It all started on a trip.
While Lars was on holiday in Oaxaca, he wandered through the Central de Abastos Market and was soon compelled by the smoky, savory, and yet fruity aromas of a particular chili called Pasilla Mixe. As any person would, he bought two suitcases and brought 35 kgs back to Copenhagen.
We started working with the chili and its many layers of flavor. We were hooked and needed more. What ensued was an adventure in finding our way back to the chili.
Needless to say, one suitcase was not enough. Our sourcing magician Yunus was given the mission to find the Pasilla Lars tasted. After trialing many samples and banging our heads against the wall, we realized that the only way for us to find it was to go back to Oaxaca.
The Pasilla Mixe chili is native to the Eastern part of the Sierra Norte region of Oaxaca, Mexico. It is grown in the rugged mountains of the Sierra Mixe region at an altitude of around 2000 meters above sea level and higher.
The Mixe people, called ‘Ayuukjä'äy’ in their language, have been painstakingly growing the chili for centuries. Unfortunately, the tradition is slowly dying out. Middlemen, referred to as coyotes, press the price so low that the farmers often struggle to make an income from the chili that matches the hard work involved. Incomes are supplemented by growing other crops, like coffee beans.
After being introduced to 7 families in Santa Maria Huitepec and Santa Maria Alotepec, we started working hand in hand with them. Paying for this incredible chili at its fair value, recompensing the arduous work of the Mixe people was for us the least we could do. We soon broadened our network to include families in the neighboring villages of Loma Esperanza and San Pedro Totolapa
What started in 2019 as a 7 family project in two villages soon turned into a 73-family affair across 4 municipalities.
Growing Pasilla Mixe
The communities in the region work the land as their families always have. They do not use chemical fertilizers or pesticides but instead use crop rotation principles to maintain the fertility of the land.
Before each growing season, a plot of land on the rugged mountainside is cleared by hand of other plants and prepared for the new chili plants.
Seedlings for the chili plants are grown in the spring some hundred meters below the fields, where the lower altitudes allow for a warmer climate that soothes the young plants. When they are ready for replanting, they are carried further up the mountain. A plant will carry 6 to 7 chilis, some will even develop up to 15 fruits, all packing incredible flavors.
The chilis grow for approximately two months. Starting green, they will gradually take on a bright red color, darkening as they reach maturity. While they are harvested by hand in June in Huitepec, they are not fully ripe until September in San Pedro Totolapa. After the mature fruits are harvested, the farmers select the seeds of the best peppers and save them for the next year.
The chilis are smoked shortly after harvest with local hardwood wood in either homemade jerry-rigged ovens or communal furnaces to preserve them. Turning and removing the chilis by hand, each family spends day and night by the ovens for weeks until all the chilis have been smoked.
When ready, they turn into a rich, almost black, red color, imparting the incredible smoky, slightly meaty and leathery notes found in Ayuuk.
Although our first trials leading to Ayuuk featured barley kōji, its floral and umami nuances were quickly overpowered by the fragrant Pasilla Mixe chili. We, therefore, changed the grain bill to better support and highlight the many layers of the botanical. We settled for organic Danish purple wheat. First domesticated in Ethiopia, purple wheat is now a heritage crop in Denmark. The earthy and somehow toasty notes of the grain complement and provide a structure for the red fruit and firewood smoke flavors of the Pasilla Mixe chili.
Although used in small amounts, purple wheat brings further depth to our Pilsner malt, a key ingredient in pale lager beers contributing clean and nutty notes to our base.
Mashing is the first step in the brewing process for our spirits and cans. In a custom-built wet hammer mill that’s on a loop with our mash tun, the grains are ground with water and heated to fully convert the starches into fermentable sugars. When done, the wort (sugary liquid) must be separated from the undissolved materials.
To make our wash for Ayuuk, we mash our Pilsner malt (85%) and purple wheat (15%) together. Once our wort is filtered, Belgian Saison yeast is pitched in for fermentation. This strain bestows estery, fruity notes, and farmyard aromas to our wash. Our wort is transferred into tanks where It is top-fermented at 26 Celsius. If we hit it just right, the wash reaches 10% abv after a week, ready to be distilled.
Traditional distillation techniques rely on heat, which can kill off flavor. Instead, we vacuum distill our spirits in order to preserve the fresh flavor and aroma compounds of the botanicals.
Vacuum distillation works with a pump that pulls the atmosphere out of the distillation vessel, lowering the pressure so that ethanol begins to boil and evaporate as low as 9°C,
After distilling our wash twice at an average temperature of 30°C, we have what we call a “low wine”, which is around 60% ABV. We transfer it into stainless steel barrels and start our maceration process.
We grind the full chilis to be macerated for about two days in our low wine. The mix is then distilled again, starting as low as 10°C.
Instead of taking the regular four cuts throughout the distillation process, we take on average 150 cuts that we then taste individually. It helps shatter the flavor of the botanicals into shards we can later blend, each bringing their own nuances.
Once our selected cuts are blended, we end up with a 65% ABV. We reduce the spirit to 43% ABV with reverse osmosis water for optimum flavor expression.
Ayuuk is rested in Oloroso Sherry casks to round the spirit off. Originally used to rest our Charlene McGee, they now bring subtle sweetness to Ayuuk. Since each cask has different aromas and age, the blend rests as short as a few days in some and up to three weeks in others, lending further depth and slightly oxidative notes of Oloroso sherry.