Andean Spirits Finds Family and a Calling in the Mountains of Ecuador

Agave, alpacas, and a love story

Master distiller Elizabeth Guagrilla (Photo by Evan Marcus)

Eliot Logan-Hines was born and raised in Austin, but he found his love and livelihood in the mountains of Ecuador. High up in the Andes, he met his husband, Robin Grefa, and discovered an agave-based spirit that inspired him to found Andean Spirits. They also adopted a herd (or two) of alpacas.

Chawar, made by Andean Spirits, is a small-batch agave spirit from the highlands of Ecuador. Logan-Hines works with indigenous Ecuadorian women, including master distiller Elizabeth Guagrilla, to produce the agave spirit at Ecuador's first all-women's agave harvesting co-op, Mishkita. The women of Mishkita maintain the ancestral tradition of harvesting agave sap. Grefa, a builder and architect, built out the distillery and designed the plans for the next one. He is Amazonian Kichwa – “a very different culture than the highland Kichwas of the agave producers,” explained Logan-Hines – and occasionally he helps bridge language gaps, translating English into Kichwa.

Guagrilla was an elementary school teacher before learning the art of distillery alongside Logan-Hines and the others. A mother of two, Guagrilla lives across the street from the distillery, so her kids come to the distillery after school and her mom tends to the agave garden and cares for the alpacas. “It’s more of a family business,” said Logan-Hines.

Photo by Evan Marcus

If you’re wondering how Chawar differs from fellow agave-based spirits, tequila and mezcal, Chawar is made by fermenting and distilling the raw sap of Agave americana. He explained, “Where tequila is roasted and mezcal is smoked, Chawar is made from the raw sap. It’s not smokey. It’s very floral, slightly sweet, clean, and easy to drink.” As for the names of both the co-op and the spirit: “In Kichwa or Quechua, Chawar comes from the word ‘chawarmishki’ meaning sweet raw. Chawar = raw; mishki = sweet. ‘Chawarmishki’ is what they call the raw sap of Agave americana.”

Logan-Hines recommends “starting off with tasting our Chawar Blanco neat so you can appreciate the uniqueness of this agave and process. Our Reposado and Añejo are more for the whiskey lovers. And our ‘Reserva Cotopaxi’ is a very special Blanco from the slopes of the Cotopaxi volcano, the world’s largest active volcano.”

Logan-Hines earned his masters in environmental management from Yale University, in addition to other prestigious studies in physics and environmental philosophy. He said, “I am an environmentalist who was turned onto environmental issues as a kid going to Barton Springs, hiking the greenbelt, and learning about SOS and how development was destroying my favorite creek in the world. I made a pact with my best friend when we were 7 that we would save the rainforest. I started working with coffee farmers in Costa Rica on reforestation projects, got a full ride scholarship to Yale to study forestry and conservation.”

“I have lived in Ecuador for the past 12 years, and I got really turned onto a new-ish idea of conservation. Instead of making protected areas and national parks, what if we could learn from ancient, indigenous ways of managing ecosystems and create a market that would sustain these old traditions,” he said. “With that idea, I got a grant from the MacArthur Foundation to start Chawar.”

On his journey seeking information aimed at improving the relationship between humans and the earth, Eliot Logan-Hines met Robin Grefa, his now-husband. After beginning their lives together there in Ecuador, he began to learn and work with indigenous communities high in the Andes Mountains, who, said Logan-Hines, “maintain an amazing relationship with their arid landscape and one plant in particular, andean agave.”

You’ve seen the main ingredient of Chawar all over Austin: Sometimes called the Century Plant, it’s the big blueish-silver agaves that pepper our landscape. The most prolific of all agave species, its natural growing range goes from California to Argentina, and it grows up to 15 years. Logan-Hines noted that “in Mexico, it is known as agave pulquero that is used to make ‘pulque,’ a similar process to ‘chawarmishki.’” At maturity, the sap is harvested by tapping into the base of the plant; then it’s left to ferment naturally with wild yeast before being double-distilled. Chawar is made in Yaruqui, a small pueblo just outside Quito (Ecuador's capital).

“While it grows all over North and South America, its ancestral use and cultural importance is mostly limited to Mexico and Ecuador,” he explained. “In Ecuador, it is mostly wild or semi-wild harvested for now. We are working with the Mishkita co-op to plant agaves on their land for the future. We have done the initial work on a population census of agaves in Ecuador. The plant is incredibly prolific. There is no risk that it will go endangered. The main challenge to scaling is more an issue of property rights, who owns the right to harvest the wild plants high up in the mountains where property rights are less certain.”

A true environmentalist, Logan-Hines added that the larger picture of Chawar includes alternative land use because agaves are part of the native agro-ecosystem, thriving in the cold, arid edges of deserts in the Andes. He said that while the largest agricultural exports of the region are ornamental flowers, the logistics of greenhouse growing and overnight flower transportation from Quito to New York City are environmentally harmful, replacing and altering the native agro-ecosystem and polluting the water.

“The women of the Mishkita co-op quit their jobs at the greenhouses to go back to harvesting agave,” added Logan-Hines. “If we can scale, as I believe we can, we are going to create an incentive to go back to climate-appropriate agriculture that comes from the ancient tradition of taking care of the land and its bounty.”

Adding to this story already brimming with wonder, when Logan-Hines and Grefa married, they “started a herd of alpacas instead of a family.” They have herds of the wonderfully strange animals in New Mexico and Ecuador, and for the second year in a row, they brought “a couple of our alpacas down to Austin for the winter in what we call the second annual ‘Rio Grande Alpaca Drive,’ driving them down the Rio Grande from Taos to Austin throwing alpaca parties along the way in the desert (Marfa, Terlingua, El Paso, etc).”

How to get your hands on some Chawar, you wonder? In addition to being added to the roster at several local bars, Chawar occasionally hosts tastings around town at liquor stores where it’s is sold: The Austin Shaker, King Liquor on Burnet, Wiggy’s, Travis Heights Wine and Spirits, Monarch Liquor on MLK, Old School on William Cannon, and AB Liquor on Anderson.

Lucky for us, their current voyage includes a stop in town this weekend. Tailgating with alpacas and agave might just be a salve for our winter blues, Austin.

Chawar is hosting an alpaca and Chawar sampling party at Cuba512 in South Austin on Friday, February 10, 7pm. And on Sunday, February 12, 1-4pm – before the Super Bowl – they’ll be tailgating with the alpacas at Noah Marion's on South Congress. Find out more on their website and instagram page.

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Chawar, Eliot Logan-Hines, Andean Spirits, Elizabeth Guagrilla, Mishkita co-op

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