Skip to content

Posts from the ‘Sustainability’ Category

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.

He candidly assesses the mezcal landscape along with what he and Sombra have learned along the way. But most of all he charts a path forward. And because it comes in the midst of NOM-70 becoming law, it returns us to that conversation about the unintended consequences of the new NOM and the issue of sustainability.

“We’ve evaluated ‘tradition’ for its environmental impact, its sustainability, and its ethical considerations. In doing so, we have arrived at a vision for a brand new, 21st century palenque (distillery). We believe it is the future of thoughtful, environmentally friendly production (that also happens to makes great mezcal).”

So let’s review – NOM 70 lays out three categories of mezcal: Ancestral, Artesanal, and Mezcal. There are clear guidelines for what makes each category. But, here’s where it gets sticky – what if you are a brand that is producing for a large audience AND interested in being as environmentally friendly as possible? What if you recognize that the use of wood can be problematic – not only regarding the deforestation issue, but also the impact all of that smoke has on the air? As Betts discusses, keeping the wood in the roast is integral to maintaining the flavor, the uniqueness of what makes mezcal, mezcal. So they use certified sustainable wood. Mechanizing the crush processes, not by incorporating a chipper, but by mechanizing the tahona is a great solution – it reduces the chances of animal abuse and is incredibly efficient, while remaining completely traditional. Also traditional, the continued use of wild yeasts, rather than using packaged yeasts or accelerants to speed up the fermentation process. Thus far, Sombra’s production process remains both traditional and within the definition of Artesanal.

But here is where everything changes:

“Traditionally the stills are fired with wood. It’s certainly a remarkable thing to watch someone hone a wood fire just so and to coerce mezcal out of the still. But it’s important to really evaluate what’s happening in this process. Considering that the still is a closed system (meaning that no flavor is imparted by the wood fire), the wood is merely a heat source. So if the source of the heat doesn’t matter, why not choose a cleaner source?”

The clear choice is not use wood to fire the stills, but rather a clean delivery gas system. And for all the right environmental and sustainable reasons.

“We’re saving trees, distilling with better precision, making something more delicious and more consistent, and all with less waste, which is so important. Add to this the enormous benefit of cleaner air so our mezcaleros are not breathing smoke all day, which we all know is detrimental to one’s health. (If you’d like to read more about the impact of word burning you can do so here.)

By using gas to fire their stills Sombra is vaulted out of the Artesanal category and into that linguistically anodyne space of Mezcal. Suddenly Sombra is placed in the same category as Zignum and Beneva. This despite Sombra being infinitely more transparent than most of its company in that Mezcal category and being as environmentally friendly as possible while remaining traditional.

This sort of issue is exactly the sort of thing that came out of our November panel on sustainability. At the time we didn’t know whether gas fired stills would even be allowed in any of the recognized categories so we wrote:

Wood is so central to how mezcal has been traditionally made that you are required to use it while roasting the agave and firing your still in order to qualify as either “ancestral” or “artisanal” in the new Denominación definition. That means that the DO is writing pollution into the law. Raza pointed to a quick sustainability win  “it’s a no brainer, switch to gas fired stills but not the agave roasting.” At a stroke you’ll remove one huge polluter and make a huge contribution to a more sustainable industry. But since burning wood is written into the DO and the market incentives to get yourself labeled an “ancestral” or “artisanal” mezcal are huge – I mean, wouldn’t you really rather call yourself the ‘Artisanal Mezcal’ instead of just “Mezcal”? So, everyone is going to have to keep polluting just to comply with the law and sell their product at the premium it deserves.

At that time gas fired stills hadn’t been included in the new NOM so it seemed very likely that this amazing bonus to sustainability in the mezcal world would be cast by the wayside. We’re incredibly happy to see it included, even if it is just within the Mezcal category.  Now we move onto the next issue — how the NOM will be adapted and rolled out.

In the interim Sombra and others with similar campaigns are leading the charge in market differentiation and earnest fealty to sustainability and tradition. This is a fantastic example for any other brands who need to differentiate themselves within their new categories, we just have to keep making sure that green washing doesn’t come to define the NOM because it definitely already exists in some marketing campaigns. Here’s hoping that this kind of transparency pushes the industry towards more clarity, more creativity applied to making the process as sustainable as possible, so that consumers have more information to make their buying decisions.

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?

Read more

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.

Read more

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 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.
IMG_3159 IMG_3165

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.

IMG_3161

 

 

“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.

IMG_3168

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.

Death by Ruta del Mezcal

It was a whirlwind of a Oaxaca trip – not so much in time but in all that was done in two very short and long weeks.

The pretext for the trip was a wedding – my first Spanish teacher in Oaxaca marrying her Danish love, and former classmate of mine. Despite already being married for four years (in Denmark) the shindig in Oaxaca was huge, fun and no less of a celebration. Honestly, if it hadn’t been for Marisol and her introductions to her friends all those years ago, I am not sure my path in Oaxaca would have led me where it did (to mezcal).

From those crazy and late-nights beginning to the trip, everything just steam rolled through till the last day. My last trip to Oaxaca, in December of 2014 after a two year absence, was more family vacation, so sneaking in nights to the newest restaurant, mezcaleria, bar, etc was challenging. This trip I was flying solo and made the most out of it – from trekking out to pueblos, to hitting the new spots, to eating whatever and whenever I could. And of course to do this in the middle of the gorgeous and insane Guelaguetza, well, the sleep when I’m dead mantra seemed close to becoming a reality.

So overview thoughts before I start diving into these over the next couple of weeks.

  1. There has always been that fine line of parallel city existence between Oaxaca and San Francisco -two joined souls. And never did this seem more clear with the unbelievable gentrification that has happened in Oaxaca over the past three years. The money poured into welcoming tourists is quite obvious (wow that new airport, the newly paved roads – though still laden with topes, the new andador on Garcia Virgil…) The new mezcalerias – I think there are now 8 or 9 now? The prevalence of high end restaurants, cafes and their specialty roasted coffee, a cerviceria – your basic food hipster paradise.  It is quite overwhelming and with an incredible exchange rate (15.5 pesos to the dollar) well, heavenly, for me, not so great for the average Oaxacans who have been dealing with increasing wage inequality and inflation. Which leads to…
  2. Mezcal is expensive in Oaxaca. The new rules and regulations of both CRM (Comercam) and the government body that oversees business registration have created an interesting market in the city where pretty much everything now sold in bars, restaurants, stores has to be branded. The newly regulated industry has opened some pretty big doors for the middlemen who seem to be the ones getting rich. Now getting a decent copita means paying 30 pesos at the least all the way up to 200 pesos for rare stuff. Again, this is not so much a problem if you are either wealthy or a foreigner, but as an average Oaxacan well suddenly your mezcal is pretty damn expensive, unless you have a connection.
  3. The looming (or not) agave crisis and sustainability issue of the industry. The price of agave has come down, more agave is being grown, but still, it is a fragile balance and the slightest thing could throw the whole thing out of whack (another agave shortage/pricing issue in Jalisco where they have been known to use the Oaxacan agave sugars for fermentation; blight; economic shifts of pay, inflation, etc.) And of course the fact that there is no overseeing body regulating the cultivation, re-planting of wild agave, etc despite everyone talking about this for years, and well, you have a kind of mishmash or desmadre of a situation brewing.
  4. The growing influence of the European market on mezcal. It’s an easier market to enter for the most part, it’s educated when it comes to complex spirits, and of course, so much easier for travel as Oaxacans don’t need to jump through the demanding US Visa hoops.
  5. The growing visibility of women in the industry. Always a part of it, but now coming out of the shadows a bit as people/brands/cooperatives recognize the great marketing opportunities and stories to be told. Also there is the increasing independence you see as women become more educated and are waiting to have children, or have more control over when they have children.
  6. And perhaps finally, the increasing lack of transparency you see in the industry – ironically at the same time of increasing CRM regulations. These regulations have allowed for a greater disconnect between the mezcalero and the end consumer, creating even more of a market where the drinker, and sometimes even the head of the brand, really has no idea where the mezcal comes from.

It was an amazing trip, as always, and no matter how many times I have been there, no matter how much time I have spent, each trip reveals something completely new – can we say mole amarillo with conejo?

Guelaguetza dancers

Guelaguetza dancers

Maestros del Mezcal tasting

Maestros del Mezcal tasting

Reyna Sanchez in her palenque

Reyna Sanchez in her palenque

Feria del Mezcal

Feria del Mezcal

Flor de agave in Sola de Vega

Flor de agave in Sola de Vega

Mezcal price list in Mezcalogica

Mezcal price list in Mezcalogica