Ownership doesn’t stop Modelo from still being a Mexican beer

Long before living in Mexico my favorite commercial beer hailed from south of the border—Modelo Negra.

While beverage makers often change the recipe for international sales, that is not the case with this dark beer or any of the actual Modelo labels. What one buys in Mexico tastes the same as what is purchased at a store in the United States.

Modelo beers are known for their squatty bottles and gold foil tops. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

Modelo Especial has been around since 1925. This is a pilsner-style lager. The goal of founder Braulio Iriarte was to create a model beer, thus the name. Modelo Especial translates to Special Model. It was introduced to the U.S. in 1990.

Grupo Modelo became the parent company name in 1991. It was founded in 1922 in Tacuba, Mexico, as Cervecería Modelo. The company’s first beer was Corona, then Modelo Especial.

Pablo Díez Fernández became the majority stock holder in 1936 after assuming the title of director general in 1930. Under his leadership the company bought regional breweries producing Victoria (1935), Estrella (1954), and Pacífico (1954). (Victoria is Mexico’s oldest beer, which started production in 1865.)

The company went public in 1994.

Today, New York-based Constellation Brands owns the Modelo group. In 2016, it created Casa Modelo to better brand those beers. Constellation bought the company from Anheuser-Busch InBev, which is headquartered in Belgium.

Despite the beer no longer being under Mexican ownership, all of the Modelo brands are still brewed in Mexico.

Cannabis beverages make is easy to get high without smoking

Harold Han, founder and chief security officer for Vertosa, develops cannabis emulsions for beverages. (Image: Vertosa)

To get the buzz of cannabis in a faster, easier to control, more socially acceptable way, the latest focus is drinking it.

“It makes sense as an ingestion method, especially for new consumers. Smoking anything in front of people is not popular,” Aaron Silverstein, managing director and enologist with BevZero. The Santa Rosa-based company specializes in removing alcohol from beer, wine and cider.

“Traditional edibles take a few hours. With beverages, you feel the impact within 15 minutes so you can pace yourself. It mimics alcohol consumption. It’s not a huge part of the cannabis industry now, but I expect it to be significant in maybe 15 years where beverages will be 30% to 40% of all cannabis sales.”

Technology and entrepreneurship have contributed to the growing variety and availability of these drinks. But those in beverage industry complain a slew of unnecessary regulations, like what color bottle they can use, is holding them back.

“It’s by far the fastest growing sector of the industry,” said David Quintana, lobbyist for the Cannabis Beverage Association, based in Sacramento. “This way you can do your vice in public, you can have all the fun without the calories, and it’s a lot cheaper.”

Fortune Business Insights predicts cannabis beverages worldwide will be worth $8 billion by 2027.

Beer must be dealcoholized before cannabis is added. (Image: Barrel Brothers)

“Beverages are one of the fastest growing categories at our store and in the cannabis industry. They are picking up a lot of traction,” said Eli Melrod, founder and CEO of Solful dispensary in Sebastopol. “Basically they didn’t exist in 2017 when we opened and now we don’t have enough cooler space. Still, beverages make up only 2.5% of all sales, but it was zero in 2017.”

Any beverage, except milk, can get a dose of cannabis without running afoul of the law. Wine is okay, if the alcohol is removed.

“The low-dose sparkling waters are hands down the most popular; in single servings and four- and six-packs,” Melrod said. “I think people are looking for ways to relax and ways to unwind. I think people perceive cannabis as a healthy alternative to alcohol.”

House of Saka was founded in 2018 by Tracey Mason, a wine industry veteran, and Cynthia Salarizadeh, whose expertise is cannabis. In 2020, they sold 530 of the 675 cases of wine they produced. In 2021, they expect to produce 7,500 cases. The increase largely has to do with distribution expansion, though consumer demand and awareness of their products are also key.

The company makes alcohol-free Saka Pink, a rosé made from pinot noir grapes, and Saka White, a chardonnay. Grapes are sourced mostly from the Carneros region of Napa Valley. In February, Saka Sparkling was introduced as a single-serve bottle of champagne.

BevZero’s Silverstein, whose company removes alcohol from beverages, said it does not make sense to dealcoholize everything. For example, to do so with vodka would pretty much leave water. Spirits like tequila and bourbon that can rely on wood barrels to be part of the taste profile are also not good candidates for dealcoholization, he said.

For those wanting to imbibe a cannabis cocktail there are other ways to satisfy that craving by being a mixologist at home or on the road by adding cannabis liquid to a drink.

“It’s like a little ketchup packet that has liquid in it. It has 10 (milligrams) and you dump that into your mocktail,” explained Annie Holman with The Galley in Santa Rosa. “The packets are discrete; you can bring it in your purse.” Some are flavored, some aren’t.

The Galley can create these liquids and other beverages for companies in its kitchen, as well as bottle the product. Mobile bottle operations can be brought in if needed, as is similar to what some wineries do.

However, beer presents a different set of obstacles when it comes to taking the alcohol out because if in the process, too much oxygen gets in, it will ruin the batch.

“The big draw to beer is hops. Hops and cannabis are related to each other. There is a natural synergy,” said Wes Deal, co-founder and brewmaster at Barrel Brothers Brewing Company in Windsor. “Anytime you dealcoholize beer the flavor changes because alcohol does have flavor, and it affects mouth feel.”

He continues to experiment with taking the alcohol out of his line of beers to see what works. To start with the brewery has infused an IPA and a blonde ale. The products hit the market last fall. Valhalla Confections in Santa Rosa infuses the beer with cannabis and handles the distribution to dispensaries.

Beverages infused with any component of marijuana cannot be shipped across state lines because the product is illegal at the federal level. CBD derived from hemp is regulated by the 2018 U.S. Farm Act, which allows for sales from one state to another. This is because the legislation no longer classifies hemp as a controlled substance. The law is the main difference between CBD derived from hemp and marijuana. That is why some beverage makers are using only CBD from hemp.

SipCozy is one of those companies. While the company is based in Florida, winemaker Meredith Leahy resides in Napa. Only California grapes are used in the product. The initial production in 2019 was 600 cases of a 2018 Grenache Rosé blend that was infused with 40mg of broad-spectrum hemp extract. The $18 bottles are sold online right to consumers who reside in states that allow this.

Some dispensaries carry a variety of cannabis beverages. (Image: Solful)

Technology has allowed for the rapid growth in the number of cannabis beverages. The first iterations of cannabis drinks are described by industry veterans as liquid with sticks and twigs. It wasn’t until people figured out how to infuse the cannabis oil with liquids that they became palatable. Emulsions are needed so the oil and beverage don’t separate.

Few companies are in the emulsion business. The one most people point to is Vertosa in Oakland.

“Emulsions start with extracted oil. We emulsify them into an ingredient. Emulsions you see every day are in milk, ice cream and salad dressing. It makes it dispersible in water. We all know oil and water don’t mix. Emulsions make oil and water mix better,” explained Austin Stevenson, chief innovation officer with Vertosa. “We make it stable so it won’t separate. So it won’t float at the top or sink to the bottom.”

No one cannabis emulsion works for every beverage. A lot of chemistry is involved. This is because the liquid the emulsion will be infused with has different components. That IPA and blonde ale at Barrel Brothers Brewery are nothing alike, therefore the cannabis emulsions are just as different.

Whether the product is going to be in a can, glass or plastic also plays a role. If a product is pasteurized or had a chemical treatment, will help determine the appropriate emulsion.

Stevenson said it can take a few months before the food scientists settle on the correct emulsion for an individual product.

Beer and wine with cannabis adds another layer because first the alcohol needs to be removed.

“We pioneered the use of these processes in wine about 30 years back. We’ve always been constantly improving, maybe not radical jumps, but with the ability to have greater quality,” said Silverstein with BevZero.

BevZero is the sister company of 30-year-old ConeTech which developed the dealcoholization method. BevZero was created to do business with the cannabis industry. “We remove alcohol at low temps so we don’t harm the wine at all. It’s a very short process. We separate aromas, dealcoholize, then add aromas back.”

Some varietals are easier to do this with than others, like a lot of white wines. Alcohol has weight and texture, which needs to be considered when removing it from a product. Silverstein said replicating the flavors of a big, bold cabernet would be hard to do.

“When you remove alcohol from wine, you remove quite a lot. You lose weight, sweetness that the palate can recognize. And you lose flavor so we work really hard to build back the flavor profiles. We work with a natural flavor compound,” said Mason with House of Saka.

All beverages in California must be made with cannabis grown in the state.

“The quality of the cannabis extraction is super important. Only certain emulsions work so you have to be careful,” Mason said.

Those is the cannabis beverage industry are working with the state to rejigger the rules including packaging, transportation and distribution.

Beverages fall in the same category as all cannabis products which are eaten, which has created hurdles the industry folks would like to abolish.

When California voters approved the legalization of recreational marijuana in 2016 cannabis infused drinks were not part of the equation. Because cannabis beverages didn’t exist at the time as a standalone sector it was thrown in with all edibles. That is coming back to bite the drink industry. Edible cannabis is anything that is a food or drink.

“We need to be decoupled from regulations that regulate edibles,” Macai Polansky, founder of the Cannabis Beverage Association, said.

At the time the regulations were created, the rules were written so packaging hid the contents, to dissuade children being attracted to cannabis-laced brownies and gummy bears.

“We need to educate policymakers that these are very safe products. While we take seriously that kids should not get into them, the rules around child-proof packaging need to be deregulated a bit,” Polansky said. The added restraints ultimately drive up the cost of the product.

Quintana, also with the CBA, said, “We will be doing a lot more legislatively this year.” He pointed out how today cannabis wine cannot use a traditional green bottle because cannabis containers must not be see through.

“I see some (changes) as lower hanging fruit than others. I hope what will change is the restriction on bottle color. That is just absurd,” Mason with House of Saka said. Their bottles are painted to conform to the rules. This adds to the final price.

California law regulates bottle color and labels on pot infused wine. (Image: House of Saka)

What is written on the packaging is also governed by the state.

“They prevent us from using any language that relates to alcohol. For instance, infused wine can’t even say non-alcoholic wine,” Polansky said. “They can’t put it comes from Napa unless they can source the cannabis from one producer. Cannabis usually is from cultivators from around the state. They can’t put that wine is in there. They have to put fermented grape juice.”

Cannabis beverages per state law must also carry an expiration date even though many would likely never grow too old to consume. That means makers face the prospect of a sales slump which leaves product in a warehouse waiting to be distributed, then expiring and becoming unsellable.

In transporting product, the rules dictate trucks are supposed to be owned and not leased. While loose leaf marijuana easily can be driven around in a van, pallets of beverages need trucks. The regulations require purchasing trucks which are not often needed on a daily basis.

“Distribution is challenging. (Cannabis beverages are) a very different economic model for distributors. What we have had to do is partner with distributors who have a forward facing view and realize beverages are the future,” Mason said.

Entrepreneurs with an idea for a new cannabis beverage but who lack one of the various licenses from the state to operate in the marijuana world are out of luck or need to partner with someone who is licensed.

For Holman with The Galley in Santa Rosa, “The biggest thing the state needs to do is put in a brand license. They don’t have a path for licensing.” At her 8,300-square-foot cannabis manufacturing and distribution facility she only works with licensed individuals or companies.

The California Department of Public Health Manufactured Cannabis Safety Branch, which regulates cannabis beverages, dodged a question regarding its opinions about changing current legislation surrounding edibles so the beverage sector could operate by rules the industry deems more appropriate.

“Members of the public are invited to voice their opinions for how the regulations can be improved by sharing their comments during meetings of the Cannabis Advisory Committee,” Corey Egel, spokesman with the state, said.

Polansky hopes if federal rules surrounding cannabis change, that cannabis drinks one day will be on store shelves everywhere.

All cannabis infused food products must be sold in a dispensary and not at a regular retail store. At the end of 2019, California had 1,440 dispensaries, according to Statista. This compares with the 28,432 stores in the state that are licensed to sell alcohol by the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control.

When California is ready to change the law it could look to Canada which in 2019 began allowing the sale of cannabis infused beverages in retail stores.

“There really should be no reason these beverages (cannot be) sold in the same cooler as alcohol in my opinion,” Polansky said. “That is a long time out, maybe 10 or 20 years to get there. Once we have the data, arguably there will be no reason cannabis shouldn’t be sold in traditional retail.”

This article first ran in the North Bay Business Journal.

Churros–The perfect dessert when out in Todos Santos

Churros are available in Todos Santos after dark. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

While there is some debate as to what country came up with the first churro recipe, there is no doubt it was the Spanish who brought them to Mexico.

If the United States is the only place you have had one of these doughy confections, don’t let that determine whether you like them. Like so many edibles, it matters where and how they are made, as well as who creates them.

In Spain churros are often eaten in the morning, much like having a doughnut for breakfast. On the streets of Todos Santos the churro makers usually don’t come out until near dusk or after dark. It’s like these people magically appear with their portable churro makers.

The batter is squeezed through a chute of sorts called a churrera. Most have a star-shaped nozzle which gives the churro the rigged lines down the length of it. The dough drops into a sizzling vat of oil. It doesn’t take long for them to crisp up on the outside and be cooked all the way through.

What makes the churros better south of the border is they are not super hard and the inside is soft. Some will be oilier than others, with the better ones not being greasy. The oil—what is used and how old it is—will also affect the final product.

It is amazing how something made from flour, water and salt can taste different and so delicious.

At a Todos Santos stand a bag of six (we got an extra one—guess he thought that would be easier to split between two) cost 40 pesos, or about $2. We passed on the option to add chocolate sauce, caramel or condensed milk. The cinnamon sugar that is added right after the churros are pulled from the oil was sweetness enough for dessert.

Truckee woman on quest to reuse beverage bottles

One-time use bottles of beer, wine and soda could be eliminated if Caren McNamara of Truckee has her way.

“We will be the first to market with a refillable bottle,” McNamara, founder and CEO of Conscious Container, said. “Refillable glass bottle when designed as one can have 15 to 25 turns. It really depends on how it is designed. The heavier the bottle the more turns it can take.”

Caren McNamara

Companies stopped reusing bottles on a large scale basis in the United States in the mid-1900s when consumer preferences changed, making recycling less attractive. Now they are rethinking that business model, knowing that reusable bottles are cost efficient.

The company is wrapping up a three-month pilot program in the North Bay. Conscious Container sold, collected and washed bottles from two brands of Anheuser-Busch beer. Each bottle was stamped “refillable” and had a QR code for tracing.

McNamara plans to open a bottle washing plant in Cloverdale in Sonoma County that likely will cost between $7 million and $10 million. Hundreds of people being paid a livable wage could be employed by Conscious Container. Right now, the company is a team of five people working in Northern California and Northern Nevada.

“We need to be in a location where we have large volumes of bottles. We need millions of bottles through the facility to be profitable,” McNamara explained. Being in the middle of California’s Wine Country ensures there will be a continuous need for bottles. Plus, there are multiple breweries in the region.

Bottles that meet the quality standards will be refilled with product and recirculated an additional time. This includes non-alcoholic beverages.

Her goal is to have an array of businesses that want to use reusable bottles be on board this year, as well as have the bottle collection infrastructure in place. Bottles from 12 ounces to 750 milliliters will be able to be washed at the future facility.

Until Conscious Container gets its wash center operating, which could be in 2022, the company intends to contract with washing plants in Washington and Montana to handle bottles recycled under the program. The company eventually plans to expand not only to other breweries but wineries.

McNamara’s focus now is on attracting capital in order to further the business. Anheuser-Busch funded the latest pilot after Conscious Container ran successful smaller programs in Reno and Truckee.

“Returnable glass is an integral part of our DNA at Anheuser-Busch InBev who currently operates the world’s largest returnable bottle supply chain. This has been going on since we began using glass bottles over 100 years ago,” Angie Slaughter, vice president of sustainability at Anheuser-Busch, said. “In 2018, we launched the 100+ Accelerator program to invest in and grow startups that solve our most pressing sustainability challenges. Over the past two years, we have accelerated 36 startups across 15 different countries. During the nine-month program, we provide mentorship, training and, most importantly, up to $100,000 to pilot within our supply chain to prove the viability of their solution.”

Anheuser-Busch reuses bottles in Mexico, Canada, Europe, Brazil and South Africa. Other companies, like Coca-Cola and Pepsi, also are refilling bottles in other countries. However, it is no longer a popular concept in the United States. Anheuser-Busch said it discounted its reusable bottle program in the United States in the 1900s and then again in the early 2000s.

According to the EPA, three-quarters of glass bottles purchased in the United States are not reused in any manner, including being recycled. In 2018, 7.6 million tons of glass containers ended up in a landfill.

“It is our hope that by kicking off this partnership with Conscious Container, we can take the next step in addressing the issue of glass in landfills,” Slaughter said. “Our goal is to have 100% of our packaging to be made from majority recycled content or to be returnable by 2025.”

Bottles may be reused in the near future instead of being recycled or ending up in a landfill. (Image: Provided)

McNamara knows her vision is not revolutionary; that reusing bottles is happening other places in the world. She wants it to become the norm again in the United States, and even hopes Conscious Container would become the model for others.

“The infrastructure it the challenge. That is the problem Conscious Container is solving,” the 60-year-old entrepreneur said. “Our business model reflects we can do that profitably and it is scalable because there are multiple infrastructures we can tap into.”

McNamara says when a system like Conscious Container is fully operational, the carbon footprint for a bottle can be reduced by 95%. “Thirty percent of carbon dioxide in one bottle is just in the container alone,” she said. Once the business is fully operational, greenhouse gases will be tracked.

Tiny passion fruit packed with flavor, nutrients

Passion fruit grows on vines throughout Baja California Sur. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

The worse it looks the better it tastes. That isn’t usually a strong endorsement for trying something new.

I wasn’t sure what to make of the yellow orbs at first. But Jill had yet to steer me wrong with expanding my culinary knowledge so I accepted a few. It wasn’t long before I was excited to see a few left outside the casita for me. When a neighbor in Todos Santos dropped off a bag full and I wasn’t shy about making known I’d like some.

Passion fruit is wonderful. It’s amazing how few it takes to have such big flavor. It’s sweet and a bit tart at the same time.

Some are about the size of a golf ball; none have been bigger than a baseball. Most have been yellow, with a few having a purple color on the outside. The best are when they start to shrivel a bit. That’s when it’s time to cut them in half to scoop out the flesh and seeds inside.

I have had passion fruit with yogurt, with yogurt and granola, in a smoothie, and a margarita. Jill mixes them with mangos for an exceptional jam. I’ve used that jam as a topping on vanilla ice cream.

All the ones she has provided me have come from the neighborhood, not a store.

Besides being so incredibly yummy, passion fruit get high marks for nutritional value. A single fruit has about 17 calories, 2 grams of fiber, 9 percent of the daily recommend vitamin C, and 5 percent for vitamin A.

Passion fruit is grown in the tropics and subtropics. It’s also known as granadilla, maracuya, parcha and liliko’i. In Baja they often go by granada China, while on the mainland it’s maracua.

Hierbabuena farm to table restaurant losing its flavor

Hierbabuena garden at the front of the restaurant. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

Walking through the garden one hopes that what comes out of the kitchen will be as fresh as any meal can be.

The farm to table concept is one I’ve always enjoy, though this can happen without a garden on site. It’s all about where the ingredients are sourced.

The limited size of the garden means much of the produce that Hierbabuena restaurant in Pescadero uses comes from elsewhere. How much of what is grown on site is used in the kitchen compared to how much comes from the surrounding community or beyond isn’t something owner Marcos Ramirez would answer. Nor would he say where the meats come from.

Consistency in the quality of food and service can make or break a restaurant. The service at Hierbabuena has always been spot on, even when I was last there in January. The food, well, it was not as good as it once was. And that’s not just my opinion, but a shared consensus from a few others who have eaten there in the last few months.

The house salad at Hierbabuena. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

One of the problems is the menu has not changed in the three years I have been going there. It doesn’t even change seasonally. This means the chef is not always using ingredients that are in season. Ramirez didn’t want to address that issue either.

“We most value the principles of my mom’s generation. Uncomplicated, fresh, healthy eating from the source without processing and manipulation. We look to traditional recipes as the basis for our dishes. Our kitchen strives to represent our region, tradition, and freshness,” Ramirez said.

Those are good goals, but they aren’t being achieved.

Ramirez opened the restaurant in July 2013.

“We are true believers in that we are what we eat. Our motto is ‘grow it, plate it, eat it.’ Without manipulation, we encourage the freshness and flavors of our garden to shine through. The simple preparation of our produce, along with regional and traditional products allows our food to portray its own flavor,” Ramirez said.

The restaurant is open and airy, making it safe during a pandemic. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

The house salad (mixed lettuces, avocado, radish, pumpkin seeds, red onion, blue cheese and mustard dressing (180 pesos or $9) was good, but nothing sensational. An exceptional salad is one that tastes better than anything I can make. Plenty exist, trust me.

We each had the ravioli (roasted carrot and local ricotta with basil pesto sauce—360 pesos or $18). The carrots in Baja Sur have so much flavor it’s like they are candy. This did not come through in the ravioli. Plus, it wasn’t cooked all the way through so the cheese had not melted. The pesto was average at best.

This is one of the pricier restaurants I’ve been to in Baja Sur—especially for lunch. I seldom spend that much. I won’t again. Too many other good places to go.

Mexico grows the world’s most popular fruit

More bananas are eaten in the world than any other fruit. While commercial production is a big deal, most are grown for local consumption.

It can take a year before it’s time to remove the peel and ingest what’s inside. Commercial enterprises might start production at nine months.

Bananas typically grow in hot, tropical climates—which includes areas of Mexico. About 150 countries grow this fruit, with Southeast Asia being where they were first discovered. Today, more than half of the bananas in the world are grown in India, Ecuador, Brazil and China.

It’s not uncommon for people to have banana trees in their yards in Baja California Sur. Often the ones in Todos Santos are smaller than the commercially produced ones found in a grocery store. They are more firm and sweeter, and ready to eat even when the peel is green.

Bananas being grown at a home in Todos Santos. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

The difference is because there more than 1,000 types of bananas in the world. Mexico primarily is home to these varieties: Dominico, Valery, Pera, Tabasco, Morado, Manzano, Cavendish Gigante, and Macho.

While it looks like bananas are trees, they aren’t. They are perennial herbs that are related to lilies and orchids. They grow from a bulb or rhizome, not a seed. It would be hard to know this just by looking at them. Some of these non-trees can be nearly 50 feet tall.

The leaves are distinguishable and often hide the actual fruit that might be growing closer to the trunk. These green leaves can be nearly 9 feet long and 2 feet wide.

Multiple bunches grow on top of each other, which means individual homeowners will have a ton of bananas getting ripe at one time.

The large production areas are on the mainland in the states of Chiapas, Tabasco and Veracruz. Combined they represent more than 60 percent of Mexico’s banana crop. They are exported to 43 countries, including the United States.

In Mexico in 2020, the average price for a kilo of bananas was 84 cents, while in the U.S. it was $1.03, according to Global Product Prices. One kilogram equals 2.2 pounds.

“Exports of bananas from Mexico have annually increased between 2012 and 2018, amounting to 270 million U.S. dollars in the latter year. This is more than double the export value reported in 2012. Production of bananas in Mexico  reached 2.24 million metric tons in 2018,” according to Statista.

Damiana — a Mexican liqueur that doubles as an aphrodisiac

Sometimes it’s a good idea to say yes even if you have never tasted what is being offered. How else will you know if you like it or not?

Such was the case when the waiter at San Toro in Todos Santos explained what damiana was. The menu had a few margaritas, with one having this liqueur in it. Neither my niece nor I had heard of it. We took the “just yes” approach and were happy with our decision.

Damiana is a Mexican liqueur that supposedly acts as an aphrodisiac. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

Of course it cost more, but it was worth it. This is in contrast to when I’ve had margaritas in the States with grand marnier. I’ve never been impressed with a grand marnier float or mixed in. Perhaps this is because it is an orange liqueur just like the Cointreau I use when making a margarita. It’s really a waste of money.

Damiana is sweet, but also somewhat earthy. It’s worth the extra pesos.

It can easily be a substitute for simple syrup in margaritas because sugarcane is part of the final product.

Fortunately for me, Veronica had a partial bottle to dispose of when she headed back to the States. I was able to try it other ways at her expense, so to speak. I then had to get my own bottle.

This amber liqueur was discovered by the Guaycura Indians in Mexico. They used it for religious ceremonies.

While more than one company makes damiana, the largest Mexico producer puts it in a unique bottle. It is called Guaycura Licor de Damiana. The bottle looks a bit like a pregnant woman and resembles the Inca god of fertility.

This makes sense because the damiana plant is considered an aphrodisiac. It also is said to relieve stress, insomnia, and aches and pains.

The plant with bright yellow flowers grows in Baja California Sur and other subtropical locales like Central and South America, the Caribbean and southern Texas.

I’ve had damiana in hot chocolate, neat, in a margarita made with tequila and one made with mezcal. All are terrific, but the cocoa was my favorite because of a distinct cinnamon taste that I didn’t get having the other ways. The dried leaves of the plant can also be brewed into a tea.

Earthiness of mezcal takes some getting used to

Shot glasses and bottles lined up for a private mezcal tasting in Todos Santos. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

Smooth, herbal and botanical.

I struggled to understand the description in relation to what I was tasting. Veronica’s palate is much more sophisticated than mine when it comes to mezcal. I’m a newbie, she is more seasoned.

As the student, I listened and learned as my niece educated me about this liquor native to Mexico. She brought several bottles from the mainland to Todos Santos and had more shipped to a mezcaleria in La Paz. We had to sample some while we were in La Paz, tasted even more at El Refugio in Todos Santos, and had a private session at her parents’ home in Baja Sur.

While Mexico is known for tequila, mezcal is also extracted from the agave plant. Its smoky flavor is a dead giveaway this is not tequila.

But there is much more than flavor that distinguishes these two liquors. Tequila is actually a type of mezcal. It can only be made with blue agave. Of the more than 200 types of agave, about 60 can be used for mezcal. Tequila is produced by steaming the plant, while mezcal is derived by placing the plant in earthen pits and essentially roasting it.

Darissa at La Miserable in La Paz talks mezcal. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

Mezcal has been around for hundreds of years, with natives making it long before the Spanish conquered the country. Even now much of it is handcrafted in small batches.

“To fulfill the growing local and international demand, Mexico’s mezcal production has increased from 1.45 million liters in 2014 to more than 5 million liters in 2018, with an average growth rate of almost 38 percent per year,” according to Statista. “The most produced category is ‘mezcal artesanal’, making up 92 percent of the drink’s production volume. Artisanal mezcal is produced through different traditional methods and its manufacture processes depend on its region of origin.”

It’s not just people in Mexico drinking mezcal. There are 240 brands that are exported. Those exports are growing, with 2.8 million liters leaving the country in 2017, with it increasing to 3.42 million liters in 2018. Most of it—nearly two-thirds—goes to the United States.

Mezcal is often sipped, though it can be used to make a margarita and presumably other drinks. A small slice of orange is often eaten during a tasting to cleanse the palate.

El Refugio has regular mezcal tastings at the Todos Santos restaurant. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

At El Refugio restaurant we paid 750 pesos or about $35 to taste seven mezcals. They were either from Oaxaca or Guerrero. The former is the main state where mezcal is made.

Espadín is one of the entry level mezcals; and one of the more popular varietals. It wasn’t for me. Too stringent. I wanted something smoother, more approachable. I can see, though, why espadín would be good in cocktails. You want to save the good stuff for sipping.

Rachel Glueck with husband Noel Morales owns El Refugio. She leads the tastings, gives a bit of history about them, and explains what people are tasting. At their restaurant she said La Rosa’s papalote mezcal is the most popular. “She makes it with women in mind,” Glueck says. I don’t know what this means, but I like the sentiment and the flavor.

Glueck finds the Oaxacan mezcals to be leaner and the Guerrero ones more full bodied.

Veronica and I tasted four mezcals at La Miserable in La Paz. We were both taken by Mezcaloteca’s bicuixe. So much so we decided to buy a bottle to split before asking how much it cost. We were both shocked that it is about $100—that’s U.S. I don’t spend that much on wine; a beverage I regularly consume. What the heck we both say, and out came our credit cards. After all, the contents would last a lot longer than any wine bottle.

It’s later at our private tasting where I imbibe mezcal from La Fiera. Oddly, this vegetarian liked the pechuga best; even more so than the expensive bottle. Pechuga translates to breast. This is because a raw chicken (sometimes a turkey) is involved in the process.

While I’m sure mezcal won’t be my go-to drink of choice any time soon, I’m still interested in trying more, learning more and hoping one day to see the making of mezcal in person on the mainland.

Mexican pozole soup dances on taste buds with robust flavor

Pozole is a traditional Mexican dish that has been served for centuries. (Image: Veronica Wong)

Food is one of the most important ways for us to connect with others—be it those we know or strangers.

Travel the world and food will be a common denominator. We all need it for sustenance, but it’s so much more than nourishment. Food can tell a story about the people, the region, the land, even the history of an area. Perhaps more important, with that shared meal comes shared memories.

Food easily touches on all the senses—sight, smell, taste, touch, and hearing. Hearing can be the slurping, chopping, popping of a cork—even the conversation.

Pozole is one of those traditional Mexican dishes that brings people together. The origins are not well defined, but history proves the natives were making this concoction long before the Spanish arrived in the 1500s.

While pozole traditionally has chicken or pork, those can be left out or mushrooms substituted to satisfy vegetarians. A green pozole usually will have tomatillos, the herbs epazote and cilantro, and jalapenos, while a red pozole uses guajillo, piquin or ancho peppers. The verde version is more popular with chicken.

Verde pozoles traditionally come with chicken. (Image: Veronica Wong)

When Los Consuelos was open in Todos Santos (it closed in March 2020 because of COVID and has not reopened) the pozole presentation was outstanding. The bowl was full of meat, shredded cabbage, sliced radish, and slivers of avocado. Then at the table the broth was poured over this ensemble. The diner had assorted condiments to choose from like onions and more spices.

At El Refugio in Todos Santos pozole is served more traditionally with the broth in the bowl when it is brought to the table.

Los Consuelos’ version was more like a stew compared to El Refugio being more like a soup. The difference being soups have more broth.

What all pozoles have is hominy. These large corn kernels have been soaked in a mineral bath to remove the husk. This isn’t sweet corn, but instead is field maize that is used to make flour and cereals. It’s chewy, with almost a rubbery texture. Today hominy is available in cans at grocery stores, which eliminates a lot of the work for this dish.

While it is a soup, it is so much more. For those making it, there are many moving parts. Best to have at least one sous chef to help with all the knife work. For those with spoons in hand, the dish can be personalized depending on how the condiments are served and how many are offered.

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