Episode 512: Can Mezcal Save A Village? : Planet Money In rural Oaxaca, there are basically no jobs. Two cousins have a dream to change that.
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Episode 512: Can Mezcal Save A Village?

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Episode 512: Can Mezcal Save A Village?

Episode 512: Can Mezcal Save A Village?

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MARIANNE MCCUNE, HOST:

Exactly 10 years ago, I was reporting a story for NPR about this one remote region of Mexico in the mountains of Oaxaca that was in real economic trouble. And I was in this really tiny town.

ALEX BLUMBERG, HOST:

All right, so a tiny Mexican town. I'm imagining two main roads, a town square, a church maybe.

MCCUNE: OK, but tinier. There's one main road. There's not even a real square. This is a place where there were no phones in people's houses. If someone got a call, it was announced across the entire village on a loudspeaker. And if it was for you, you'd have to walk to this little office with a few phone booths inside. People there grew most of what they ate. They made their own tortillas. Subsistence farming is the norm because it was practically impossible to get a job here.

BLUMBERG: So it's one of those places, I imagine, that by the time you become a teenager, you're definitely looking for a way to get out.

MCCUNE: That's what almost everyone does. When I was there in 2004, people told me that half the village was living in California because that's where they could work. But for the people left behind like this girl named Mercedes (ph), living without your dad or your boyfriend was a real bummer.

MERCEDES: (Speaking Spanish).

MCCUNE: "If only there were some solution," she told me, "just something so that people don't have to go so far away." And there was this idea in the village about how to stop everyone from leaving. It involved a very strong and flavorful alcohol.

BLUMBERG: Alcohol?

MCCUNE: Alcohol. People across Oaxaca have made it for centuries. It's called mezcal. It's like the grandparent of tequila. And the idea was let's reinvigorate this tradition. Let's make more mezcal and let's start selling it all over the world with no middleman either. We'll make it here. We will export it ourselves.

BLUMBERG: So the area will come back on the shoulders of this alcoholic drink.

MCCUNE: Exactly. Now, I am a really optimistic person.

BLUMBERG: (Laughter) I'm hearing a but.

MCCUNE: (Laughter) But the idea that somehow an alcohol that few in the rest of the world had heard of could reverse the village's fortune, spread jobs throughout the region, it seemed like a long shot. The story I did for NPR ended on a slightly pessimistic note.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MCCUNE: In the past, Zoochilans have turned to mezcal to help them forget their troubles. This time, they're asking it to do a whole lot more. For NPR News, I'm Marianne McCune in Mexico.

BLUMBERG: I recognize that ending. Time will tell with a pessimistic hedge.

MCCUNE: Oh, lay off.

BLUMBERG: (Laughter) We've all done it.

MCCUNE: (Laughter) So that was 2004. And then last year, I get an email. This guy from those very same mountains found my story from 2004 online and he wrote (reading) we are in the process of launching our mezcal in the U.S. It's called Mezcal Tosba. A few months later, he invited me to come with him on one of his first sales calls in San Francisco. We go to a bar on Haight Street. He pours a glass for the manager and...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: That's great. It's delicious.

MCCUNE: He is interested and so are all the other bars and restaurants we visit that day.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: You know, you talk about certain spirits being perfumy. This is almost like cologney (ph)...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Sure, sure.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: ...You know? It's like - it's got those perfume qualities but in a much earthier and sort of muskier sort of sense.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Yeah.

MCCUNE: Ten years later, artisanal mezcal from the remote mountains of Oaxaca, it is for sale in California. How did that happen?

BLUMBERG: Hello, and welcome to PLANET MONEY. I'm Alex Blumberg.

MCCUNE: And I'm Marianne McCune. Today on the program, the story of how this unlikely scheme to export mezcal from a village with no phones and bring jobs to the region may actually be working despite the odds. What exactly went into those first bottles of mezcal they managed to sell in California? Blood, sweat and tears. And I mean actual blood and sweat and tears. Making global trade work for a down and out rural village, it's not for the faint of heart.

At the center of this tale, there are two cousins, Edgar (ph) and Alessandro Gonzales (ph). They grew up a few towns over from the one I visited a decade ago. Their dads were both teachers in the region. And they were raised with this strong message - you need to take care of this place. You need to build something here, give people a reason to stay. They took it to heart.

BLUMBERG: So these two cousins, they both worked hard, they got admitted to the best regional high school. And when Edgar, the older one, got done with high school, he went to college and studied computers. And college, as it often is, was a pivotal moment in their story because it was at college that Edgar, the older one, saw the film that helped set him on the path he's on today.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "A WALK IN THE CLOUDS")

KEANU REEVES: (As Paul Sutton) And after what I've seen in the war, I mean, it gave me time to think about life, what it means.

BLUMBERG: The movie - I'm sure I don't have to tell you - "A Walk In The Clouds," that romantic drama starring Keanu Reeves as a World War II vet living a double life as the fake husband of the troubled daughter of a California wine baron.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "A WALK IN THE CLOUDS")

REEVES: (As Paul Sutton) Are you going to Sacramento?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As character) I'm going home. My family has a vineyard in Napa.

BLUMBERG: Somehow, Edgar saw himself.

MCCUNE: And Edgar knows it sounds corny but he really was totally taken by life on the vineyard. That's when this idea really crystallized for him.

EDGAR GONZALES: (Speaking Spanish).

MCCUNE: He said, "I want to do that. I want to live like that. I can't grow grapes," he said to himself, "but here, we have agave. I'm going to make mezcal."

BLUMBERG: So let's leave aside for the moment that Edgar had almost no idea about how to actually make mezcal. Even if he did, mezcal is not something you just make. It's sort of like saying, you know what I'm going to do today? Start a winery. The drink is made from the maguey plant, which is a spiky succulent of the agave family. It takes 10 years to grow a mature maguey plant. And that's just the first step.

MCCUNE: You have to harvest them, cook them, mash them up, ferment them, distill the alcohol.

BLUMBERG: And, of course, all of this takes money, more money than Edgar could earn in the village where he grew up, certainly, and maybe more than he could earn in Mexico at all. So to achieve the dream, he did the thing that he had pledged to try and reverse, the thing he'd been brought up to find a way to prevent. He went to the United States.

GONZALES: (Speaking Spanish).

MCCUNE: He was the pride of his family, he told me, the only one to finish college. And when they saw him go to the U.S...

GONZALES: (Groaning).

BLUMBERG: And in California, Edgar followed the typical path of a migrant. He started working at a restaurant in San Jose clearing plates. He was a cook, then a roofer making Subway sandwiches at night. And like most migrants, he would send money back home.

MCCUNE: But this is where he was a little different. The money wasn't for a new house or a nice car. It was for seeds to grow maguey plants and for people to help cultivate them on his father's land.

BLUMBERG: All right, so that's the one cousin, Edgar. The other cousin, Alessandro, was younger. And around this time, he had also made his way north to the United States. He was fresh out of high school when he made the trip. He and his cousin Edgar eventually moved in together in Silicon Valley. And for Alessandro, this was his pivotal moment, his walk in the clouds, if you will.

ALESSANDRO GONZALES: It was a huge change. It was actually what I was looking for because then the world just opened up for me.

MCCUNE: Yes, he became a busboy, too, and then a waiter, and then a waiter in a French restaurant, and then a bartender. He also studied English, he learned a little French, he met people, he traveled. And then came that one night he and Edgar got to talking.

GONZALES: After Work, I think, we're just having a glass of wine. We're - I'm learning about wine. I'm sharing my knowledge what I'm learning with Edgar.

BLUMBERG: Edgar had been making trips to Napa also to learn about wineries and apply what he could to his own scheme. And in that conversation, Edgar told Alessandro his master plan, to make mezcal back in their home region and sell it to the United States. He asked his cousin, do you want in?

GONZALES: Immediately, I didn't think it twice because I've always been - in the back of my head, I want to do something. I want to build something.

MCCUNE: But what did he say? I mean, was he like, I've never made mezcal, you haven't either (laughter), nobody is really surviving doing that in our villages, but let's do this project, it's a really good idea?

GONZALES: He was young. I was really young, too. And living in Silicon Valley where companies are popping out like back and forth and left and right, it's an inspiration to - at least to me, it's a strong message that you could take a chance at least know that - to start something that's kind of against everything. And one of the things that I - living in California, it's that it encourages you to pursue.

And the most important thing is even if you fail, you can always get up and just keep going.

MCCUNE: Edgar, the older one, he says people did tell him he was crazy at the outset, even some of his family members.

GONZALES: (Speaking Spanish).

MCCUNE: He said, "I covered my ear on this side, I covered my ear on the other side and I followed my dream."

BLUMBERG: But to actually achieve the dream of making a mezcal business, someone needed to learn how to make mezcal and someone else had to learn how to do business. And so it was in the late 2000s after working in the United States for about seven years, Alessandro went back to Mexico to college to study international business.

MCCUNE: And Edgar went back to the village in Oaxaca to build a palenque, that's a little distillation factory, and to learn, finally, how to make mezcal. So, Alex, just to make the timeline clear, by the time I got that email last year from these cousins about their Mezcal, Edgar had already been working at the palenque for six years teaching himself the art of fermentation and distillation. The palenque was his Silicon Valley-style startup.

He experimented and he learned by trial and error. And now he was getting ready to bottle their first batch of mezcal for export. And so I headed down there to check it all out.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCCUNE: From Edgar's parents' little house where he still lives with his wife and little boy, it takes a half hour to drive the windy dirt road to the palenque. I got a ride with Edgar's friend. Edgar doesn't have a car, so he usually walks at least an hour each way. And when we get there, his whole family is down there to help. A couple cousins run over to show me some baby iguanas they caught.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Speaking Spanish).

MCCUNE: Edgar says when he first came back from California, people in the village would criticize him for not having a nice car and a new cement block house like all the other migrants.

GONZALES: (Speaking Spanish).

MCCUNE: He says people would ask him, where's your car? And he'd say, what car? Where's your house? What house? He says, he told them, well, first I want to make something that will give me food. And after that, it will give me a car. And then it will give me a house. Edgar's palenque is under a big corrugated roof. There are a couple small machines to mash up the maguey before it ferments in big vats. Then there's the distiller, this beautiful mass of cement, bricks, steel pipes and a wood-burning stove where the sugary liquid turns into alcohol.

BLUMBERG: Alcohol.

MCCUNE: (Laughter) And then up the hill, 50 maguey hearts.

BLUMBERG: Maguey hearts? That's, like, the part of the plant that you make the drink from?

MCCUNE: Yeah, it's like the artichoke heart.

BLUMBERG: I see.

MCCUNE: But each one is the size of a salad bowl, and they're roasting over red-hot logs in a big pit in the ground. And they've been going for about five days, and they need to be checked. And when they uncover them, the fire underneath starts burning really hot, too hot. And Edgar and the two guys he's hired to help him, they start madly hosing the maguey hearts with water from a spring and then reaching down and picking them up with their bare hands to throw them out of the pit so that they don't burn.

Everybody's sweating, their hands are burning.

BLUMBERG: Yeah, typical Silicon Valley startup.

GONZALES: Yeah. This work can be dangerous. One time, a rock shot out of this machine Edgar was using to cut down the maguey and it went straight into his eye. He had to walk an hour back to the village cupping his eye. He made it to the hospital in the next town, and then he found out he would never see out of it again.

BLUMBERG: Wow.

MCCUNE: Yeah. Edgar's family wanted him to stop. They told him you should do something else. And when I asked his wife about this whole project, this decade-long mission - and by the way, she was very pregnant with another baby but still working all day long on her feet - she said that she likes being a part of it all.

But when I asked her whether there are days when she feels like enough with this project that so far pays for nothing...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Speaking Spanish).

MCCUNE: She said, there are moments in a family that are meant to share. And with Edgar sometimes days at a time down at the palenque, her son is always asking, where's Papa? When is he coming?

BLUMBERG: And Edgar, he says, he sometimes had his doubts as well, his dark moments when they'd been at it, you know, for more than a decade, he and Alessandro were in debt and they'd still seen nothing but a few pesos they were making selling their mezcal locally.

GONZALES: (Speaking Spanish).

MCCUNE: He says he'd ask himself, am I on the right path or did I make a bad decision? He says sometimes when he's there at the palenque alone in the middle of the night, he'll think, I could be somewhere else just sleeping. What am I doing?

BLUMBERG: The other cousin, Alessandro, he had his struggles, too. After he got his business degree in Mexico, he went back to the States so he could make enough money to pay for the licenses and permits and equipment, bottles, corks, everything that they'd need to get their business up and running.

MCCUNE: And is this just from money you're making as a bartender?

GONZALES: Yes, that's kind of savings. As I work, as I get the money, I've been funding the project. And one of the reasons that it's been kind of slow as well because it's little by little, little by little. And, of course, I've been getting some help from my wife, of course.

BLUMBERG: He married an American woman, a teacher from New York.

MCCUNE: And is she totally onboard, a believer, or is she like, why are we spending all our money on this?

GONZALES: I think, yeah, she has more - she believes half of (laughter) what I say.

BLUMBERG: So Edgar and Alessandro are doing all of this, spending all this money, all this political capital with their spouses all because they hope, of course, it'll pay off for themselves and also because they care about the region that they're from. That's a big part of it. But the more they think about it, there's something even larger, still, they're trying to pioneer here.

They're trying to be a living demonstration of how NAFTA can work for people that in Mexico, it's historically worked against.

MCCUNE: NAFTA, that's the North American Free Trade Agreement, that 20 years ago allowed Mexico, the U.S. and Canada to buy and sell stuff to each other without paying a tax to get things across the border. And in Mexico just like everywhere else, there have been winners and losers. For example, big tomato and jalapeno farmers, winners 'cause that stuff grows great in Mexico and there are some big producers with a foot in the market.

Rural corn farmers, in fact, most any small, rural farmer, losers because how can these little guys compete against high-tech and government subsidized farmers in the U.S.?

BLUMBERG: But Edgar says when he hears people complaining about NAFTA, he says, yeah, I understand it doesn't seem fair. But you have to think of NAFTA as a tool that you can make work for you as well.

GONZALES: (Speaking Spanish).

MCCUNE: "They say we can't make corn like they can," he told me. "So I say, grow something that they can't. If you want to do something, if you want to bring work to your people, you have to figure out how to make something that, in other places, they can't make."

BLUMBERG: Like mezcal. Not only is Mexico a better place to grow the maguey plant, but you can't even make mezcal anywhere else but in this region because, you know, just like champagne has to be from a specific region in France, mezcal can only be called mezcal if it has official paperwork proving that it was made in this one region of Mexico.

MCCUNE: Mezcal has no direct competition in the U.S. And Alessandro on Edgar say that is the kind of thing they hope to inspire people to think about in the era of free trade, how NAFTA can help them. So the last day of my trip to Edgar's palenque was a really big day. They were going to test run the bottling machine that Alessandro got a grant for a few years back.

It's this graceful stainless steel contraption that allows them to fill six bottles at a time instead of funneling mezcal into each bottle by hand. And it's just been sitting there for a couple years. They built this airtight adobe room to house it and keep the dust and bugs out while they bottle. But they've never used it. They never had to fill so many bottles at once until now.

This week, a supervisor from I guess what you would call the state's mezcal regulation authority will come observe as they fill 2,000 bottles for export.

BLUMBERG: The supervisor has to watch and certify that they are, in fact, bottling this mezcal in the region that makes it count as mezcal. He has to give a stamp of approval to this whole batch.

MCCUNE: And he has to be there for the whole bottling operation. So Edgar, he needs to make sure that this machine is going to work.

Today is the first time you're using it?

GONZALES: Uh-huh.

MCCUNE: It's very exciting.

GONZALES: (Laughter) Yeah, it's very exciting for me. And I've been waiting for this for, like, 10 years. (Speaking Spanish).

MCCUNE: He said, well, he just can't sleep at night because it's like graduating after doing, you know, four years at the university. And this is his life's work. (Speaking Spanish).

GONZALES: (Speaking Spanish).

MCCUNE: That afternoon, Edgar and his wife spent an hour and a half in that hot room trying to make the machine work the way it's supposed to. And at first, it won't suck the mezcal up through a hose into the machine's spouts. Edgar and his wife try to figure it out together. They're each coming up with ideas. Maybe the little motor isn't hardy enough for this machine.

Maybe one end of the hose needs to be higher or lower. Maybe this piece goes in reverse. And then they finally get it going.

(LAUGHTER)

MCCUNE: But now the pressure is too much and the bottles overflow. Eventually, they do fill a dozen bottles and their 4-year-old son joins them as they cork them and stick on the black and silver labels, really pretty labels. When the official bottling begins, they're going to contract with three single mothers from the village to come work on the production line.

BLUMBERG: So Marianne, that was a few months ago. Since then, you recorded that scene at the bar where they were actually going around to bartenders in San Francisco and having them sample it. And the bartenders were loving it. And just to remind you, give you a flavor of what they were saying, here it is again.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: It's definitely sweet in the best way. I mean, it's not cloying, for sure. It's just - it's amazing that that comes through in a distilled product. Like, that's really fun. That's really cool.

BLUMBERG: So the money question. Can I now buy Mezcal Tosba in the United States?

MCCUNE: Yes, you can, if, that is, you fly across the country to California or to Seattle. Yes, you really can buy it.

GONZALES: It's available. It's ready. It has a face. It has legs and arms and it's rolling (laughter).

MCCUNE: So how did it - where do things stand now? You're making millions of dollars a week?

GONZALES: Yeah, I think I can - I don't know what to do with the money (laughter).

BLUMBERG: I'm detecting some sarcasm there (laughter).

MCCUNE: Yeah, Alessandro is still working as a bartender. He's still funding the project with his wife. And in his spare time, he's introducing himself to staff at the hottest bars and restaurants around and taking orders. In two months, he's already sold almost three-quarters of their first shipment, 1,500 bottles.

When all these 2,000 bottles are sold, how much will you have earned?

GONZALES: I would say somewhere around 30, $40,000 in general what's worth.

BLUMBERG: That's net revenue. That's after they've paid for the actual material and the people to make the mezcal and stuff like that.

MCCUNE: Right, though they haven't paid themselves.

BLUMBERG: Right.

MCCUNE: Alessandro is really proud that they're paying salaries to a handful of workers back home and supporting their families. But now he also needs to pay for supplies and taxes and distribution fees for the next shipment.

It's still a huge difference. You've never had anything coming in before.

GONZALES: Exactly. We have a product. We have something right now. And eventually, we'll - it will be profitable.

MCCUNE: When do you think that will be?

GONZALES: In 10 years (laughter). No, I hope soon.

BLUMBERG: So Marianne, we've come, I think, to the end of the podcast here. All we need now is an ending. You ended your last report from 2004 with what we call time will tell with a negative hedge. What about if we use an alternate ending this time, time will tell with optimistic tinge? Think you can do that?

MCCUNE: All right, let me give it a try.

BLUMBERG: All right.

MCCUNE: People who follow mezcal and the growth of the market here, they say that Mezcal Tosba really could make it. Suddenly, you see mezcal cocktails all over the place. They're pretty much in every cosmopolitan bar in California and New York. And one thing Alessandro and Edgar have going for them is their story. There are very few mezcal producers who are selling their own product.

And as a result, putting what they earn back into the place that they come from. And Alessandro and Edgar's aim is for Mezcal Tosba to become the mezcal of the mountains. To do that, they're going to have to make much more. And to do that, they plan to partner with other mezcal makers in the region. And their first partner is going to be those guys that I met back in 2004, the ones who were trying to keep the migrants from leaving.

So this dream of creating a whole mezcal industry, a reason not to cross the border in search of work, it is alive.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BLUMBERG: As always, we would love to hear your thoughts, questions, comments, what'd you think of this story, what do you think in general? Please email us at planetmoney@npr.org.

MCCUNE: You can also find us on Twitter and on Facebook. I want to give a shout out to Homelands Productions. My story from 10 years ago was originally on their series Worlds of Difference. And this music that you're hearing, this was recorded in that village. Every kid growing up there learns to play in a brass band like this one. And then the bands play wildly at the fiestas every year.

BLUMBERG: It's awesome. I'm Alex Blumberg.

MCCUNE: I'm Marianne McCune. Thanks for listening.

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