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Posts from the ‘Law’ Category

NOM 199: The full proposal

Here’s the full text of NOM 199 and here’s the original document in .docx format.

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NOM 70: The full proposal

Here’s the full text of the NOM 70 proposal and here is the original .docx formatted proposal.

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Sound off on NOM 70 and 199!

The CRM doesn’t have a way to publicly comment on the recent release of NOM 70 so we’ve created this Change.org petition to express support for it. As you’ll see it’s most textly from our earlier blog post on the issue. We support 70 because it achieves most of the goals that the mezcal world, from small palenqueros to global consumers, have articulated over the past three years during the drafting and discussion process. Here is Hipocrates’ letter introducing it. Here is the full text of the proposal. So, definitely sign the petition and we’ll pass the results onto Hipocrates Nolasco, head of the CRM. It’s really important that you sign it so don’t be shy and distribute it far and wide on FaceBook, email, Twitter, and in your bar side conversations.

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The start of a spirits movement?

Bobby Heugel divorces himself from Flor de Cana rum.

Bobby Heugel divorces himself from Flor de Cana rum.

A potentially cataclysmic thing happened last week in the world of rum. An explosive piece by Clarissa Wei for Vice Munchies about Nicaraguan rum producer Flor de Caña and the clear linkage of worker deaths in the production of the rum has sparked a very heated and soul searching online debate in the bar industry about its responsibility and potential culpability in supporting companies like these.

Bobby Heugel, the young Houston wunderkind bar man/owner, pretty much got the whole debate going when he posted a picture of Flor de Caña rum bottles he had dumped down the drain accompanied by a very impassioned note about the story and why he did it. To many of us in the industry it feels like a veritable shot heard round the world and the start of a spirits movement not unlike what we have seen in the sustainable food movement. 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

Whither mezcal? A word from its regulatory body

It’s been months since the CRM or Consejo Regulador Mezcal, the new name for COMERCAM, dropped their annual report Informe 2015, a 72 page powerpoint presentation on the state of the industry. It’s fascinating stuff and less daunting than its page count threatens because most of the slides are exactly that, bullet points or graphs synopsizing the industry. In many ways it’s a rallying point for everyone invested and interested in the fate of the agave spirits industry because, while it doesn’t cover tequila directly, it does speak to the larger questions on everyone’s mind starting with identity because this is first, and foremost, a positive pitch for Plan Mezcal from Hipócrates Nolasco Cancinco, the president of the CRM. While not written with much voice it very clearly comes from his desk and retains a degree of personality usually washed out of C Suite presentations. Among the many things mezcal needs right now, it’s that sort of cheerleader-in-chief just to keep getting the branding message across while keeping everyone positive about the future.

And Hipócrates clearly sees himself in that role. He casts the CRM, the agency that certifies anything that legally calls itself a mezcal, as the “punta de lanza de la industria,” which is quite forceful language for what has been something of a whipping boy for smaller producers. It’s high time that mezcal’s representative organization stood up and stood for something positive. This presentation is the clearest indication of that ambition to date. And Hipócrates isn’t making this a, pardon the pun, purely militaristic charge. Right there on the same page he says:

Algo inedito sucedió hace tres años, arstesanos y empresarios se unieron en una sola voz y se llamaron a sí mismos “hermano maguey” para convertir al CRM en su aliado y conductor de la industria, como resultado del hartazgo de la visión corta y poco efectiva de la autoridades.

In plain language, ‘I’m a uniter, not a divider.’ Hipócrates wants the CRM to lead and he follows up with much more in that vein through his introductory slides culminating in this statement:

El Mezcal continúa su ascenso en las cumbres internacionales, sus estadísticas son muy prometedoras, en los próximos años se decide si cosolidamos una tendencia o solo somos una moda, para hacerlo bien debemos prepararnos en todos los ámbitos y estar a la altura de lo que el consumidor nacional e interncional exige: autenticidad, identidad, cultura, sustentabilidad, calidad, etc. (emphasis added)

There you have it: ‘I’m growing brand mezcal and we’re at a transformational point, either we continue with mezcal as a hobby or we make it into a globalized industry based on a brand identity built on the ideas of authenticity and Mexican culture.’ That’s the most succinct and clear description of a brand for mezcal I’ve ever seen and the only one to really rise above the daily chisme. So, pay attention, the man has ambition, whether he can pull it all off is a question that the rest of the report really struggles with.

A quick note about numbers, unless otherwise noted I’m citing certified production numbers which obviously don’t include anyone who hasn’t received certification. No one has a good estimate for how much that undercounts mezcal production in Mexico but it’s significant.

Growth is the Story

If there’s one master narrative in this report it’s that mezcal is growing. More is being made, more types, more states, more exported. As always it’s the details that matter and they tell a more complex story that bears out much of what we’ve been hearing and reporting.

The report shows point after point of growth starting with a huge jump in asociados, an additional 46 from 2013 to 2014 for a total of 526 which is an even more impressive total when measured against the base of 303 in the rather ambiguously defined baseline of 2003-2011. That’s all good stuff, presumably asociados means brands registered with the CRM which means that the market is vivacious, possibly even crowding up. Of course that probably doesn’t measure the sum total of mezcal producers in Mexico which would add hundreds, if not thousands, to this total. That points up the larger problem in certification, lots of mezcaleros haven’t managed to certify their mezcals because of the expense and complexity. We have heard rather constant laments from a variety of mezcal makers who are desperately trying to get certified, for some any process is too much, for most it sounds like the CRM doesn’t have enough resources go make the process run smoothly for everyone, everywhere.

Who’s Growing?

While Oaxaca still accounts for over 90% of mezcal, the one state that is suddenly growing is Michoacán which was only added to the Denominación de Origen in 2012 but is rapidly becoming a top tier mezcal producer. That only confirms what we’ve seen and heard, many of those laments about difficulty getting certified come straight from that state. Still, it only accounts for 0.5% of all mezcal making it third in total production behind Guerrero which was add to the DOM way back in 1994. That should tell you plenty about the untapped production in Michoacan even while some locals worry about the opposite.

Boom, Bust?

Certified mezcal production is surging, in 2011 more than 980,000 liters were made. In 2014 that total eclipsed 1,450,000 liters. But growth hasn’t been linear, in 2013 production suddenly spiked at 2.5 million liters before dropping by more than a million liters in 2014. The report attributes this to an agave surplus which hints at a lot going on out there in the Mexican landscape. Who is growing all that agave? What compelled them to start in the early 2,000’s?

Mezcal production

Mezcal production

Even though mezcal is growing it still barely registers for Mexican drinkers. In Mexico it still only counts for 0.2% of spirit consumption just behind cognac’s 0.3% but far behind tequila’s 16.3% and aguardiente’s 15.3%. The presentation highlights that mezcal consumption has grown 36% year over year which is important, especially since drinks like cognac are decreasing but it’s still a bit of a downer when you consider how important mezcal is to all of us. Of course mezcal is worth far more than its competitors, more than double the value of tequila by bottle, the report gets back to that point later, so will we.

Where’s it All Going?

Mezcal is increasingly going abroad – just under 650,000 liters were exported in 2011. By 2014 that number had popped above 1,150,000 liters. That’s a leap of 79%. And while the major export market has been consistently the United States there’s a strange story to be told about other export markets because Chile has been consistently second or third changing places with Australia until 2014 when Spain muscled into the third spot. Other markets have opened over the past three years including potential powerhouses like China but also lesser known markets like the Emirates.

How Many Agaves in Your Bottle?

No doubt you’ve seen many different species of agave popping up on bottles lately and the CRM’s figures bear that out. In 2014 only 77% were angustifolia, aka espadin, and 23% from other species. That’s a huge drop from espadin’s absolutely dominating 95% in 2013 and the trend line in previous years. While somewhat difficult to believe exactly because the reported change was so sudden and dramatic, it is potentially great news for the people who have figured out how to cultivate other species. It’s equally potentially troubling news for the sustainability of the industry because plenty of agaves are still being harvested from the wild and they’re probably not going to exist in the wild much longer. Definitely cherish those silvestres bottles on shelves today, maybe even store them for the future, because once those truly wild agaves are harvested they’re probably not coming back.

Making the case for quality

The presentation repeatedly mentions the growth of premium market categories and how well mezcal fits into that trend. Page 49 makes this case most clearly by noting that the value category has dropped 1.3% by volume while premium rose +3.1%, high end +5.8%, and super premium +5.1%. Those categories are notoriously squishily defined but it’s the thought that counts and it gets all the elaboration you need on the following page when the growth of higher quality spirits is paired with the higher value placed on artisanal products and the growth of emerging markets, especially in Asia which put a high value on premium products. If that’s not an argument for a different industrial path from tequila, I don’t know what is.

Do you see where this is going? This is a clear argument for mezcal as a special brand and for the CRM itself. Now that we’ve checked that box, the next step is defining the importance of the Denominanción de Origen del Mezcal and the CRM’s role in regulating it. The presentation digs into this argument and talks of defending and defining mezcal globaly as a signal goal while enumerating all the progress points the organization has made in recent years. Just to remind you how much ground the CRM has covered recently, the enumeration consumes six pages. Sure, much of this is of critical importance but you wouldn’t be the only one wondering whether there’s a bit of old fashioned resume padding because the whole report concludes with another list, “Plan de Trabajo 2015-2018.” For its next act the CRM will do important things like finally elaborate and pass NOM 70 and build out mezcal.com. That domain was originally registered by the smart people at Del Maguey and recently handed over to the CRM. Kudos to Del Maguey for taking one for team mezcal. Now the ball is in the CRM’s court to hire a decent design firm and really make their digital presence sing the song of maguey.

A Mystifying Absence

There’s a torrent of information here and Hipócrates is clearly trying to rally the troops while consolidating the CRM’s grip on everything. It must feel like herding cats with issues like sustainability exploding while small producers continue to complain about not being heard. In the interim the market isn’t getting any smaller and bigger companies are suddenly appearing on the scene. If that wasn’t tough enough, what about all the producers who are doing an end run around the CRM altogether and just creating destilados de agave? So many questions but this is a great foundational document.

And yet, for all the structure and good intentions, there is still one major mystifying absence, what is NOM 70? It’s been hanging in the air for quite some time so the gossip has gone through quite a few cycles. Everyone is anxious to hear the final proposal and rumors are that NOM 70 should be released this week. Perhaps we’ll know soon enough but, man, it’s been a long quiet period and this company isn’t even going public.

Maestros del Mezcal: Bringing the makers into the process

A papalometl plant in Sindihui, a town in the Mixteca Alta.

A papalometl plant in Sindihui, a town in the Mixteca Alta.

I recently chatted with Rion Toal about the Civil Association of Maestros del Mezcal. The organization was founded by Abel Alcántara to provide a platform for mezcaleros who are cut out of or estranged from the entire certification and branding process. They are moving a variety of directions, most recently in creating public platforms for the mezcaleros, but they are also working on reforestation efforts and investigating distribution platforms for mezcaleros.

Wooden canoas for fermenting in Yutanduchi

Wooden canoas for fermenting in Yutanduchi

Maestros del Mezcal sponsored its first even this past December in Oaxaca and things went well enough that they have another coming up July 12th in the Panuelito, right next to Santo Domingo in Oaxaca. They plan an exhibit of endangered magueys, discussions of reforestation strategies, a special dinner, sales of rare mezcals, and the opportunity to meet mezcaleros from very remote areas of Oaxaca. They are also planning a national meeting of mezcaleros in Acapulco later this summer. That meeting is still in the planning stages so we will update as we hear more.

In the interim Rion kindly translated a conversation with the organization’s founder and president Abel Alcántara that ranges from how, and why, he started the organization to where it’s going and the state of mezcaleros in today’s world

Abel Alcántara at the first meeting of the Civil Association of Maestros de Mezcal in Oaxaca December 2014

Abel Alcántara at the first meeting of the Civil Association of Maestros de Mezcal in Oaxaca December 2014

Abel Alcántara

How did you start this organization and what was your impetus for launching it?

I studied sociology and I have always been interested in social problems, in particular regarding organizing people. I have helped create organizations for supply, production and consumption and my grandfather was a mezcal producer and marketer in my native Guanajuato.

I understand that you started it in Guerrero, can you tell me how that came about?

20 years ago I was a coordinator of Priority Zones for Sedesol in Guerrero. At that time I helped create an organization of traditional mezcal producers in the mountains of Guerrero. Timber, marijuana, opium poppies, and maguey and mezcal are the principle products of this region. Mezcal, for its tradition, history, uniqueness, and quality is a flagship product of the area, so I decided to focus my work on organizing mezcal producers.

What are the organization’s goals today? Do you have longer term goals that you’d like to start addressing soon?

Most outsiders simply look to market the distillate. Maestros del Mezcal is aimed at driving the organization of the producers. We focus on making a sustainable comercial project that includes the interests of all participants, the encouragement and recognition of the producers, recognition of their history, and protecting and managing wild maguey.

What are the biggest problems facing the mezcal industry today?

Shortage of cultivated maguey, disappearance of, and extreme pressure on, some wild magueyes, and combustibles [trees], lack of resources to improve palenques and certify producers.

An agave reforestation project in Santa Catarina Minas which grows a variety of local agave, especially the native karwinski variations.

An agave reforestation project in Santa Catarina Minas which grows a variety of local agave, especially the native karwinski variations.

What are the biggest opportunities?

Building confidence in the producers’ business and their product. Recognition of mezcal as a fine distillate by the middle and upper classes in Mexico and abroad.

What do you think of the current NOM 70 proposal?

It is an improvement on the former definitions, we have always pushed for a distinction between traditionally and industrially produced mezcal. I do believe that it can be improved upon, above all by clarifying that COMERCAM cannot define or regulate the quality of mezcal; it is only an instrument that promotes and insures compliance with the standard. COMERCAM can be reformed, change and improve.

What’s your approach to certifying small producers in COMERCAM so that they can export?

Convincing the producers as to the benefits of certification and the NOM, and that their product will be sold legally beyond their region and at a better price. Explaining to the producers that they will not be taxed until their product is being sold legally (i.e. until they are seeing revenue). Convincing the federal and state governments to support this emblematic distillate that creates jobs and resources for the indigenous and marginalized populations.

A mezcalero from the Civil Association of Maestros de Mezcal's first meeting in Oaxaca in December, 2014.

A mezcalero from the Civil Association of Maestros de Mezcal’s first meeting in Oaxaca in December, 2014.

What are their biggest challenges in getting certified?

The lack of economic resources that the producers have and the lack of information that reaches their communities.

What are their biggest challenges in reaching the Mexican and North American markets?

Economic challenges: The producers cannot afford to dabble in the whole process from production to marketing. They need investors and partners and not just people who buy their mezcal. They need financial resources to improve the process and preserve the traditional and artisanal characteristics, and partners to market their product, with all that this implies.

Given the great interest in mezcal globally, are you seeing younger people working in distilleries?

It has slowed down migration out of the towns. Some young people are beginning to feel proud of their parents and the mezcal they produce more so than they have in the past. They engage more in the process and after studying or working abroad many have returned to make and market mezcal. Being a mezcal producer now has a greater status, especially among the new generations, than it has in the past.

Abel Alcántara in Yalalag, Oaxaca

Abel Alcántara in Yalalag, Oaxaca

All photos courtesy of Rion Toal.

COMERCAM leadership reaffirmed

Hipócrates Nolasco CancinoI just chatted with Ron Cooper who is in Oaxaca meeting about COMERCAM’s directors. He says that “After 6 1/2 hour meeting with more than 300 producers, magueyeros and comericalizadores from all states, the present directorship was voted in for another three years.”

Next up, a potentially huge meeting about the NORMA in Mexico City on March 4th. More on that as we know it.

Spirituality in mezcal

The  discussion of what’s traditional in mezcal reminded me of something that I keep forgetting to write about. One of the things frequently mixed into this debate is something akin to spirituality, or at least an ineffable quality that mezcal makers or defenders of tradition describe as a critical component of what they do and how mezcal is consumed. Many people define traditional mezcal by how it’s made and how it’s consumed. The latter is usually within the pueblo, and usually as part of local celebrations whether they be weddings or the big calendar events like Dia de los Muertos. Once you actually see that in action, that cultural bond is blindingly obvious. That’s what people mean when they talk about the importance of tradition. Mezcal really is a part of the traditional life of many communities across Oaxaca and huge chunks of Mexico and that’s a big part of what Pedro Jimenez was touching on with this piece and what Erick Rodriguez is after with the proposed ancestral category.

That topic reminded me of this great article on Aeon by Ross Andersen about spirituality in wine making can become part of the physical process. As long as you relegate the comment about tossing tequila back in slugs to an uninformed or malapropos comparison, it’s fascinating reading that expresses exactly what I’ve heard from many a mezcal maker. Many of the critiques leveled at the wine industry will also be familiar to anyone in the mezcal world so give it a read when you have a few minutes. Here’s a quote:

Frederic said additives distort a wine’s terroir, its expression of a particular place on the planet’s surface. ‘Wine is the blood of the earth,’ he said, ‘and if we want to hear what it has to say, we have to be quiet.’ He told me AmByth had a philosophical commitment to non-interference in winemaking. ‘We want to avoid disturbing the natural balance,’ he said. ‘We’ve been wrecking the natural balance ever since the Industrial Revolution. And I don’t mean just the land, or the sky, or the things we can see and touch. I mean the whole.’

Frederic’s rhetoric can be traced back to German Romanticism, the seismic cultural movement that birthed Steiner’s philosophy. Like many Romantics, Steiner thought that the Enlightenment view of nature was debased. He found the lens of scientific rationality too constrictive to capture the majesty of nature. Steiner conceived of the planet, and nature itself, as transcendent – and to express this idea, he drew from the available precedents: folk art, paganism, and ancient mythology. You could say he saw himself as a Dionysus living in an age of Apollo.

On a related note check out the Hawk Wakawaka poster below that details how biodynamics functions in the wine world. That’s just the first of four posters detailing the world of biodynamics so definitely visit the site where you can even purchase a print of the posters.

Erick Rodriguez gets what he wants

Checking in with Erick Rodriguez of Alma Mezcalera and plenty of other projects. He sources much of the mezcal behind the Fundacion Agaves Silvestres’ Vino de Mezcales series, guides tours of mezcal production zones, and is a real political activist when it comes to defining the future of mezcal. We’ve called him the Indiana Jones of Mezcal exactly because he combines all of these ventures in a constantly evolving state of political action. Always ethical, personable, and ready to head off into the heart of Mexico in search of its next mezcal.

The latest update is that it sounds like the NORMA as proposed in meetings across Mexico and in a recent presentation by Danny Mena in NY is going to become law. The really big news is that Erick’s definition of a traditional mezcal labeled as “Ancestral” in the proposed law looks like it’s going to remain intact. That’s pretty incredible considering the strength of industrial producers and the dynamic within this discussion. While still a niche product distillation, exports, and interest in mezcal is booming so hopefully this regulation will lay the foundation for stable growth. Everyone I know has been unusually encouraged by the process because it has been unusually transparent and quick. The organization that oversees mezcal regulation in Mexico, COMERCAM, has had open meetings and actively engaged with a variety of people in the business. This despite all the dark rumors.

I chatted with Erick to go back over his original idea and to check in on where he sees the process today. He had a pretty succinct description of the financial inequities inherent in the current system: “Look small producers can’t compete with industrial producers who are making 5,000 liters a day. If you’re small you may make  30-60 liters in one run. We can’t compete legally if we want to call it mezcal. We can’t even pay taxes because if you make a traditional mezcal the ABV is going to be higher and taxes rise with the ABV so industrial producers even get lower taxes.”

That’s been a problem for a while as the vast numbers of small producers try to make a place for themselves inside Mexico and on the international market. The tax rate has been an especially tough barrier for domestic distribution because if you’re used to drinking mezcal as part of your daily life, once you get that official stamp of approval from the government, the price of it increases for your customers. Erick was recently in Michoacan where local producers asked him to talk to the government about that issue. He said “it’s like wine in other cultures, you drink it daily but now the government wants to increase the price on us small guys while the big guys pay less.”

Erick was the person who really got the Ancestral label into the current NORMA proposal despite consistent protests that it would cloud customer information about mezcal “They keep saying they don’t want to confuse people. But it’s a necessary distinction. They don’t even want me to speak about it. They want to erase that this type of mezcal exists because it doesn’t look good for their mezcal.” And by their mezcal Erick means big industrially produced brands.

To go back over this quickly I’m appropriating John McEvoy’s nice table of the proposal here. Read his blog post on the recent presentation of this in New York both to get more depth on the topic and to get a sense for the degree of transparency involved. For the first time in collective memory there has been some form of road show about these regulations which is revelatory in its own right!

Three New Categories Cooking Grinding Fermentation Distillation
Mezcal Pit ovens, elevated stone ovens, and autoclaves – diffuser use under review Tahona, Chilean or Egyptian mill, trapiche, shredder or series of mills Wood, masonry or stainless steel tanks Stills, continuous stills, columns stills made of copper or steel
Artisanal Mezcal Pit ovens or elevated stone ovens Tahona, Chilean or Egyptian mill, mallets, trapiche, or shredder Wood, clay or masonry tanks, animal skins, hollows in stone, earth or tree trunks, and process may use maguey fibers Direct fire on copper stills or clay pots and coils made of clay, wood, copper, or stainless steel, and process may include maguey fibers
Ancestral Mezcal Pit ovens only Tahona, Chilean or Egyptian mill, or mallets Wood, clay or masonry tanks, animal skins, hollows in stone, earth or tree trunks, and processmust use maguey fibers Direct fire on clay pots and coils made clay or wood, and process mustinclude maguey fibers

The discussion about the distinction between Aristanal and Ancestral has been pretty well talked to death but take a look at Pedro Jimenez to the barricades post here, John McEvoy’s response, and our own screed about the threats from excessive industrialization. It boils down to making a distinction between people who want credit for continuing to produce mezcal exactly as it has been for hundreds of years. We think  that there’s a good argument for this both for the product and the marketplace because it allows makers like those Erick works with to distinguish themselves just like Cognac or Bourdeaux Crus.

The best news is that it looks like there’s going to be a clean vote on the NORMA within weeks, possibly even this Wednesday. From what Erick has heard the three variations of mezcal will be sealed into the law and three new states will be certified as producing mezcal, Morelos, Estado de Mexico, and Puebla.

And just as they acknowledge those states even more are emerging as mezcal producers. Erick is off to Veracruz where he recently found a bunch of mezcal distillers who blend their products in a local factory and label them as destillados de agave. He said “I told COMERCAM to mention Veracruz, they don’t even know that mezcal is made there! I asked them [the Veracruz producers] if they want to be part of the new NORMA  and they told me ‘No we’re happy with what we have.’ so I’m going to visit the small producers and find the good ones.” Just like he always does. Stay tuned because Erick is working on a very interesting distilling project that we’ll write about very soon.