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Posts from the ‘Agave’ Category

Moreno’s Liquors demonstrate mezcal’s deep roots in Chicago

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A post from our Chicago partner Lou Bank, who we first met in Oaxaca over mezcal, of course. Together we are bringing Mezcal: Mexico in a Bottle to Chicago for the first time this September 18th, 2016. Get your tickets today!

Chicagoans have seen a relative boom in mezcal recently, with agave-centric bars joining standard-bearers like Frontera, Masa Azul, and Dove’s. But the seeds for all of them were planted four decades ago, in the 1970s, when Mike Moreno had a vision for a store that brought Mexican and Latin American beers, wines, and spirits to the people of Chicago’s Little Village neighborhood. “I wanted to bring our culture to our community,” he explains.

La Preferida had $127,000 in Mexican beers that they could not sell,” said the soft-spoken entrepreneur. “When I told them I wanted some of it for a store that would cater to the people living in Little Village, they did not think it would work. But it wasn’t long before I had purchased all of that beer from them.” Read more

Mezcal 101

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Long time readers of this blog will be forgiven for their dismay because they are always asking us to lead Mezcal 501 seminars but we’re going back to the basics exactly because we also hear from many people new to the joys of mezcal and we decided it would be best to proceed in a deliberate and linear manner. For once, at least. Plus, we’re getting awfully tired of reading these ill informed “tequila’s smoky” cousin articles Read more

Mexico in a Bottle, NYC Style

Check out our wrap up of our first Mexico in a Bottle outside of San Francisco. There is just one way to sum it up – beyond swell. We landed Friday night and hit the ground running, with our first stop at the Spotted Pig – a cold beer, a pigs ear salad and chicken liver toast. Fortification for the night ahead, which began and ended at Cosme. Because really, what more do you need than that? Edgar Morales was behind the bar and did us right with some pretty tasty cocktails. We then moved on to a couple of lovely copitas of mezcal (bartender surprise!) and toasted the night with James Beard Foundation Rising Star Chef Daniela Soto-Innes, who won my heart as she played DJ and couldn’t decide between Janet Jackson and Nick Cave. Read more

Penca

Pencase before their removal.

Pencas before their removal.

Penca literally means leaf or “fleshy leaf of an agave or cactus.” In the Mexican world the meaning is obvious and literal. The leaves of the agave that have to be sheared off before you get to the piña.

Freshly shorn, a piña emerges from its pencas.

Freshly shorn, a piña emerges from its pencas.

Like all things in the Mexican universe a penca is never just a penca. It doesn’t just get cut off the piña, lie inert and decompose. No, once shorn it becomes integrated into a wide web of functions including decomposing in a pile. Read more

Three things you really need to know about NOM 199 and the word Komil

An example of current wording on a label of an agave distillate in the DO but not certified. Under 199, the only thing that could be said is Komil.

An example of current wording on a label of an agave distillate in the DO but not certified. Under 199, the only thing that could be said is Komil.

With all that’s being written about NOM 199, and there is a lot to write about, we wanted to drill down into the whole issue of the word Komil and exactly who will have to use it if the proposal is adopted.

Wading through the legalese is not easy. Key language is deliberately buried in this sweeping proposal. In order to make it super clear and easy, here is a breakdown of who gets to use what words: Read more

The NOM 199 surprise

There’s nothing quite like an unexpected news dump on Thanksgiving that took more than a couple of days to bubble up into the public view.

David Suro first flagged the release of heretofore unheard of NOM 199 which seems to be some sort of bastard child of the failed NOM 186. Clayton Szczech, who has done great work covering the evolution of the NOM in Mexico, has a great synopsis and preliminary thoughts of the document and implications for mezcal: Read more

The sustainability series: cultivating wild maguey

Several years ago, when doing some background on Mezcal Vago, I heard about a grand, wild agave cultivation project happening somewhere in Sola de Vega, a region known for its tobala. I knew there had been success with cultivating tobala, and that there were projects underway to try and cultivate madrecuishe and a few others. What I didn’t know was that the guy doing this grand project in Sola de Vega was pretty much THE guy for agave cultivation projects – Luis Mendez. I decided that at the next opportunity, I would visit him and learn more.

Luis Mendez looks nothing like I had pictured. His reputation as maestro mezcal turned wild maguey savior had me imagining age which is the complete opposite of the vibrant and handsome man en vivo. I love these pleasant surprises.

His house sits just beyond and above the town of Sola de Vega, off the highway to Puerto Escondido. The yard is filled with wild agave starts in various stages of growth. According to Mendez, there are about 20 different wild maguey varieties native to the Sola de Vega region and he is experimenting with all of them.
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Upon arrival, he walked us through the garden, pointing out the sierra negras, coyotes, tepestates, mexicanos, arroqueños, and barrils, to name just a few. While he continued to talk about all the varieties and time necessary to grow them his voice passed into background noise because I couldn’t stop staring at a giant quiote whose weight was so great it had fallen over and was being held up by a ladder, the blue sky and clouds above and the mountains in the distant. It is so breathtaking.

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“If only more people would let just one plant bloom, we would go a long way toward solving the crisis,” I hear Mendez say.

 

As Max has written previously, there are three ways for maguey to reproduce– hijuelos, seed and bulbils. Seeds provide the greatest genetic diversity, but are the most difficult, inconsistent, and time consuming way to grow maguey. The quiote I have been staring at with its beautiful branches of flor de agave waving against the sky, has enough seeds to produce up to 1,000 agaves. This is what Mendez is talking about.

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Demand for silvestre mezcal has put a lot of pressure on natural resources; without strict rules and regulations for harvesting these wild magueys, it is a free for all. Add to that the continued monoculturing of espadin, and you have ripe conditions for a maguey crisis. In the rush to “supply the beast,” and to supply the tequila industry which uses green Oaxacan maguey as accelerants in tequila production, demand could soon outstrip the supply of available and mature maguey for mezcal production. But this is anecdotal at this point because no one is really tracking the total number of maguey currently being grown; yet another area where some form of regulation might help.

After walking through the garden, we headed to the covered terrace to escape the heat and talk some more about Mendez’s work. Originally from the Sierra Norte, Mendez settled in Sola de Vega after working on public works projects focused on water  into  the area. He fell in love with both mezcal and a woman and eventually switched over to the mezcal industry. His title as a Maestro Mezcalero (a term that was developed more for marketing purposes as the industry began to grow) is a bit misleading as Mendez himself does not make the mezcal, he oversees the process. He has worked with several brands over the years including Alto Cielo, Piquetezina, La Piquería, and the most well known, Siete Misterios. All along his true love has been cultivating maguey, especially the so-called wild varieties. He first began experimenting with tobala in 1996. The complexity and diversity of the maguey amazed him, soon thereafter one thing led to another and he began experimenting with other varieties. His project may be the largest in Oaxaca. He is planting about 3,000 maguey each year.

So what does he do with all this maguey? He sells starts to other farmer/producers, supplies mezcaleros with the magueys that mature on his property, and is working with government agencies to plant his starts along the highways. Not only do maguey make for good windbreaks, they also control erosion, are beautiful to look at, and maintain true biodiversity through wild pollinated quiotes.

And of course he is using the maguey to produce his own label La Solteca (a nickname for people from Sola de Vega). We try a couple of different types as we enjoy a leisurely lunch getting to know one another. The great question people have is whether this sort of cultivation of wild maguey will change the flavor. This remains to be seen as more mezcals are made from cultivated varieties. But it seems clear that these types of projects are necessary to preserve maguey. And frankly, his mezcal is delicious.

“You have so much government money going toward the end process. There are these mezcal “kits” that people can get that include fermentation tanks and stills, underwritten by the government. You have support for bottling and rudimentary marketing support to help attract buyers and distributors,” Mendez says. “But what you don’t have is money going into the actual production of maguey, most particularly of wild maguey. Where will the industry be without maguey?”

Other cultivation projects exist, but communication and sharing of information is difficult, particularly in rural Oaxaca. And with no central, organizing body, there is reinvention of the wheel.

Mendez eventually pulls out a logbook of visitors over the past few years. There are names I recognize, a who’s who of other brand owners, mixologists, and some brand ambassadors. In addition to all of his other traits, Mendez is a great storyteller with a marvelous sense of humor. He has one of those voices that simultaneously draws you in and completely relaxes your guard. He soon has us in stitches with completely inappropriate tales of too much mezcal, nudity, and the always present next day. He shows us how to properly smell a mezcal – dab a bit on that space between your thumb and forefinger, wave your hand over it to help dry it a bit and then smell. This leads to another story of Ulises Torrentera identifying specific mezcals and regions using this method, with a punchline that gives whole new meaning to the phrase “scent of a woman.” I will not repeat these stories because I hope one day he publishes them; plus, I cannot do them justice.

I of course have to ask Mendez what his dream is for his maguey project. He is a big thinker and a visionary.

“The maguey is so incredibly beautiful and symbolic of who we are as a culture. We can’t let it die. It is life and we have to save it and revive it and use to paint our landscapes and exploit its properties for pharmaceutical and food and nutritional purposes. And we have to drink it.”

On sustainability

Sustainable: adjective

1.capable of being supported or upheld, as by having its weight borne from below.

2.pertaining to a system that maintains its own viability by using techniques that allow for continual reuse: sustainable agriculture. Aquaculture is a sustainable alternative tooverfishing.

3.able to be maintained or kept going, as an action or process: a sustainable negotiation between the two countries.

4.able to be confirmed or upheld: a sustainable decision.

5.able to be supported as with the basic necessities or sufficient funds: a sustainable life.

Synonyms

defendable, defensible, justifiable, maintainable, supportable, tenable

 

So it says when you do a basic search on dictionary.com. Merriam-Webster breaks it down even more simply:

: able to be used without being completely used up or destroyed

: involving methods that do not completely use up or destroy natural resources

: able to last or continue for a long time

I looked this up the other day because given how much the word sustainable is being thrown about, I needed to double check what it actually means. Having worked in the world of sustainable agriculture and food since 2007, this is a word that is near and dear to my heart. To see it becoming as meaningless as natural or artisanal, makes me want to scream until every window is shattered within a two mile radius.  

Of course it’s not surprising  given the reality of the market we live in where nearly everything is commodified and relabeled as artisanal (Round Table Pizza?) because that’s the only way to distinguish it from other commodities. In the spirits world what distinguishes one whiskey from another? We love to champion individuality and distinctiveness in all things, especially food, wine, beer, and spirits. It’s practically cultish. But really, most of those things aren’t very individual, few represent or maintain an actual tie to the tradition that they lay claim to, even fewer are actually produced in a traditional manner. That costs too much, it’s difficult to export, it even tastes different. Because here is the dirty little secret that we rarely want to talk about – true craft or artisanal production really really really doesn’t scale – that’s the whole point.

While in Oaxaca in July, I traveled with reporter Grace Rubenstein, researching the subject of women in mezcal and sustainable maguey production. She has a great profile piece here in Craftsmanship Magazine on the subject which I highly recommend. When talking to people about the industry, we asked them to identify the top three things most important in the mezcal world: The common themes were – production (both the growing of maguey and the process of making mezcal), management of silvestres, and how palenqueros are paid. But to really understand what’s happening, a conversation I had with Ulises Torrentera goes to the heart of what is happening.

In a nutshell, this is the situation that Ulises and I discussed.

What you have enveloping the industry now are entities with money who live outside of the areas where mezcal is produced, contracting with people to find mezcal to buy, to bottle and brand and sell outside the area where it is produced. Often the owner of the brand has never met their producer, or actually researched how the mezcaleros are making mezcal, let alone where the maguey is coming from nor how it is being grown. The mezcal is a commodity which puts the  consumer so far from the process and origin of what’s in a bottle that it is possible to say anything while marketing the final product.

There is no transparency no matter how clear the substance of the bottle. And this is where Ulises became truly passionate – the system that produces that bottle has so many different levels of people and processes involved from growing the maguey, to the production, to the shipping, and finally to the market that by the time you get that bottle into your hands no one knows anything about it. We’ve seen what this has meant for our food supply: It was industrialized to the point of anonymity which inspired the backlash and the success of the Eat Local and Know your Food, Know Your Farmer  campaigns.

This is exactly why people love farmers’ markets and why wine tasting is such a big thing in the US and, increasingly, the rest of the industrialized world. It’s the reassertion of a connection with the concept of authenticity. But every time it’s used, it gets co-opted by marketing machines and the very process of production is industrialized to internalize whatever facets are important to that particular authenticity.

There has been more focus on this concept of sustainability in the mezcal industry – something we have written about for a while, most recently in Max’s piece on the CRM, and in other pieces like this, this and this. But so much of the discussion is focused on the production side, especially on cultivating maguey, but that’s just one part of being a sustainable operation. We need to start applying this term to the whole of the industry and factor in the pay, economics, impact on communities, ultimately applying true meaning and meat to the word, otherwise we’ll end up right where we are with everything else. So in the absence of standards or verbiage when it comes to sustainability in mezcal, I propose the following four “pillars” (to borrow from the sustainable food movement)  that must be addressed and answered for any brand or organization that uses the word:

1. Is it environmentally sound? Growing and production practices must be such that maguey is being replanted and it needs be diversified between seed and hijuelos. Silvestres cannot be over harvested, the wood fuel supply must not strip the land, water must be used responsibly, waste must be managed appropriately, and environmental impact must be minimalized.

2. Is it economically viable? The financial structure must include fair pair for all including a truly sustainable wage for each laborer involved in the production all the way up to the mezcalero. The business must be able to sustain itself through market gyrations and maintain a commitment to the community in which it operates.

3. Is it socially just? The business must demonstrate an awareness of its impact and relationship with the local community and proactively work to give back and renew resources from the its place of origin. There must be a conscientious decision to adhere to a triple bottom line of people, planet, profit.

4. Is it humane? This specifically refers to the treatment of animals in agriculture, but really should be a cornerstone of any business. Humanity can’t be left at the sideline as profit is pursued.

This may sound stark but this is pretty basic stuff. Consumers repeatedly say this is exactly what they want of their foodstuffs and we stand at a great point in mezcal’s development to ensure that it takes a different path from most other artisanal products. I am laying down the gauntlet and challenging every mezcal brand out there who refers to themselves as sustainable to clearly and transparently state their practices per the above pillars so that we can have some industry lead standards until anything official is adopted.

I encourage anyone who has ideas on these fronts to speak up. Post your comments, send us your questions, and tell us about the sustainability project you’re seeing. If you have a bigger thought send it to us – we might publish it in order to deepen and enliven the conversation. And – stay tuned – we’ll be doing a whole series dedicated to this issue of sustainability and the different projects out there.

Silvestre

A truly wild, aka silvestre, agave.

A truly wild, aka silvestre, agave.

The literal translation of silvestre into English is wild. In the mezcal world it means wild agave which is differentiated from the cultivated varieties. The mezcal made from silvestres generally taste extremely different from their cultivated cousins because of the combination of their genetic diversity and all the environmental conditions that they live through. These agaves aren’t irrigated and generally live in truly wild circumstances meaning that they’re about as far away as you can imagine from the clean row crops that spring to mind when imagining agriculture. True silvestres grow where ever anything else doesn’t, on hillsides, in forests, along roadsides. They can also be really difficult to harvest and transport to a distillery, cue the pictures of a guy with a burro stacked with piñas, and that isn’t far from the truth.

In recent years the whole concept of a truly wild agave has been called into doubt, mostly by the increasing ability of farmers to cultivate previously wild agaves. The mezcal market has encouraged this development, who doesn’t like a different flavor in their mezcal? But that same demand has led to silvestres varieties like tobala being stripped clean from Oaxaca’s valle central and a race to the bottom in other areas. Thankfully the revolution in cultivating previously wild agave varieties means that they’ll live on. Unfortunately that has opened up another door of marketing dubiousness, how are you to tell whether the agave that went into your mezcal is truly wild? It may not matter that much to most people because the listed agave variety on a label tells you plenty about what’s in the bottle but verifying those high end purchases become even more important.

When an espadin is not “just” an espadin

File under things that have been weighing on my mind. So many times I have heard the following words – oh, it’s just an espadin. With the heavy focus on silvestres, and the more exotic the better, espadins have somehow become sidelined, forgotten, and well just plain ole maligned. This maguey of course makes up the bulk of what is in the market – almost 85% – so to make it out to be the industry’s merlot, well is just ridiculous.

So, on my most recent trek down to Oaxaca, I made it a point to try as many espadins as I could, really to remind myself of how utterly different and complex they are and how immensely talented those palenqueros are to get so much flavor and differentiation out of one kind of maguey – showcasing their true mastery in making mezcal.

This is how I found myself one night doing a tasting of “just” espadins at Mezcaloteca. The oh so knowledgeable and charming Andrea Hagan and I talked about some of the different ones they had and then she put together a pretty bold selection: an espadilla (wild espadin) fermented in leather, distilled in clay and from the Mizteca region, an espadin from the state of Guerrero, an añejo from 1998 (in glass the whole time) and a regular ole espadin from Miahuatlan. I really like how Mezcaloteca runs their tastings, and how they pair your palette and interest to the mezcals they have on hand rather than the pre-selected flights so many of us are used to.

I tasted through these in the order listed and of course found huge variety in flavors and strength. And that regular ole espadin from Miahuatlan, well, in this tasting order where it was last, it frankly wasn’t very interesting. So I spent the next half hour or so changing up the tasting order to see how i could get the most flavor out of each espadin. And what I found was by putting the one from Miahuatlan first, pretty much guaranteed it had a better showing no matter what followed in whatever order. And what made the añejo stand out? When it was third up. The two other mezcals were so bold in their flavors it didn’t matter which was second or last.

So, the lesson here – order of tasting is everything to get the most out of the mezcals, and perhaps even greater – an espadin is never “just” an espadin.

PS – I bought the one from Guerrero (Sanzekan) as I am trying to expand beyond my Oaxacafile focus.