You may have noticed the term ensemble on some mezcals, it’s just like the dictionary definition, the second one after “a group of musicians, actors, or dancers who perform together.” The one that reads “a group of items viewed as a whole rather than individually.” As applied to the mezcal world the same holds true, a variety of agaves are harvested, roasted, mashed, fermented, distilled, and bottled together.
Posts from the ‘Encyclopedia of Mezcal’ Category
The venerable vaso veladora is a true Mexican classic. Originally these glass cups were used in Catholic churches to contain prayer candles. You drop a few coins in the church’s donation box and then light a candle so that you can say a prayer for someone. The fluttering illumination of a bank of these candles adds to the ambience Read more
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.
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
Ah the humble garafone. They are the all purpose plastic containers for water, mezcal, fuel, and any other liquid that plays nice with plastic. Their multipurpose uses speak volumes about the subterranean factors that actually make Mexico function. The fact that they’ve been elevated to folk art status (see photo below) also speaks volumes about how mezcal lovers fetishize every and anything involved in creating their favored tipple.
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.
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.
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.
Agaves are really strange plants because they reproduce in three ways, none of them exclusive. They sprout little clones of themselves from their bases; these are most commonly called hijuelos and can be produced throughout an agave’s lifecycle. If you live in the southwest you’ll frequently see agave plants growing in gardens or medians that have all these little agave plants sprouting from the base of the plant, occasionally crowding out the original. Those are hijuelos.
In Spanish the literal translation of hijuelo is young or a plant shoot. Sometimes it’s used specifically to refer to one of the so-called “pups” which are genetic clones of a mother agave: They literally emerge from the root system of an agave and grow along side of it. More generally it’s used when discussing the propagation of baby agaves in nurseries across Mexico. This is all a tricky and contentious business that gets to the very heart of mezcal because it determines exactly what sort of fruit goes into your bottle.
But agaves also create seeds, it’s just that these are only created once in an agave’s life. At the end of their lives agave plants grow a huge flower out of the center of the plant known as quiotes. The quiotes are majestic sights which soar into the air, usually 20-some feet, and display amazing yellow flowers. Frequently people will dry them out and lean them against a wall as a fantastic decoration.
But back to how they function, the quiotes sprout seeds which are pollinated by birds and bats. Yes, bats are one of the great pollinators in the agave world! After they are pollinated the seeds fall to the ground and can produce genetically distinct agaves. In practice, this is nature’s crap shoot because agave seeds aren’t the most prolific producers. But it’s also critical because this is the way agaves obtain genetic diversity, making them disease resistant and, over enormous amounts of time, allowing for different varieties to evolve which is where you get all the wonderful agave varieties that make for such diverse mezcals.
But wait! The story of agave reproduction doesn’t stop there. Agaves are really strange plants for a variety of reasons but one of the best is their third method of reproduction. This is another clonal method but is really strange: Small, baby, agaves grow off the top of the mother agave, fall to the ground, and root themselves where they fall or are carried. This is rare and hard to see. And they have a great name “bulbils.”
So, why should this matter to you, my fine mezcal connoisseur? Well, how agave is grown has a huge impact on what you’re drinking. That’s why.
Right now the vast majority of mezcal is produced from a single species of agave called espadin, also known by its latin name Agave angustifolia, because it has been among the easiest agaves to cultivate in controlled circumstances. It has been easy because farmers could grow it from seed and hijuelos, it matures at a relatively well defined rate, and yields a reasonably consistent level of starch. Farmers love that sort of consistency because they know that if they plant an espadin hijuelo today, water it, and do the minimal field maintenance – they’ll be able to harvest it in 6-8 years. Note that variation, 6-8 years – that means if you plant a field of espadin today you’ll be harvesting it somewhere between six and eight years down the road, potentially longer. That counts as consistent in the mezcal world. In comparison a vineyard manager in Napa or Sonoma measures consistency in an annual window of the months between August and October. Incidentally, espadin is the genetic parent of blue agave used to make tequila so they have lots in common, especially the ease with which they’re grown.
The level of consistency in planting espadin is critical for mezcal because farmers can set up a reasonably controlled, agricultural, production line and know that they’ll be able to make a certain amount of mezcal at a certain time in the future. They can scale this process up by using nurseries but that also takes more time, again, they have to be thinking in those long 6-8 year intervals. These green houses bear no resemblance to the metal framed glass enclosures of a nostalgic European past nor the sealed plastic enclosures of our acquaculture present. No, generally these are just plots of land devoted to getting young agave plants through their first years which may have a bit of burlap or woven plastic propped overhead to offer shade in particularly brutally sunny locations.
One of the more interesting developments in the world of mezcal in recent years is that agave growers have figured out how to cultivate many other types of agaves that everyone used to assume would only grown in the wild like tobala, madrecuixe, and cupreata. Luis Mendez in Sola de Vega was the first person we can find who started experimenting with cultivating tobala and other wild agaves (more on this as Susan visited him during her trip in July.)
Today more people are embarking on projects to cultivate silvestres, to mention just a few: The Fundación Agaves Silvestres is working in San Dionisio Ocotepec while Vago has been working in Candelaria Yegole and Tosba up in the Sierra Norte. This is of enormous importance because there’s only so many wild agaves to go around, in some areas of Oaxaca’s central valley where tobala used to grow in abundance you’d be hard pressed to find a single plant. Many other areas are getting stripped bare in the silvestres gold rush. Others are managing their stocks aggressively but it’s an incredibly tough proposition; if you could get a ton of money for the wild agaves on your property today wouldn’t you be tempted?
Cultivation also makes production more predictable which means that agave growers can also plan on income for important things like future investments in their business and crucial things like paying for their kids’ education and health care. The big picture here is really important exactly because so many people work in the cultivation industry: If they can earn a living wage and hew a path to development in the mezcal industry it makes everything better, literally. It develops the mezcal industry, which results in consistent revenue streams to farmers, distillers, and everyone else in the supply chain. That means they can all feed their families and invest in other, more sustainable or profitable, enterprises. It also has a huge impact on immigration and every other facet of Mexico’s relationship with the world, especially with the United States.
Of course there’s a downside to this development as well: Truly wild agaves are unique and can be used to produce mezcals of truly unique flavors. That’s another way of saying, you really might want to save the bottles of mezcal made from truly wild agaves sold today because they’re literally unique. In a few years many mezcals made from previously wild varieties of agave will be the product of cultivation with different flavors. That’s not to place a value judgement on them but they will be different.
Penca is one of those fantastic wandering words in Spanish that has picked up a number of connotations. In the mezcal world it means the leaf of an agave plan. Pencas come up all the time when talking about mezcal because you have to cut them off in order to get to that starchy core, the piña, without which you wouldn’t have any mezcal. But literally it translates as “main rib” in a botanical sense and is used to describe the ribbing in vegetables like cabbage and spinach. In Mexico it’s also used to describe the pad of a prickly pear cactus. In Chile it’s used for “prick,” and I don’t mean to prick your finger… In Spain it can mean big nose or a chicken’s rear end, the area colorfully known as a “parson’s nose” in Oxford English.
But back to the mezcal world! Pencas occupy a big role in Mexican culture because they have been used in an incredible variety of roles. Today most are left in the fields as compost but historically they’ve been used for all their fibrous goodness. Their tips have thorns so those were used as sewing needles, fishing hooks, ornaments, and additions to weapons. The fibers of the pencas are so strong and long that they were frequently used as thread. The whole leaf is also really strong so it was occasionally used as a building material for a roof or siding. Dried they are also a fuel for fires. Still today some mezcaleros use them to fire their stills, thus completing some cosmic cycle.
Bien picado is a term you don’t come across that often in the mezcal world but it’s rich in associations. Literally it means “well eaten” or “nibbled.” It refers to agave plants which, after their quiote is cut off, are attacked by the adult versions of our otherwise tasty gusanos.
This came up recently when I tasted Vago’s Bien Picado with Judah Kuper because the term also refers to a type of mezcal. The Vago post on their very limited run Bien Picado (which is only available in Texas) is well worth reading — it delves into the term and production process in a level of detail that will fascinate any aficionado. The mezcal itself is a unique flavor and a great opportunity to support small production runs like this one. We’d love to see more limited bottles like this and Wahaka’s recent vegan pechugas.