Neta- Spirit Distilled from Agave
Agave Spirits bring people together in a way not too many other spirits can. From harvesting, to producing, and consuming, every facet is laced with cultivating relationships. Mezcal and other agave spirits are that farm-to-table restaurant where you eat at a communal setting, smiling next to strangers as you share stories, while the chef is continuously serving up dishes and discussing the ingredients with you. Fathers pass down traditions and techniques, mezcaleros sell to friends and neighbors, and if there’s ever a celebration, you can bet your bottom dollar that the good stuff is getting brought out; it’s part of the romance, the mystique, and if you’ll forgive the pun, the spirit of the plant itself. I know from my personal experience visiting Oaxaca that the relationships formed around mezcal transcend language and cultural barriers. While I did take Spanish in high school, ‘rusty’ would be a generous term for my grasp of it now. I was invited to a mezcalero’s birthday party and by the end, felt as welcomed and loved as any member of the family or long-time friend—we were all able to bond around the language of mezcal.
My relationship with Neta started three years ago, when I visited their table at the “Mexico In a Bottle,” event, hosted by Mezcalistas in San Francisco. Max Rosenstock, the owner of Neta, and Mike Whipple poured four of their offerings for me, and out of the 40 or so producers in attendance (and over 120 different mezcals), the Neta expressions were among some of the best I tried that day. At the time, I was a buyer for a local spirits store in San Francisco, and I begged Max to let me know when I would be able to bring their bottlings to my customers. Three years later he walks into K&L to let me know that Neta is finally being imported to the U.S. through Of Spine and Vine and to reshare the spirits from that fateful day on the upper floor of Public Works in SF.
Max has worked tirelessly to form the relationships he has with his producers and in gaining the trust of the communities from which he sources. Many of the agave spirits that are sold outside of Mexico involve a producer who sells to or has a partnership with an importer/distributor. Contracts, production agreements, certification, quality control are all aspects that need to be agreed upon by both parties, but Max went about it differently. Instead of going from town to town, propositioning producers and laying down what his production requirements would be, he found a community that would eventually trust him enough to be an ambassador for their spirits. It took almost three years for “the talk” to even happen. When the mezcaleros of the community asked with eyebrows raised how much product he would need to start this partnership, Max gave the right answer—as much as you’re able to or wanting to sell me. Leaving production matters in the hands of the producers, Max can focus his energy into other aspects of the business as well as keeping his producers happy to work at their own pace.
Neta works with several different individual producers as well as a co-op comprised of eleven members, and in 2015 Niki Nakazawa joined up with Neta in a Co-Founding role. When talking with Max, he stated how lucky he feels to have formed the partnerships he has with his producers, saying, “Since 2012, our friendships and working relationships with families in rural communities in Miahuatlán and the Central Valleys of Oaxaca have granted us participation in a world elusive to those not born into it.” The producers who work with Max all have varying styles, techniques, and equipment they employ to make their mezcal, while the quality coming from each producer is staggering. A big part of that is the selection of the agaves and the special relationships held between the producer and the magueyero (agave farmer). You get a sense of place when you taste the spirits from Neta, which is what you get when you have excellently grown agave and people who respect that plant and want to highlight the terroir it brings with it. In some cases, the producers are growing their own agave, and for those who don’t, or if more are needed than are at hand, agaves are sourced from neighbors or family friends, and all of them are grown in Miahuatlán.
Interview with Max Rosenstock
JL: Who is the coop comprised of? How do they work together to create a mutually beneficial system for each other?
MR: Founded in 2009, the cooperative is composed, currently, of 11 men and one woman from different mezcal producing families in the village. Effectively nearly every mezcal making family is represented through the participation of at least one family member. The organization is beneficial for a plethora of reasons but most importantly provides some greater means to organize a cohesive and united front of maguey growers and master distillers in town. There is a conscious effort to preserve the integrity of the mezcal in the region and put forth quality over quantity. So, these days the participants see the entity as a form of resistance to what's happening today with mezcal in Oaxaca (mass production of low quality and low abv, "artisanal" mezcal, the proliferation of adulterated spirits on the local market, and exploitation from politicians and businessmen). But the group was founded primarily for the practical benefits of a cooperative structure.
The village still practices tequio (the traditional organizing of communal work efforts required for participation in the community), so how mezcal is made very much emulates these collaborative efforts. Time and resources are shared, and all decisions are made only when everyone agrees. Of course it can be challenging to come to a group consensus, but at the end of the day there is a shared vision for the future, and of course, everyone is (literally) family. Working collectively like this also ensures that profits made from mezcal production in the community get spread around and don't just concentrate in the hands of one or two individuals.
JL: Can you tell us about the chemical analysis that you do on the agave spirits that you import?
MR: The batches that we select for Neta all undergo a chemical analysis at a certified laboratory here in Oaxaca City. It is unfortunately very expensive (over $100 a pop). The new lab we're working with charges us less than what we were previously paying and requires one liter for analysis. It's still a lot when you think about these batch sizes, but at least it isn't the $3000+MNX and multiple liters that are required by other groups. Well made, real (unadulterated) mezcal or agave spirits will be quite clean, and even the batches that don't, "pass" the analysis generally don't miss the mark by much.
Levels of methanol and furfural etc. of agave are inherently much lower than some other commercially available spirits, such as eau de vie and brandy, so from a health standpoint, Mexican federal levels of permitted alcohols are quite arbitrary. They seem to benefit industrial production more than anything else and have nothing to do with internationally understood and excepted health norms. What has been interesting in doing these testings is that we have realized that these traditional recipes are more than often chemically sound and don't need to be tinkered with. The biggest issue has been the inclusion of burnt agave, which generates elevated levels of furfural in the fermentation, but can make wonderful mezcal. Methanol can be an issue with certain plants such as tepextate and pulquero because of their naturally high pectin levels that translate directly into methyl alcohol. That's one reason why you don't see a lot of pure tepextate at high abv points on the market. It is easier to make an ensamble with espadin or take select parts of the heart that lack a lot of flavor and aroma that give these mezcales their identity and add in some water. We had to test five or six different carefully made 100% tepextate batches before we found one that passed. We will be shipping some of it to NY this autumn.
JL: Some of the plants that are used in the production of Neta are pretty special and seemingly endemic only to certain areas. Can you tell us more about the agaves and their terroir that your producers are working with?
MR: Miahuatlán is home to quite a few different species of agave used for mezcal production. With each species, there is often a multitude of phenotypes and ecotypes, so the morphology, sugars, and even maturation times can vary drastically. Nomenclature can get a little confusing because different agaves can carry the same names used to describe different plants in different regions. There are something like 16 linguistic groups in Oaxaca, so speakers of different languages also use very different words for their agaves. This is vital to the understanding of different regions, cultures, processes, and plants. However, in the case of Miahuatlán, the mezcal producing villages are mostly mestizo and exclusively Spanish speaking, unlike many other mezcal centric regions in the state. In many cases, Spanish names have been adopted, but the use of Zapotec words is still common. For instance, there is a very rare and regionally-specific to San Luis Amatlán hybrid varietal known as Biliá. In Zapotec, dob is agave, and biliá refers to shade. Dobiliá became Hispanicized to "Tobala" so in many cases these names are interchangeable; not in San Luis Amatlán.
The plant called Mexicano where we work is a very particular and special Agave americana varietal, not a rhodacantha, as the name would imply in other parts of Oaxaca. The local Barril is a rhodacantha, not the karwinskii found in Ejutla and the Central Valleys, with the name reflecting the shape of the piña, as opposed to the rosette of the living plant. The local Coyote is a hybrid between karwinskii and potatorum/seemanniana (collectively called Tobala) plants and is drastically different than the Sola de Vega Agave americana cultivar.
With the karwinskii family, there is great variation, and the specific plants that get called Madrecuixe and Tobaziche in the San Luis Amatlán region are both very particular expressions that are not endemic to other parts of the state. In the case of the Madrecuixe, very similar plants are found throughout the surrounding regions but are different in appearance and in their sugars. The local Tobaziche plant is an enormous giant that can weigh well over 300lbs and is extraordinarily distinct from the Central Valley karwinskiis of the same name. These Central Valley plants are different, but much more similar to what people in Miahuatlán would call Bicuixe or Cuixe (Santa Catarina Minas Cuixe is a rhodacantha, for example).
Looking somewhat similar to the Miahuatlán Tobaziche is a strange phenotype known as Cuixe Verde, or simply as Verde. It is born from the seed stock of the local Madrecuixe phenotype but is sterile and doesn't produce viable seeds of its own. As a result, the plant can only be reproduced through its rhizome system. It is a very prized plant in the region and is not found elsewhere. In good soil, it can take eight years to mature, weigh beyond 200kg, and yield a liter with 6-8kg of cooked matter.
Since the introduction of the Espadín in the early 1980s that coincided with the arrival of big business from Jalisco, there has been a great displacement of other mezcal agaves, but there is still cultivation of different karwinskiis, americanas, and some rhodacantha that have long been preferred for the aromas and flavors. In the last decade, people have started to grow Tobala, Tepextate, and other types that primarily only reproduce from seed and were previously almost exclusively found in the wild. All agave has the potential to hybridize, so it will be interesting to see what happens in the coming years with this increase in cultivation efforts statewide.
There is also great diversity in soil types in the district of Miahuatlán, and even within specific microregions. The district runs from the valley floor deep into the Sierra Sur mountain range, but most of the mezcal specific agave growing regions are within 4,600-7,000ft. There's not a lot of truly flat land, so most agaves are grown on slopes and hillsides, with wild agaves often coming from steep canyons and ravines. The preferred soil types are chock-full of limestone and are either white or reddish. The black soils are high in nitrogen and lack the calcium carbonate that favors large and quick(er) maturing agaves, so yields are smaller than what comes from different red and white soils, but the flavors can be truly remarkable.
The families we work with are farmers, so the agave they plant essentially becomes part of the corn, bean, and squash milpa system that functions as the backbone of the rural (and ancient) diet. There are a lot of chiles and aromatic herbs that grow wild in the region, and people also grow papaya, mango, citrus, passion fruit, and banana. I don't believe this affects the fermentation very much, but it does very much affect what's going on in the soil. Also, being located directly below the mountains allows for particularly good water in the regions— people source from springs, wells, and arroyos. The water used in the fermentation dictates a tremendous amount of flavor and texture in the final distilled spirit, and in the case of Logoche, tends to be quite mineral-rich and a little acidic.
JL: How long are the agaves left in the field to mature after the quiote is cut? Does this present any challenges for the producer?
MR: The flowering stock, or quiote, is generally cut (the process of making a "capon" agave) and the plant left in the field for anywhere from 3 months to two years. Uncommonly, plants will be left for even longer, but lose their sugars and degrade in their yield, despite their amazing flavors and elevated higher alcohols. The only challenge this presents today, again, is the issue of theft. There is pressure today to harvest earlier than desired in situations where farmers feel their agave is under threat. In traditional practice, the crop cycles are well planned, and the monitoring of agave growth is simply a daily practice.
JL: How long are the piñas cooked for?
MR: The rocks in the ovens probably are only hot for around 36 hours, but most mezcaleros in the region will leave their ovens covered for a minimum of three days. More common is 5-7 days, but if there is no rain and a lot of work at the ranch, almost a month can go by before the agaves are unearthed. Waiting this long can create some issues in the fermentation and may not pass a lab test, but still make amazing mezcal.
JL: What is the reason for the resting periods after the harvesting/cooking/shredding the agave?
MR: It was the tradition in the past to leave a harvested agave in the sun for over a week before chopping its pencas [leaves] and cooking it. This is still practiced, but under the threat of theft, is less and less common, nor practical. Nonetheless, agave is still left to rest for several days after harvest and before the cooking process. Very important is the resting times after the cook, which vary from species to species. The karwinskii agaves require more time for the cellulose to break down and will yield much less and will lack flavor if worked quickly out of the oven. The tepextate, however, needs to be processed quickly to take advantage of the flavors, aromas, and slightly larger yield. After maceration, there is a dry fermentation period of a couple of hours to a couple of days, depending again on the type of agave and the ambient temperature.
JL: How much does each respective piña weigh? Approximately how many piñas are required to produce 1 L of mezcal?
MR: Piña sizes differ drastically from terrain to terrain and of course between species and subspecies. A healthy-sized Madrecuixe would be somewhere around 100kg and harvested in under eight years and could get considerably larger under certain conditions. Likewise, in poor soil and little maintenance, a Madrecuixe could take 25 years to mature and stunted in growth, only weighing 15kg. This growth is generally reflected in yield, as well. In good soil, a Madrecuixe can give a liter for 6kg of agave. These numbers are pretty similar to Espadin in this case. Bicuixe isn't terribly different in terms of weight to liters yielded, but the plants themselves are generally quite slim and don't weigh between 30-50kg. There are, however, many exceptions, and the karwinskii types called Bicuixe can grow well over 9ft tall and weigh over 200 pounds. It's mostly about soil type and land maintenance with most varietals. Other plants, such as the Tepextate and the local Agave americana pulquero plants are just inherently low yielding and can require anywhere from 30-80kg to yield a liter of distillate. Mixing different soil types and different species probably gives an average yield of around 12-15kg of agave per liter of mezcal.
JL: What is the idea or reason behind harvesting the agave around the moon cycle?
MR: It isn't so much that the harvest takes places at night, but during the time around a full moon. Likewise, planting takes places during the days of a new moon. They are old beliefs regarding natural cycles, and the farmers say hold true. The idea is that during the full moon the plant has concentrated its sugars in the piña, as opposed to its leaves, thus resulting in larger yields with better flavors. In any case, this continued practice is a hallmark of traditional mezcal production and simply is a measure against stressing harvests and overproducing.
JL: Are there any benefits for the agaves to grow other crops around them?
MR: Without a doubt. Aside from the subterranean interactions and exchanges between different plants and bacteria that are occurring in the wild or in the milpa (corn, bean, and squash trilogy), these intact ecosystems provide food and shelter for all kinds of bugs and animals. Very import is the relationship that the agave has with bats, who act as one of the principal pollinators, and along with bees, are responsible for the majority of the pollination necessary to grow most of what we eat or consume. The farmers and palenqueros that we work with all cultivate different species of agave and food crops within the same lands and are very conscious that this eclectic mix helps defend against invasive pests. Consequently, it is of concern to see increased numbers of Espadin monoculture operations. A small percentage of these larger operations are organic, but they are few. You can also spot an organic grow from a pesticide and chemical fertilizer grow based on the undergrowth and presence of other plants and crops in the field.
JL: Lastly, what is your favorite agave spirit and your favorite way to enjoy it?
MR: That's a horribly tough question. I love the interplay of flavors in an ensamble, but considering the impressive amount of factors and variables that go into the crafting of traditional agave spirits, it is also really fascinating to see how much single varietals can differ- in both flavor and effect! Certain maestros also really know what they are doing, and that expertise can do things that the plants cannot do on their own. I'm kind of a weirdo, so I keep different agaves and mezcales for specific occasions or moods. It all depends. There's so much amazing stuff from all over the country, but my time in Miahuatlán makes me very partial to a good karwinskii! Those plants' aromas and flavors lend such a specific sense of place that I enjoy. Taste and smell are powerful memory triggers. I like that. There are a lot of beautiful clay copitas around, but the nerd in me likes to check out the viscosity of the liquid. Good agave spirits should have a lot of texture and are noticeably visible in glass. I suppose my favorite way to drink it is with good company, but I'll admit to hoarding a few things that don't get pulled out very often! Of course, there's absolutely nothing like sharing the bottles that get passed around at the fiestas and bailes. Those are special moments and are the reason these spirits exist in the first place.