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
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
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.
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.
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
All photos courtesy of Rion Toal.