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Posts from the ‘Sustainability’ Category

The mezcal conundrum

Like a lot of people in the world of mezcal, this is an issue I think about alot – how to find the delicate balance of promoting an amazing spirit with supply and production limitations. The New York Times piece that hit over the weekend, Here, Try Some Mezcal, but Not Too Much, came just as I was mulling over how to write about the current demand for heirloom corn from Mexico and potential problems that could arise.

We live in a world that is completely fixated on what I like to call the rockstarification of everything. Things can’t just be, they need to BE. The focus in restaurants on providing great and authentic tasting corn tortillas has pushed heirloom latino ingredient provider Masienda into the limelight. Utterly fantastic given who is behind the company, and the quality and interest they are drawing to the values laden business model. Who doesn’t want to support the production of heirloom corn varieties in Mexico, the birthplace of domesticated corn, after all? Look at Rick Bayless’ Frontera Foods, and their new line of tortilla chips that include heirloom corn from Masienda. This is terrific news for the industry – availability of high quality, delicious, non-GMO corn, supporting the production of heirloom varieties, and therefore small family farming in Mexico that has been virtually wiped out from NAFTA and the increasing reliance on corn imports from the United States. This is certainly what (us) food activists have been pushing for.

But, maybe, just maybe we are putting the cart before the horse so to speak, and if the structure is not on the ground to support this explosive demand, then we might end up doing more harm than good. Which brings me back to mezcal. Mezcal is in the limelight and is receiving its long due acclaim, something so many of us who have been extolling its virtues for years have been working toward. Great tasting, craft production, economic development opportunities, terrific story, so many reasons to want to see this industry grow and succeed. But much like with corn, perhaps we are putting the cart before the horse.

There are so many systemic issues in mezcal production. From how to best grow agave, to fair pay, environmental impact, maintaining flavor diversity, issues that are just being discussed and certainly are no where near to being solved. Obviously we are not going to stop drinking mezcal so we can solve these things, but what do we need to do to simultaneously protect the industry for future survival while meeting the demand – the conundrum. Of course I think education is the key– making both industry reps and consumers aware of not only what they are drinking, but what goes into it is integral to its success. But I also think we need to educate and/or put pressure on the business side of the industry (brand owners, sales reps, bartenders, ambassadors, I am looking at you), especially as more money comes into the industry, as the push for greater volume increases, as the pressure to encourage the short cuts for greater profit and gain takes hold, and as more people or companies decide they have to start a brand.

Max and I started Mezcalistas because we loved everything about mezcal– the flavors, the stories of the people making it, the land it came from, the potential for economic opportunities for the people and communities where it is made. We crafted a simple tagline – we like mezcal and think you should too. But, in seeing its success, I also feel conflicted, like so many people interviewed in that Times article. The very attributes of what makes mezcal, mezcal, are being eroded and in the race to make it the biggest thing ever, we risk destroying its essence. As the eternal optimist, I hope the self awareness by so many in the industry will ultimately help protect it from becoming just another alcoholic spirit.

To bring it back to the rockstarification comment at the beginning, Mezcal does not have to be The Rolling Stones, or even Mana. Perhaps it can just be Willie Nelson, a guy who could fill stadiums but instead has chosen to continue to play smaller venues and remain true to his roots all the while helping folks along the way, bringing awareness to the plight of the small family farmer and the struggles of rural America. Oh yeah, and he still makes great music and a solid living.

 

 

Del Maguey launches sustainability training seminar

Misty Kalkofen, Del Maguey‘s Madrina (godmother) is a big ball of energy when it comes to her passion project – mezcal and sustainability. If you haven’t already checked out the sustainability blog at the Del Maguey website, you should. It is highly significant that the brand that pretty much launched the mezcal category as we know it today has a dedicated space on their website discussing issues impacting the mezcal industry– this is a real issue that the category as a whole must address.

But with that broad declaration, it is also true that trying to define and categorize sustainability  is a huge and daunting task, so where to begin? In Del Maguey’s case, it is with a new training seminar for industry people the begins to unwrap this very complicated subject. Clearly there is interest because there was a huge turn out of industry folk (bartenders primarily) at both the San Francisco talk at the Alamo Drafthouse, and the Oakland talk at the Starline. Bartenders are the gateway to the world of mezcal for most people, and having them as educated as possible on the key issues is critical to spreading the gospel of sustainability. Perhaps most importantly, the buying power they hold, and the choices they make in deciding which mezcals to put on the shelves is key in supporting brands that prioritize sustainability.

There is no doubt that mezcal is the “it” spirit. In addition to the constant stream of articles making this declaration, there are also the real numbers that back that up; a 20-30% category growth year over year since 2012. But this increasing demand is putting incredible pressure on an industry that has much to figure out, primarily how to scale now that it has been thrust into the international spotlight. And how to scale sustainably, to look for that sweet spot in the intersecting circles of ecology, economics, politics and culture, all with the issue of social justice in the background is no easy task, and one that Kalkofen takes seriously. 

Much of the talk about sustainability has focused on the agricultural, or ecological side, and the raw materials, i.e. agave, needed to continue its viability; and, with good reason. Mexico is really the cornucopia for agave,  Kalkofen delved into that with slides enumerating just how much Mexico contains the greatest variety of Family Agavacea, 251 of 330 species are found in Mexico. And of that 251 species, 150 of which are what we know as agave (others include yucca, et all.) In total, 177 of the species are endemic to Mexico, and therefore the protection in maintaining the diversity is integral to the survival of Agavacea.

The experience of the tequila industry, and reliance on hijuelos (the genetic clones of the mother plant) and monoculture growing style has been a great guide post on what not to do, and how to preserve the genetic diversity found in agave. There is now a greater emphasis on  using a mix of seed and hijuelos in growing. There are also commitments to using certified wood in the production process, and there are projects to help deal with the waste water and bagasso that is being created. But to adequately deal with scaling up production, Kalkofen said it is imperative to think 10-15 years out so that fields can be appropriately planned and planted, the labor issues can be resolved, and that infrastructure can be built.

Kalkofen used Vida production as an example. It takes four hornos, 50-60 tinas (fermentation tanks), and nine stills, all operating simultaneously to meet production needs. Contracts are continually renegotiated to account for the fluctuating agave prices, upgrades to facilities, and of course labor costs. All of these factor into what a bottle ultimately costs, and as Kalkofen points out, if you are paying $15 for a bottle of mezcal, someone, if not many, is getting screwed in the process.

Which leads us to the human factor in mezcal production. The mezcal boom has created economic opportunities in the communities where it is made. There is now money for the children of the mezcaleros to continue education beyond high school, and jobs for many who had left the area in pursuit of economic opportunities. This more than anything is the greatest impact of the industry, and now provides communities with the ability to invest in things we often take for granted like libraries, clean water projects, alternative energy (solar panels for one), internet access, and more.

 Of course while talking about these tough issues, we sipped a wide variety of mezcals from the Del Maguey line that cover the world of agave varietals – espadin, madrecuishe, tobala, papalome, tepeztate – and region – Santa Catarina Minas, Puebla, the Mixteca, Teotitlan del Valle. My two favorites of the day were the Madrecuishe and the Tepeztate, mostly because they were new to me. The special reserve Espadin is certainly a flavor bomb and should not be overlooked.

It was great to see such an engaged audience, and hear a lot of tough questions being asked – it is after all the point in pushing for greater transparency in the industry. I continue to remain hopeful that the mezcal industry will not follow in the footsteps of the tequila industry, and that with seminars like these, industry and consumers alike, will pressure brands toward sustainable practices.

The Spirited Conversation that was

Last night’s inaugural Spirited Conversation at Midtown’s Cantina Alley was fun and super interactive. Rion Toal of the Maestros del Mezcal cooperative tasted us through six mezcals from five different producers and led the talk that covered a broad range of topics from distinctive production styles, agaves used, background on the makers, cooperative programs, hot topics of sustainability, economic impact, and the need to know more about where your mezcal comes from. Read more

Not all “mezcal” is created equal(ly)

Sombra’s new palenque

Just when we start really digging into the different ways to unpack the new NOM-70,  Sombra Mezcal founder Richard Betts published this incredible piece. It’s a scoping piece of honesty and transparency from a mezcal brand. More than anything it’s incredibly refreshing – if we all could engage on this level all of the time the world would be a much better place. Read more

Can mezcal learn anything from wine?

The tasting and menu.

In early November I was fortunate enough to attend a Sagrantino de Montefalco tasting at Perbacco. Sagrantino is the grape, Montefalco the region within Umbria in Central Italy. This small appellation doesn’t get much exposure outside of the wine world. Not much is made, the price point reflects that, and the structure of these wines cries out for the cured meats, wild boar, and pastas particular to Umbria. That shouldn’t deter you from trying it because Sagrantinos are truly fantastic and unique. But this is a mezcal blog so what do they have to do with mezcal? Read more

As the big boys get into mezcal, they’re at least paying lip service to sustainability

Rays of sunlight in the struggle for sustainability?

We all knew that the big liquor companies were coming to mezcal. Zignum, Beneva, and others have been around for a while but the really big distributors like Diageo jumped into the game last year, signing a distribution deal with Mezcal Union, while Pernod Ricard sounds like it’s launching a mezcal in the next few months. Read more

Is mezcal sustainable?

Left to right, Susan Coss, Raza Zaidi, Judah Kuper, and Ivan Saldaña.

Left to right, Susan Coss, Raza Zaidi, Judah Kuper, and Ivan Saldaña.

The evening before this year’s Mezcal: Mexico in a Bottle San Francisco we hosted a panel titled “What We Talk About When We Talk About Sustainability” to dig into the raft of questions about sustainability in the mezcal industry. Aside from our debt to Raymond Carver the panel was inspired by the consistent questions from drinkers and bartenders throughout the world about how mezcal can be made in a way that ensures environmental, cultural, and economic sustainability.

The topic comes up in almost every conversation and since we had a team of brand heavyweights in town the moment was ideal for the discussion. Susan Coss moderated the discussion between Judah Kuper from Vago, Raza Zaidi from Wahaka, and Ivan Saldaña from Montelobos. We were also privileged to host many other brand representatives in the audience including Fidencio’s Arik Torren, Erick Rodriguez, William Scanlan, and more. Read more

When tradition and sustainability collide

This won't last forever without sustainable practices.

This won’t last forever without sustainable practices.

Now that the new NOM 70‘s categories of Ancestral, Artisanal and Mezcal are here it’s time to consider how the Law of Unintended Consequences is going to impact the mezcal world. As we’ve outlined before, 70 increases transparency for the consumer in understanding what is in their bottle and how it has been made. Can you think of another spirit that goes to these lengths?

But don’t confuse this new labeling system with sustainability – that’s a completely separate issue that everyone is grappling with in one way or another. It’s an especially hot topic now because mezcal is growing at a galloping pace: 2016 mezcal sales are set to outpace 2015 by more than 20%.

How to drink sustainably?

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Divided Spirits – The mezcal world in perspective

If ever there were a book for our time, this is it. Sarah Bowen has really captured a moment and set of issues with Divided Spirits: Tequila, mezcal, and the politics of production. With the new NOM proposal dropping over Thanksgiving along with its béte noir 199 the recent history and investigation into what makes the tequila and mezcal industries tick in Divided Spirits will bring you right up to speed. We’re at this moment in time when big tequila remains incredibly popular, mezcal is a newcomer, and indie tequilas are proving just what artisans can do with blue agave. But the margins and growth are all on mezcal and indie tequila’s side, consumers want distinctive drinks that at least have a story, ideally one that’s true. You see the same trend everywhere, it’s what drove major brewers to purchase major beer indies like Lagunitas and Ballast Point late last year and what drove Patrón to create Roca.

How did we get here? It’s pretty simple: While tequila grew by leaps and bounds as an incredible export through the post war era it really took Patrón and its followers in the 80’s to establish tequila as something with its own unique coolness factor. That led to enormous demand for tequila; to sip it, shoot it, mix it in cocktails. Hell, Robert Towne, who wrote Chinatown among many other classic movies, even titled his 1988 film Tequila Sunrise in the midst of this boom. Soon enough tequila was stocked in every bar worth its salt while tequila bars proliferated and the margarita became the most popular cocktail in the United States, if not the world. That much demand meant enormous production which, in the inexorable capitalist logic to these things, led to the complete industrialization of tequila. The bottles, dollars, land, agaves, and everything involved in this story are staggering. But it all meant one thing, what was once a dynamic and original spirit had become sadly commodified.

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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