing-related accessories, and ongoing support.
• A children’s therapy center (with parental involvement a prerequisite) with group sessions as well as individualized treatment.
• An early detection program designed to single out and treat children as early as infancy. CORAL educates public health doctors to recognize and screen for hearing loss behaviors; the doctors are then able to help parents to identify normal childhood development.
• A social work component whereby staff travel throughout the state capital and into the smallest of rural communities to serve deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals through educating, monitoring and providing resources.

But can the auction now being organized for San Francisco in May, 2012, even come close to matching the proceeds it anticipates generating from the Mexico City fundraiser? In Glore’s mind there’s little if any doubt. “San Francisco has a reputation for having a robust art market,” she explains. “Just as important,” she continues, “the people of northern California have a particularly strong and longstanding connection with Oaxaca, as well as an appreciation for the art of Mexico.”

Mexican art, and indeed Oaxacan art, has been exhibited over the years much further abroad than the nation’s capital and in the US – throughout Europe and the Middle East, Australia, South American and even Japan. It shouldn’t take a leap of faith to be confident that a Mexican charitable organization with a mission as worthy as that of CORAL, will succeed in its foray into fundraising through fine art auctions, in Mexico, and internationally.

Alvin Starkman is a paid contributing writer with Mexico Today, a program for Marca País – Imagen de México. Alvin works with his wife Arlene operating Casa Machaya Oaxaca Bed & Breakfast (http://www.oaxacadream.com) and Chef Pilar Cabrera organizing culinary tours of Oaxaca (http://www.oaxacaculinarytours.com). Alvin has written over 200 essays about life and cultural traditions in Oaxaca, including articles in support of CORAL and other Oaxaca-based charitable organizations.

Posted by titosarah 15:55 Archived in Mexico Tagged art mexico in charity mexican oaxaca donations charitable Comments (0)

Mezcal Fair in Oaxaca, Mexico, Reaches New Heights

Feria Nacional del Mezcal en Oaxaca, Mexico: 2011 14th Annual Festival of Mezcal Turns the Corner

Mezcal has always been associated with the southern Mexico state of Oaxaca, since the region in and around its central valleys has traditional been known as the largest and most important producer of the spirit. Santiago Matatlán, a town about 45 minutes outside of the city of Oaxaca, boasts being the world capital of mezcal. It’s home to about 150 palenqueros (mezcal producers). A full size copper still stretches majestically across the highway at its entranceway. So what better city than Oaxaca to host the Feria Nacional del Mezcal, an annual festival dedicated to exalting and promoting the agave based alcoholic beverage “with the worm.”

Over the past several years the worm has actually adversely impacted the perception of mezcal as a spirit worthy of sipping and mixing. The other main impediment has been mezcal’s lingering reputation with the college crowd as the Mexican spirit used to get inebriated, fast and furiously. Hence tequila’s little sister has always had a rough time of it both in Mexico and further abroad.

But at the beginning of this decade things began to change for Plain Jane. Mezcal has come into its own, gaining increased popularity and more importantly respect on the domestic front and internationally. The 14th annual Feria Nacional del Mezcal (2011), held as always during the second half of July, bore witness to the metamorphosis. The world has finally come to learn that mezcal is often as smooth and complex a spirit as fine single malt scotches, and can be consumed as such. The worm, actually a larva known as a gusano, is more often than not absent from both bottle and recipe.

A Primer on Mezcal in Oaxaca

Mezcal in Oaxaca is produced from a number of varieties of agave (often known as maguey), though commercial production utilizes almost exclusively agave espadín. In the preferred, traditional method of production the plant is harvested after 8 – 10 years of growth. Its heart, or piña, is baked in an in-ground oven, and then crushed. [While the leaves are not used in the process, they are nevertheless employed in other industries, thus contributing to the reputation of mezcal as a sustainable industry.] The fibrous mash is fermented for up to two weeks, usually in pine vats with water, and nothing else added. Yeasts are naturally produced in the environment. The fermented liquid is then distilled. Mezcal drips from the spigot, usually ready for consumption after a second distillation.

Hundreds, if not thousands, of small, hillside and village mezcal producers follow the age-old production method. Some families tell a fascinating history of mezcal production dating back centuries. Most researchers and aficionados believe that distillation was introduced into Mexico subsequent to 1519 by the Spanish. However there are studies which suggest that distillation was practiced by indigenous groups.

In addition to these quaint palenques, large industrial multi-million dollar mezcal production factories have come onto the scene over the past 20 years or more. Brands such as Benevá and Zignum exemplify the most commercial mezcal production imaginable. While these facilities also cook, crush, ferment and distill agave, both the means of production and the machinery employed could not be any further removed from the fascinating and often highly ritualistic small-scale production. They are the polar opposite of what one envisions as Slow Food mezcal proponents.

Commercial producers nevertheless play an important role in disseminating the positives about mezcal and have carved out an important niche in the marketplace. Their advertising and promotional campaigns at least to some extent aid the cause of elevating traditional mezcal to its proper place alongside fine, small-batch whiskeys and other spirits. While it is suggested that their products are perhaps not the spirits one hopes to sample in American or Mexican mezcal tasting rooms they are nevertheless welcomed and well represented at mezcal fairs and expos.

Oaxaca’s Feria Nacional del Mezcal in Historical Context

Initially Mexico’s national Feria del Mezcal was a small tasting and promotional exposition. Organizers wisely arranged for it to coincide with the yearly Guelaguetza festivities in Oaxcaca, the last two weeks of July. The Guelaguetza is a celebration of the multiplicity of cultures represented in the state. The mid-summer merriment is filled with unrivalled pageantry and a diversity of dance, costume, music, food and other indicia of the rich cultural traditions for which Oaxaca is known. Hence, at this time of year Oaxaca becomes a Mecca for tourists visiting from all corners of the globe.

In the early years the Feria consisted of small booths set up by individual mezcal producers, each offering free samples of at least a couple of different varieties of the spirit. Most palenqueros employed provocatively clad and well made-up young women to lure prospective purchasers towards their stands; sex sells alcohol as much in Mexico as elsewhere. But it’s always been good clean fun and imbibing. However business owners along Calle 5 de Mayo, the street where the kiosks were erected, complained of a little too much rowdiness, especially for the likes of those tourists lodging in nearby higher end hotels.

At the same time that mezcal’s star began to rise, organizers started looking for ways to address this concern, and at the same time create an event which would attract a more diverse demographic than previously; both men and women of all ages, residents and tourists alike from a broad range of socio-economic backgrounds.

The venue vacillated between a theater and convention center known as Álvaro Carrillo (too far away from the center of downtown to attract the desired crowds), the north end of Oaxaca’s famed pedestrian walkway Macedonio Alcalá (too narrow and restricted in terms of bringing other attractions into the fold), and the largest park in downtown Oaxaca, Paseo Juárez el Llano. In the end, one of its earlier locations, el Llano, won out over the rest. It’s an easy walk from most downtown hotels and guest houses, and a 10 – 15 minute drive from the popular north and east Oaxacan suburbs. It would be the fair’s permanent home. In 2011, for the first time the event occupied the entire two-city-block park.

While the number of participating producers did not significantly increase over recent years, the variety of product has, with many more cremas (sweet mezcals) than previously, intended to attract more women (arguably an inaccurate stereotype) as well as others who are not regular spirits drinkers. More aged mezcals from different regions were represented, as were herbal infusions and the odd mezcal made from a different variety of agave.

When the Feria was first instituted there was no entrance fee, perhaps contributing to the initial problem. Then a ten peso entry fee was levied in part in an effort to dissuade some attending solely for the purpose of getting free drinks. While it now costs 35 pesos to attend the Feria Nacional del Mezcal, visitors to the festival get much more than their money’s worth; the festival now satiates all the senses.

The 14th Annual Feria Nacional del Mezcal in Oaxaca Turns the Corner

Outside the Feria del Mezcal and lining its extensive perimeter was a diversity of booths selling virtually every craft produced in the region: alebrijes; tapetes; embroidered blouses, dresses and huipiles; cotton textiles; jewelry and metalwork; hand-turned clay products ranging from terra cotta utilitarian, to decorative black pottery, to ultra-modern high-fired porcelain pieces. Cuisine countered the urge to shop, with tacos al pastor, tlayudas, carnitas, memelitas and more. From the street, the billowing smoke of firewood fueling comals, the rich aromas, and the sizzling of steak arrachera, drew you near – and then inside.

Oaxaca is of course known for its gastronomic greatness, so within the confines of the feria the theme continued, with a large sit-down restaurant and booths selling and offering samples of prepared moles and salsas. But you’d come for mezcal, and everything associated with it.

A gallery of vintage photos greeted you upon entering: farmers in their fields harvesting agave; traditional roadside facilities; hectare upon hectare of maguey photographed at sundown, at daybreak, in the sun and with shadows. Next there was the media area where passersby were asked if they could be interviewed for TV and radio concerning their thoughts about mezcal and the fair, as well as tourism in Oaxaca.

Renowned Oaxacan artists had been contracted to paint oils and water colors, and produce engravings and lithographs, of anything and everything having to do with agave and mezcal, from both cultural and natural perspectives: mezcal as inebriate, and aphrodisiac; agave as a majestic plant standing alone, and being uprooted from mother earth in preparation for its transformation. Artist Emiliano López had one piece in the open air art gallery. Juan Alcázar and Enrique Flores gave giving printmaking workshops.

The grounds were landscaped with outcrops of cactus, agave and other succulents. An enormous 3 – D screen provided the illusion of an expansive field under cultivation, in front of which were real agave, and the tools of the trade; implements, a multi-ton limestone wheel used to crush the baked agave, and a pine vat employed to ferment. Visitors stopped to take photos of their friends and lovers posing as if an actual part of the scene.

The massive band shell and stage was host to amateurs vying for prizes for singing, strumming an instrument or telling a story. Local bands played from time to time. Nationally renowned singers and musical groups were given top billing for special evenings: Pablo Montero, María José, Sonora Dinamita, Apuesta and Julion Alvarez. This of course had nothing to do with mezcal, but attracted youth and others who wanted to hear, or just catch a glimpse. And it succeeded, as throngs queued up waiting to enter the fair to see their idols on those dates noted on posters and flyers.

But most came to be enticed to saunter up to one makeshift bar as opposed to the next, to sample a blanco, a reposado or an añejo; or perhaps an agave tobalá; or even one of a number of cremas, a rainbow of pastel colored mezcals. There was mezcal for every budget, and for those wanting to spend even more, 1800 pesos for mezcal in a hand-blown glass bottle with a delicate glass sculpture encased inside.

Most of the big players were represented, such as stalwart Oro de Oaxaca, several producers from the Chagoya family, and the new rich kid on the block, Zignum. But small palenqueros from outlying villages hours away from Oaxaca, far beyond Matatlán, also came to ply their product. They brought their wives and daughters down from the hills to help, rather than agency hires with simulated smiles, properly poised with sashes over skimpy costumes. Fourteen years after the inaugural Feria Nacional del Mezcal, glamor and glitz still mattered and were a significant draw. According to the Minster of Tourism, this year the fair hosted a remarkable 48,000 visitors.

Well After the Feria, Mezcal Marches On

But moving forward from 2011 it’s actually the Plain Janes of mezcal which will be the spirit’s best ambassadors, the mezcals made from wild and lesser known varieties of agave, with different flavors and nuances. Hopefully they’ll be better represented at the Feria in years to come. Certainly mezcal still needs its commercial producers, if for no other reason that to use their big budgets to pique consumer interest by providing basic education - there’s much more to mezcal than the worm. As the decade advances and consumers become more sophisticated, aficionados of fine spirits will start to put the Glenmorangies and the Lagavulins back on the shelf, and pick up a bottle of quality mezcal.

Alvin Starkman is a paid contributing writer for Mexico Today. An aficionado of agave-based beverages, he takes couples into the hills to sample mezcal made by only traditional producers, and into the fields to participate in the harvesting of aguamiel, for fermenting pulque. Alvin has written over 200 articles about life and cultural traditions in Oaxaca, consults to documentary film companies, and with his wife operates Casa Machaya Oaxaca Bed & Breakfast (http://www.oaxacadream.com).

Posted by titosarah 08:35 Archived in Mexico Tagged mexico in fair oaxaca mezcal agave Comments (0)

Microfinancing in Oaxaca, Mexico

Program Targeting Teotitlán del Valle Accepts Tourists’ Charitable Donations

Last year María was a pieceworker in Teotitlián del Valle earning 5 – 10 pesos for each simple apron she sewed from a roll of cotton print fabric supplied by her patron. Now she’s a businesswoman selling elaborately embroidered aprons to retailers in a nearby town marketplace. A couple of years ago Juanita, from the same Oaxacan town, was making almost nothing selling soda pop and gum out of a family-owned retail shop. Today she runs a profitable crafts outlet full of woolen rugs, purses and wall hangings, and her daughter’s hand-made jewelry. Both these woman have succeeded in business as a result of microfinancing through Fundación en Vía.

Fundación En Vía (“En Vía”) is a non-profit microfinance organization responsible for several similar success stories since 2009. En Vía relies on $50 contributions from tourists visiting the south central Mexico city of Oaxaca, in addition to donations of their time and expertise. To a more limited extent it’s funded by the generosity Mexicans.

The organization is based on two premises:

• Native women In Oaxacan towns who have a trade, talent or aptitude, and the desire to succeed, should not be held back from realizing their potential for themselves and their families as a consequence of a lack of training and business knowledge – nor as a result of an average cost of borrowing of 70% per annum [interest rates in Mexico at times reach as high as 150%].
• Many visitors to Oaxaca, both tourists in the city for a week or two as well as those interested in spending longer periods of time in the region, look for worthy charitable causes to which they can contribute modest sums of money, and / or their time and expertise. This is particularly so when it includes an opportunity to meet the beneficiaries of their generosity and learn about their cultural traditions through touring their towns and being introduced to them and their families. Accordingly, by redirecting funds to the local community En Vía is creating sustainable tourism.

Fundación En Vía: How It Works

Fundación En Vía is operated out of premises located at Instituto Cultural de Oaxaca. Carlos Hernandez Topete and Emily Berens co-founded the program in 2008, and got it underway the following year. There are only two paid employees; a full – time administrative co-ordinator and a managing-director. The program is otherwise run by volunteers who do one or more of drive, translate, assist with web design and related promotional matters for both the program and for the participating borrowers, liaise with recipients and donors, and give English and business classes to the women.

Each donor, mainly visitors to Oaxaca, pays $50 into the program. In exchange for making a $50 donation, each donor is encouraged to spend a day in the town in which the women reside, as part of a group excursion. The purpose of the trip is to learn a little about the community, and to meet some of the women and their families so as to gain a better understanding of both how the borrowed money is utilized and the resultant positive impact.

The women repay an initial loan of 1300 pesos in equal payments over the course of 10 weeks. Once a loan is repaid the borrower is entitled to a second and then subsequent loans, provided the need is for a legitimate business purpose supported by the program. The second loan is for 2000 pesos, the third for 3000 pesos. Further loans can be for 3000 pesos, 4000 pesos, or such other amount as En Vía deems appropriate under all of the circumstances. Similarly, repayments schedules of these subsequent loans can vary depending on the amount and more general state of affairs. All loans are interest free.

The entirety of each initial donation is used to provide first loans to program participants. Upon repayment, a small portion of the repaid funds is used for operating costs and for further loans. Proceeds are therefore segregated into two parts; the operating portion, and a trust fund used to make interest-free loans to the women.

Loans are provided to only women. Statistics have shown than women are more likely than men to spend for their benefit of their families, and otherwise comply with the program’s rules.

Each recipient is a member of a group comprised of three borrowers. The group is made up of women who know and trust each other. People tend to work better with others with whom they are already acquainted. This concept works because the women can offer advice and support to one another, and call on one another in the event of having difficulty making a loan payment.

The En Vía screening process is designed to maximize the likelihood that the women who participate in the program succeed in their business ventures and comply with repayment schedules (there have been only three defaults from a total of approximately 350 loans; in each case non-compliance has arisen from circumstances beyond the women’s control).

Women initially learn about En Vía through word of mouth. Meetings are arranged to enable them to more fully understand the program’s workings. The women then attend a question and answer session with En Vía administration. Once a consensus to proceed is reached, arrangements are put in place for the advancement of funds and repayment. There is ongoing support.

As a prerequisite for receiving a loan, each woman must agree to receive two groups of donors in the course of touring their town. Funds are thereafter advanced. In this way donors have the opportunity to meet with the women and their families in their homes and business environments. Since the program has concentrated on women in the rug weaving town of Teotitlan del Valle (it has recently expanded into Díaz Ordaz, a smaller village with fewer economic opportunities), and most loans are related to wool and weaving, tourists learn about the rug making process and are provided with buying opportunities in the course of the visit.

Touring Teotitlán del Valle with Fundación En Vía

After a 40 minute orientation session at the Instituto in downtown Oaxaca, a group of donors, including two Mexican women from Morelia, Michoacán, and three En Vía workers, hop into a touring van and head to Teotitlán del Valle. The group first stop is at the town church alongside the marketplace, where one of the workers, Samantha, explains a little about the town, its people and their economic activities, education and the system of local government.

“We always need volunteers to work with us, although naturally our donors are the financial backbone of the program,” Samantha stresses as we walk to our first workshop. “We offer English lessons; and a few months ago we began giving business classes to those interested,” she continues. “As long as visitors will be in Oaxaca for at least a month they can volunteer to come out to the town twice a week to teach English; and if they plan to be in the city for at least three months we can train them to accompany donors into the town, translate, and assist the project in other ways including helping with business and marketing suggestions. Our ability to offer and build on our programs depends on our volunteers. ”

Rosa the Rug Weaver

We enter the combined home and workshop of Rosa and her family. Rosa demonstrates how she cards and spins wool. Family members are milling about, going about their daily activities including dying yarn using natural substances. Rosa explains the use of pomegranate, pecan, the medicinal herb known as pericón, and of course cochineal, the minute insect which when dried and ground into a powder yields tones of red, pink, orange and purple.

Rosa used the proceeds of her first loan to buy raw wool and cochineal, one of the most expensive products used for creating colors. She’s receiving our group so she’ll be eligible for a second loan, this one so she can buy a sturdy dolly. With the dolly she’ll be able to take her rugs to and from the town handicraft market without imposing on family members. By making just one trip to the market in the morning she’ll save time and be able to set up her stall much quicker, reducing the likelihood of losing that first sale of the day.

Clara The Ham & Cheese Market Vendor

While walking to our next stop Samantha explains that loans are not just for the rug business:

“We gave a first loan, 1300 pesos, to a woman named Clara, in the meat and produce market so she could increase her inventory of cheese. That helped her to improve sales. She then received the 2000 peso loan so she could buy a meat slicer. Almost everyone wants their ham sliced. So now she sells both meat and cheese at her stall. Clara used the 3000 peso loan to buy a fridge. Until she got the fridge she was buying meat and cheese every day or two, and each time she was paying a delivery charge. Now she’s eliminated that expense, so her profit has increased. She’s now operating at an optimum level.”

How Juanita Began, Before Having Her Own Storefront

Before Juanita began running her handicrafts store she would sell the odd rug out of her sister-in-law’s shop next door. She didn’t have capital to buy wool to open up a business of her own. After her third loan she had purchased enough wool and woven enough rugs to switch from selling pop and gum to begin filling her own rug store. Juanita is now on her sixth loan, and with each additional loan has been able to better stock her shop including having a broader diversity of product. Juanita is one of the graduates of the six week business course offered by En Vía. Juanita’s daughter obtained her own loan through En Vía, enabling her to buy tools and materials to make jewelry.

María The Apron Maker

We then learn how María went from sewing someone else’s material into aprons for 5 – 10 pesos, to earning a 40 – 45 peso profit from wholesaling her own fully embroidered aprons. María had a sewing machine, but never enough money to buy material, so she was restricted to doing piecework. With the proceeds of her first loan she bought material so she could make her own aprons. She would then send them out for embroidering by someone who had a specialty sewing machine, get them back, and then wholesale them. With her second loan María wants to buy the more sophisticated machine so she’ll be able to do all of the work in-house, and thus further increase her profit.

Gloria Aspires To Having Her Own Retail Rug Business

Gloria’s story is somewhat similar. Her patron used to give her spun, dyed yarn. She would make rugs and receive a modest sum for each finished product. She had the skill set, and the loom, but not the materials. With the proceeds of her first loan she bought wool and dyes. She was then able to make rugs on her own, and sell them to the large outlets near the highway which retail to tourists arriving on buses for weaving and dying demonstrations. She sells small rugs to these casas grandes for 200 pesos if she’s lucky, and they double or triple. But she earns more this way than doing piecework. And with her next loan she’ll buy more material, then additional equipment, and hopefully within a year she’ll have enough stock on hand to be able to find her own means of retailing.

Our Tour Concludes with Lunch – And Another Success Story

We stop at a restaurant for lunch on our way out of town, our eighth and final visit. I point to about 20 stacked up beer cases. “Do you think they’re full or empties,” I ask. “I’m not sure,” Samantha replies, “but it’s because of our second loan that the restaurant now carries beer.”

The third loan to the quaint, spacious eatery was used to construct a new laminated metal roof. The old one was badly rusted and water would seep through during rainy season. Part of the restaurant could not be used year round. The restaurant is now able to easily accommodate groups, like ours from En Vía; a shiny new roof to shade us from the sun, and just as importantly a cold one to go along with our tacos, tlayudas, soups and salads.

Why Participate in Fundación En Vía

The assistance which En Vía provides to townspeople is not otherwise available to them. The individuals selected to participate are streetwise enough to recognize that borrowing at exorbitant rates of interest, illegal in many Western countries, is imprudent. Many are initially leery of the program, but those who apply and are accepted eventually come to realize the value of the opportunity they have been given. Juana was one of the first loan recipients, some three years ago:

“When Carlos [the program co-founder] first approached me, I didn’t believe it, and I had my doubts. But look at what Fundación En Vía has done for me and my family.”

Juanita’s gratitude is echoed in the warmth and welcoming nature of each and every loan recipient visited. On the tour there’s been no hard sell of anything. The women recognize that En Vía is giving them a new lease on life, and that’s more than enough for them. When was the last time any of us has received such heartfelt and instant appreciation for giving so little?

Alvin Starkman has a Masters in Social Anthropology from York University and a law degree from Osgoode Hall Law School. Alvin ceased practicing law in 2004, when he and his wife Arlene began living permanently in Oaxaca. Since that time Alvin has written over 200 articles about life and cultural traditions in Oaxaca. Alvin assists his wife in the operation of Casa Machaya Oaxaca Bed & Breakfast (http://www.oaxacadream.com) and arranges culinary tours of with Chef Pilar Cabrera (http://www.oaxacaculinarytours.com). Alvin is a paid contributing writer for Mexico Today, a program for Marca País – Imagen de México. Alvin offers touring advice of the sights in and around the central valleys of Oaxaca.

Posted by titosarah 13:07 Archived in Mexico Tagged mexico in del valle rugs mexican oaxaca donations oaxacan charities teotitlan tapetes micro-financing microfinance Comments (0)

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