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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.

When political unrest and mezcal collide

This is not a post to try and explain the current upheaval in Oaxaca, or go into the long history (and more recent) of why the teacher’s are striking. It is a highly complex and sensitive issue with people losing their lives and livelihoods. This is merely to look at the situation through the mezcal lens, given the boom in Oaxaca and the increased awareness of the city, state and culture because of it. Read more

Oaxaca Day Trip: Etla Valley

This is a cross post from one of our frequent collaborators, Ferron Salniker. You can read her excellent blog Ferronlandia here. This piece was originally published on 4/3/16. You can read the original here.

IMG_0345The days of the week in Oaxaca are told by market days. Sunday is Tlacolula, Friday is Ocotlán, Thursday is Zaachila, and Wednesday is Etla. These are the days when there is tiangis, meaning people from the area come to surround the permanent market and sell anything from turkey eggs to cell phone cases. Usually you can find stuff to do afterwards in each town (artisans or murals to visit for instance). But usually there isn’t a textile mill turned arts center and a paper factory on top of the hill. Etla is 30 minutes from Oaxaca, and well worth the colectivo ride.
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Day Trip From Oaxaca City: Ocotlán

This is a cross post from one of our frequent collaborators, Ferron Salniker. You can read her excellent blog Ferronlandia here. This piece was originally published on 3/16/16. You can read the original here.

On Fridays it’s market day in Ocotlán de Morales, a town about 20 miles south of Oaxaca city. Like any market day in Oaxaca tarps web out from the permanent market covering a maze of stands selling fruits and vegetables, dried chiles and fish, kitchen tools, ceramics and woven bags, jeans and cheap plastic jewelry. It’s fun to weave your way through, but if you can only take so much overstimulation (like me) you will want some other things to do:
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On meeting David Suro

It seems hard to believe that our paths hadn’t crossed before but I finally had the opportunity to meet David Suro, he of Tequila Restaurant in Philadelphia, the Tequila Interchange Project (TIP) and Siembra Azul Tequila. For a good picture of the man and his passion for agave, be sure to checkout the great interview The Kitchen Sisters did with him a few years back.

Suro is in town doing a series of trainings and tastings for his Siembra Azul Tequila and Siembra Metl Mezcal. A special dinner at Oakland’s Calavera on Monday, a happy hour at Loló Tuesday, and a training and talk at ABV Wednesday. A whirlwind of activity for sure.

So what’s on Suro’s mind these days? Read more

Last call for t-shirts!

The first Mezcalistas t-shirts.

The first Mezcalistas t-shirts.

We are about to start work on our next t-shirt design so we’ve stopped making our first designs and only have a few shirts left in a few sizes. You can see them in our Etsy shop here. We really only have smalls and mediums left with one XL Prometido and one XL Quitapenas but if you’re worried about a specific size just contact us with this form and we’ll hold it for you if we still have it or respond asap if we don’t. Stay tuned for our new designs!

 

 

A little mezcal to get your day started right

Courtesy of the Internet Book Archive on Flickr. This excerpt and image come from América pintoresca; descripcion de viajes al nuevo continente por los mas modernos exploradores" (1884)

Courtesy of the Internet Book Archive on Flickr. This excerpt and image come from América pintoresca; descripcion de viajes al nuevo continente por los mas modernos exploradores” (1884)

Vasijas del cementerio de Nahualac (De fotografía) Pasamos la noche, que nos pareció interminable, debajo de una simple choza de esteras.Por la mañana, nos calentamos el estómago con un buen trago de mezcal, y volvimos á em-prender nuestra tarea. Los hallazgos fueron numerosos, pero todos parecidos, y los ídolos, loscarritos de niño, las urnas y los dioses Tlaloc se repitieron sin cesar. La estación de Nahualac ocupaba mucha más extensión que la de Tenenepanco, y nospareció además de fecha mucho más remota, porque no encontramos ni un solo fragmento deosamenta humana. También abundaba más la imagen de Tlaloc, habiendo encontrado algunascompletas, agitando con la mano derecha una serpiente, atributo que simbolizaba el relámpago,el rayo y la tempestad. Recogimos en Nahualac cerca de ochocientas piezas de todas formas, y provistos de tanrico botín, nos despedimos de la montaña.

The images from this book are spectacular and are a testament to Flickr and the Internet Archive. It’s well worth a few minutes of your time this Friday even if you have to substitute coffee for un buen trago de mezcal.

Vaso de mezcal

Just a little reminder of how things used to work courtesy of a display at San Francisco’s Mexican Museum.

From the Mexican Museum.

From the Mexican Museum.

From the Mexican Museum.

From the Mexican Museum.

A meeting of minds

The bar at Casa Mezcal, the Los Amantes project in Manhattan.

The bar at Casa Mezcal, the Los Amantes project in Manhattan.

It’s already been more than a month which tells you that I’ve been busy. But on a balmy evening in June we finally had the meeting of mezcal blogger minds. Yes, the Mezcal PhD sat down with Mezcalistas for a few glasses of mezcal at New York’s Casa Mezcal and resolved to solve the problems of the universe. Along the way they found much common ground, met their bar mates, and forged a lasting bond.

First we need to back up a bit and set the scene. I’d never been to Casa Mezcal before but did a double take upon entering because the decoration is a dark mirror of Oaxaca’s Los Amantes tasting room. A few seconds later I remembered that Casa Mezcal is run by the folks behind Los Amantes and the shock unraveled into homage because, as the photo above amply illustrates, the bar comes with a stuffed turkey and massive glass bottles almost perfectly channeling the original Oaxaca location.

John McEvoy is the blogger know as Mezcal PhD. As I mentioned we’ve corresponded via email, Susan and him even spoke by phone, but he and I had never really connected. A fortuitous trip to New York in June gave me just the opening I was looking for so we met up on the Lower East Side and really hit it off. He brought a copy of his, then, brand new book, Holy Soke! It’s Mezcal! so that I could finally see what he’d been slaving over for months. We chatted about the book and sundry other subjects, exchanged tasting notes, and shared a few glasses.

As we ordered I was struck by the similarity in the mezcal list. Just a few years ago there was quite a difference between what you could find in California and New York. Today it’s virtually the same list. It seems like brands are quickly finding their way across the continent. And by across I literally mean side to side because unfortunately I haven’t been able to visit most of the mid-section of the continent for a few years.

As with most mezcal fueled conversations our partners at the bar joined in and we had the pleasure of meeting Aditit Malhotra who runs Tache Chocolate around the corner. She rushed out to her shop to bring us some samples of her tequila inflected chocolates and introduced us to her friend who is appearing in a new reality cooking show. It’s moments like this that tempt one to conjour a higher power aka mezcal world phenomenon. Could it be people who like mezcal are inherently more interesting? Perhaps there’s a smaller group of them so that the sampling bias is more intense? Perhaps something else.

Whatever the case we sampled tequila chocolate while talking reality cooking. During stray moments of silence I jumped into John’s book and came up with a variety of questions. I finally finished it last month and just need to write up my thoughts so stay tuned. While sitting at the bar conversation strayed from mezcal to the quirks of the publishing world which may just be the definition of quirk. But that’s another topic for another blog. Back to the mezcal.

As I mentioned above we couldn’t really find any mezcals that aren’t already available in California so the novelty index was pretty low.  That’s not to say that quality suffered, we tasted Los Amantes’ flagship espadin, the Leyendas line, and a few other things to compare tasting notes and remind ourselves of certain idiosyncratic elements of each bottling. One of the fun things about these sorts of tastings is that no matter how distinct the personal taste, everyone can acknowledge what everyone else is tasting. You say dusty, I say, yup, I taste that as well. Whether I or you like that is a completely different question. At least we agree that it exists.

John and I talked about our mutual interests (mezcal, fly fishing, food) and really dug into the book and world of mezcal. He has some fascinating data in the appendices for COMERCAM’s selective reporting on volume of export per brand  which gives you a sense for just how small most of the industry really is. Suffice to say that we’ll definitely be organizing future meetings of this sort.

The only good news about waiting so long to write this post is that John will be in town for our Mezcal: Mexico in a Bottle extravaganza on September 14th. We’ll put him on stage to chat about his interests and make sure that he circulates so watch out for a professorial presence. That will be him. In the interim definitely order a copy of his book so that you can be well informed about the mezcal universe.

 

 

 

Yet another problem for the mezcal business

 

methtequila

As if all the other problems in the world of mezcal weren’t enough here’s word that drug cartels are smuggling liquid meth in bottles of tequila thus exposing cross-border shipments of tequila and, presumably, mezcal to greater scrutiny. For a long time, perhaps time immemorial, bringing in a few bottles of mezcal not found outside of Mexico let alone the little palenque of origin was normal practice. Most of those bottles aren’t labeled so I can’t imagine what border guards are going to do now that they suspect meth in every bottle. Consider yourself warned next time you drive a few bottles over…