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Posts from the ‘Sustainability’ Category

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.
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Upon arrival, he walked us through the garden, pointing out the sierra negras, coyotes, tepestates, mexicanos, arroqueños, and barrils, to name just a few. While he continued to talk about all the varieties and time necessary to grow them his voice passed into background noise because I couldn’t stop staring at a giant quiote whose weight was so great it had fallen over and was being held up by a ladder, the blue sky and clouds above and the mountains in the distant. It is so breathtaking.

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On sustainability

Sustainable: adjective

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

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

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

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

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

Synonyms

defendable, defensible, justifiable, maintainable, supportable, tenable

 

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

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

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

: able to last or continue for a long time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Quick look – Mezcal Vago tasting in Oaxaca

Had the chance to meet up with Judah Kupor yesterday and taste though the whole Vago line at his tasting room/office/bottling facility in San Felipe del Agua. Pretty amazing stuff, especially when you are able to do it side by side and really get a sense of the flavors that are being pulled out by the mezcaleros. Stretched out several hours (important when you are looking at 12-15 mezcals), the conversation rambled over tons of topics including the controversial ones of adding water (distilling to ABV vs playing with colas, puntas and yes, water), sustainability around the agaves, wood, just how many mezcaleros to work with under a brand, fair pay, challenging the mezcaleros to move beyond their flavor comfort  zone and tradition, and well, you get the picture of a wonderful long afternoon. At some point I’ll be able to go through the notes and put those ramblings to paper.

But the mezcal – if you haven’t already had the chance to give it a try, they produce some pretty incredible stuff and are playing around with some new ones as well. Tasting some Espadins side by side – from their very first batch on, it is quite the trajectory of flavor. For anyone who ever says, oh, that is just an Espadin, well shame, because the variety and complexity of this maguey is pretty extreme.

Three Tobalas

Three Tobalas

Also tasting side by side three Tobalas was also pretty interesting and again pointed to how much is determined by terrior, water, and distillation and storing – clay/copper/glass.

It is impossible to name stand outs – Madrecuixe, Tepestate, Mexicano, Sierra Negra (with 10% Espadin) – all compete equally and really just depend on the personal palette of the drinker. Me, I still want to go for the Elote every time because nothing quite puts the flavor memory of Mexico into a bottle quite like that one, and presents equally the vital role both maiz and maguey play in life down here.

I am looking forward to a trek out to Candelaria Yegole next week to see the full operation and of course what further hours of conversation will unveil.

A “wild” tasting

I had a chance to check out the Maestros del Mezcal tasting in Oaxaca. It was completely focused on wild agaves (silvestres) and included a collection of live plants. There were some pretty amazing mezcals from small producers – from varieties we do not see, or rarely see, in the US. I had a Sierra Negra that blew my socks off, a Chato from the Siera Sur, and a truly sublime wild Espadin from the Sola de Vega region. None of these are CRM (COMERCAM) certified, and unless the producers work with someone who has money and is looking to develop a brand, it is unlikely most of them will be certified. There was also the chance to try maguey tortillas which had a lovely sweet flavor to them.

A little bit of a surprise was how many more women were present on the producer side, which is really exciting to see as this is a tough barrier to crack – more on this later as it is a focus of my trip here to Oaxaca.

I had a wedding to go to later in the day so I was trying to be as moderate in tasting as I could be – pretty damn near impossible when presented with so many different varieties of magueys and flavors. At some point someone will need to figure out the pricing issue – small bottles were selling for 50-100 pesos, larger bottles for 150-250 pesos. For rare silvestres, that just doesn’t seem like enough and certainly doesn’t include the hours of labor of the palenqueros.

It was a great kick off for the mezcal adventures to come over the next couple of weeks.

Maguey tortillas

Maguey tortillas

Sample - wild agave

Sample – wild agave

Sample - wild agave

Sample – wild agave

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.

Sarah Bowen interview

Sarah Bowen

Sarah Bowen

Sarah Bowen is an Associate Professor of Sociology at North Carolina State University who has long studied the impact of the tequila and mezcal industries on Mexico. Most recently she wrote a great portrait of the battles over how to define mezcal in the winter issue of Gastronomica. Those debates consumed the mezcal world in 2011 and 2012, ultimately culminating in the defeat of NOM 186 and the Mexican government’s proposal to copyright the term “agave.”

It’s well worth reading and is something of a preface to her upcoming book, “Divided Spirits: Tequila, Mezcal, and the Politics of Production,” due out this September from the University of California Press. We are really looking forward to that and will definitely post our notes on it as soon as it’s available.

Here’s an excerpt from the official description of the book:

This book tells the stories of tequila and mezcal, two of Mexico’s most iconic products, to investigate the politics of protecting local products in a global market. As people yearn to connect with the people and places that produce their food, the concept of terroir—the taste of place—has become increasingly salient.

The growing global demand for tequila and mezcal has led to fame and fortune for a handful of people, while excluding and marginalizing many others. Thess cases analyzed in this book illustrate the limitations of relying on alternative markets to protect food cultures and rural livelihoods.

Sarah has published widely in the academic world about the history and contemporary issues with how tequila and mezcal are managing their Denominacion de Origen. It’s a huge story in Mexico and part of an even bigger one as producers of traditional goods as diverse as cheese and spirits struggle to retain control over their intellectual and cultural property in an increasingly globalized marketplace.

Mezcal is currently embroiled in exactly this discussion about the proposed NOM 070 and Sarah delves into this debate  that apparently pits authentic back country distillers against industrialists. But that romanticized portrait is only part of the story, significant issues are seldom discussed like who’s really getting paid? Is that romantic story even true? Is it sustainable? Is the agave listed on the bottle even in the mezcal? And, perhaps most important she raises the big question of whether the industry has to stay static like a fly in amber or whether it can become a dynamic force.

We talked recently to delve into these questions, how she sees the mezcal industry developing in the face of NOM 070, and what role North American consumers play in the entire debate.

How did you get started studying the world of mezcal?

I have been looking at this topic since 2002. I started out looking at the shift to agave cultivation in southern Jalisco during the agave shortage in the early 2000s. I did my dissertation on the Denominación de Origen for tequila, and I have been studying mezcal for about six years. In all this time that I’ve been looking at the history of regulation of tequila and mezcal, it seems like it’s been going in one direction. Almost all of the changes made to the regulations have been expanding the markets for tequila and mezcal and increasing exports. It’s not at all in the direction of helping small farmers and producers. In the last few years, with the failure of NOM 186 and now the proposed revisions to the norm for mezcal, it feels like we are seeing a major shift in the evaluation of the tequila and mezcal industries..

 Why now? Who’s behind it?

 My article in Gastronomica is about the campaign against NOM 186 and the proposal to copyright the word “agave.” American bartenders, retailers, and consumers played a big role. In my interviews, people that had been organizing against the campaign told me that no one was really paying attention until realized that boycotts by American consumers were possible. That played an important role. The case of NOM 186 offers a lot of hope,  because there’s this movement coming out of the US and Mexico, of people who care about artisanal mezcal and are aligning themselves with small producers. This offers small producers an opportunity that, unfortunately, they wouldn’t have on their own. As Americans that care, we also have to be careful because our interests don’t necessarily align with those of the small mezcal producers. We really need to think about our role.

 How would you encourage American consumers to think about this and act?

Try to be educated about how mezcal is produced. It’s hard to do when you’re here in the US. Try to know something about how producers and farmers are being paid. This can be difficult, because not all companies want to be transparent about this. But we should support companies that are paying the workers and producers well, not just because their mezcal or their tequila tastes good. The most important thing is to start talking about the workers and producers.

Can you offer any specific guidance to consumers? Are there any brands they should follow, any specific stories?

There are some interesting brands like Mezcal Sanzekan, which is owned by a cooperative of mezcal producers, or Real Minero, which is Mexican-owned. But then there are other models too, like companies that are part Mexican, part American, or Americans that are working with small producers in respectful and fair ways. 

Part of the issue is that getting into the American market is hard to do, so Mexican producers frequently have to work with someone else to get access to the market. My main point of hope is that so much has changed in past 10 years. Just the fact that consumers are talking about all these things makes me really hopeful. When I started this research, no one was talking about terroir, there was hardly any artisanal mezcal available in the US, and no one was talking about environmental practices and sustainability. Now that’s what we talk about. I think that talking about workers and producers is the final step. There isn’t a hard and fast rule; it is hard to figure it out. But I am heartened by the fact that people are talking about mezcal in a more thoughtful way than they were even 5-10 years ago.

What do you think of the proposed Norma?

I was shocked by the proposal, because it is just a radical break from the previous norma for mezcal and the tequila norm. But the problem is that we have no idea what’s actually going to happen. If something even close to the proposal passed, it would be a major shift. As part of my book, I analyzed the regulations and the Denominaciones de Origen for tequila and mezcal. Since 1949, they have evolved in one direction: towards making mezcal and tequila less specific, less tied to particular places, with a focus on expanding markets. The original mezcal norma was almost an exact copy of the norm that regulated tequila, so the proposal is a big change. I’m intrigued to see what will happen.

Are there any other models people should think about other than European wine?

 My dissertation research compared the Denominación de Origen for tequila with a case in France: Comté cheese, which is protected by an Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC), which is France’s version of a Denominación de Origen. Comté cheese is exemplary even in France. That case showed me what a focus on tradition and terroir can do. The AOC included rules that preserved the specific characteristics of the region, but that also had positive effects on farmers. As an example, they had a rule that all of the milk used to make Comté cheese had to come from within a 25 km radius of where the cheese was being made. This helped preserve the link to terroir and the taste of the cheese, but it also helped small farmers and cheesemakers, by discouraging industrial groups form coming in, because the made it harder for them to industrialize and achieve economies of scale.

So there are examples that show the potential for what these kinds of labels can do. But it’s important not to idealize it too much. There are lots of examples of AOCs in France that are industrializing, where big companies are buying out out the small ones. So it’s not a perfect solution. You have to look in Mexico for things that will work there. To my knowledge, tequila is the first Denominación de Origen outside of Europe. Mexico is very different from Europe, so the exact same model isn’t going to work there. What is odd about Denominaciones de Origen in Mexico is that the legal definition is basically an exact copy of the French definition, but even though the idea of terroir is right there in the definition, in practice, the rules have never gone in the direction of preserving tradition or terroir. Some of the producers and retailers that I’ve talked to have proposed having smaller Denominaciones de Origens, which would be linked to a particular village or region, where there’s a sense of tradition in how mezcal has developed in that place.

Politically what examples are mezcal makers looking at? Do they just look at the tequila model?

I’ve talked to many mezcal producers who say, “Look at tequila; it’s been very successful. They built the market and improved quality.” That is true. The market for tequila tripled between 1995 and 2008. By many measures, it’s been very successful. But it has not been successful in terms of protecting the agave farmers, the environment, or the traditions that make tequila unique.

The interesting thing about mezcal now is that there’s this divide between those who want to follow the tequila model, and people who don’t want that. Mezcal still has many small producers and traditions that have developed in particular regions, and there is still a chance of preserving that. The path for tequila has basically already been chosen.

Politically, who knows? The role of the US matters. The United States has a lot of influence in Mexico. The United States agrees to protect tequila and mezcal as Mexican products, but we don’t recognize the concept Denominación de Origen as a legal concept. As an example of the influence of the US, a few years ago, a lot of people, including the president of Mexico at the time, proposed requiring that all tequila be bottled in Mexico. But they backed down due to opposition from the bottlers in the US and some of the tequila companies, many of which are owned by multinational companies.  That case demonstrated the power of the US. In Mexico, the the revisions to the laws that established the procedure for establishing quality standards (the normas) for all Mexican products in the early 1990s were part of a fundamental neoliberal shift in Mexico, focused on increasing access export markets and foreign capital.  The normas and the Denominación de Origen are not focusing on preserving tradition and terroir. They are about preserving market access.  It will be interesting to see what happens with this proposal to change the normas that regulate mezcal. Whatever happens with this proposal will tell us something about which way the wind is blowing.

What about tequila? Could it change?

I interviewed a lot of tequila producers in 2006, and I think maybe one person used the word terroir. Many farmers, and some of the tequila producers, would talk about the way the agave grown in certain regions had particular characteristics, so there was definitely an understanding of the idea of terroir. But now there is a lot more emphasis on terroir. Some companies are saying that their tequila is single estate tequila, or even from a single farm or ranch. So there has definitely been a huge increase in how much people are talking about terroir.

I think that some companies are doing interesting things, but I also think that some companies rely on a rhetoric of terroir, while continuing to source their agave from different regions. This may happen even more during periods of shortage. For the big companies especially, their strategy involves sourcing agave from all over the DO region, to get the best best price and supply. And of course, some companies have been accused of illegally buying agave from Oaxaca during periods of shortage. So in terms of really preserving a link to terroir and helping farmers and communities, for the biggest tequila companies, their talk about terroir and place is just rhetoric, because if they were really talking about it, it would really make them less flexible and put farmers at an advantage. We need to be talking more about the role of farmers in the tequila industry. But even when we’re talking about single estate tequilas, we’re not talking about how farmers are paid and treated. There are a lot of risks associated with cultivating agave for farmers, because it takes so long to mature. The prices fluctuate, and there is a lot of uncertainty. There needs to be more talk about the role of farmers and agricultural workers, and how they are being compensated.

That ominous sound you’re hearing?

A screen shot of Eduardo Belaunzarán's Facebook update showing Fundación Agaves Silvestres's effort at cultivating tobala hiuelos in the Oaxacan valley

A screen shot of Eduardo Belaunzarán’s Facebook update showing Fundación Agaves Silvestres’s effort at cultivating tobala hijuelos in the Oaxacan valley

It’s quiet but it’s the sound of agave supply collapsing. At least that’s what Susan heard routinely in her December trip to Oaxaca. I’d heard bits and pieces of this story before, that distillers who devoted energy to cultivating all types of agave are doing well while distillers who buy agave from farmers are getting hit by huge price increases. Now it seems like there is very little agave on the market. Demand for mezcal is  high and not enough of agave, especially the wild varieties, was planted 5-10 years ago.

A recent example, the tobala collapse in the valley around Oaxaca seems to be because the first wave of heavy demand from the late 90’s into the 2000’s wasn’t replanted. Some combination of contract distillation and unreplaced harvests left everyone there without any wild agaves.

Enter new thinkers in the mezcal world like the people behind Tosba, Vago, Wahaka who are aggressively propagating agaves on their land and meeting with amazing success. When Judah Kuper from Vago first told me that they were planting lots of agaves previously only seen in the wild I had him repeat himself three times just to make sure that I wasn’t taking his comment out of context.

Now it ends up that not only was he right but the equation is so much more simple, most distillers and farmers didn’t try to cultivate the wild species because previously they just sold to local markets and they could always find enough agave supply in the wild to fill the local demand.

Once mezcal started selling well throughout Mexico and became a hot export they kept harvesting without replanting. They distilled and didn’t farm. There are  exceptions like Luis Mendez based in Sola de Vega. He has quietly been cultivating tobalas, coyotes and jabalis for the past 20 odd years, and has shown incredible success in his practices. But he’s the exception to a sad rule.

Now that the estate grown operations are meeting success and have a consistent volume other makers who contracted out for their agave harvests or distilled juice are feeling a squeeze. At the very least it’s financial both because distillers can ask for more pesos/liter but it’s feeling like there’s an honest-to-god supply squeeze which may drive some contract buyers out of business or to raise prices. The good news is that the cultivation approach is spreading rapidly. And then there’s a vast reservoir of agave throughout the country that has yet to be tapped. That’s another factor behind expanding the Denominación de Origen. In the interim Oaxaca’s central valleys are feeling the squeeze.