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Posts tagged ‘comercam’

Erick Rodriguez gets what he wants

Checking in with Erick Rodriguez of Alma Mezcalera and plenty of other projects. He sources much of the mezcal behind the Fundacion Agaves Silvestres’ Vino de Mezcales series, guides tours of mezcal production zones, and is a real political activist when it comes to defining the future of mezcal. We’ve called him the Indiana Jones of Mezcal exactly because he combines all of these ventures in a constantly evolving state of political action. Always ethical, personable, and ready to head off into the heart of Mexico in search of its next mezcal.

The latest update is that it sounds like the NORMA as proposed in meetings across Mexico and in a recent presentation by Danny Mena in NY is going to become law. The really big news is that Erick’s definition of a traditional mezcal labeled as “Ancestral” in the proposed law looks like it’s going to remain intact. That’s pretty incredible considering the strength of industrial producers and the dynamic within this discussion. While still a niche product distillation, exports, and interest in mezcal is booming so hopefully this regulation will lay the foundation for stable growth. Everyone I know has been unusually encouraged by the process because it has been unusually transparent and quick. The organization that oversees mezcal regulation in Mexico, COMERCAM, has had open meetings and actively engaged with a variety of people in the business. This despite all the dark rumors.

I chatted with Erick to go back over his original idea and to check in on where he sees the process today. He had a pretty succinct description of the financial inequities inherent in the current system: “Look small producers can’t compete with industrial producers who are making 5,000 liters a day. If you’re small you may make  30-60 liters in one run. We can’t compete legally if we want to call it mezcal. We can’t even pay taxes because if you make a traditional mezcal the ABV is going to be higher and taxes rise with the ABV so industrial producers even get lower taxes.”

That’s been a problem for a while as the vast numbers of small producers try to make a place for themselves inside Mexico and on the international market. The tax rate has been an especially tough barrier for domestic distribution because if you’re used to drinking mezcal as part of your daily life, once you get that official stamp of approval from the government, the price of it increases for your customers. Erick was recently in Michoacan where local producers asked him to talk to the government about that issue. He said “it’s like wine in other cultures, you drink it daily but now the government wants to increase the price on us small guys while the big guys pay less.”

Erick was the person who really got the Ancestral label into the current NORMA proposal despite consistent protests that it would cloud customer information about mezcal “They keep saying they don’t want to confuse people. But it’s a necessary distinction. They don’t even want me to speak about it. They want to erase that this type of mezcal exists because it doesn’t look good for their mezcal.” And by their mezcal Erick means big industrially produced brands.

To go back over this quickly I’m appropriating John McEvoy’s nice table of the proposal here. Read his blog post on the recent presentation of this in New York both to get more depth on the topic and to get a sense for the degree of transparency involved. For the first time in collective memory there has been some form of road show about these regulations which is revelatory in its own right!

Three New Categories Cooking Grinding Fermentation Distillation
Mezcal Pit ovens, elevated stone ovens, and autoclaves – diffuser use under review Tahona, Chilean or Egyptian mill, trapiche, shredder or series of mills Wood, masonry or stainless steel tanks Stills, continuous stills, columns stills made of copper or steel
Artisanal Mezcal Pit ovens or elevated stone ovens Tahona, Chilean or Egyptian mill, mallets, trapiche, or shredder Wood, clay or masonry tanks, animal skins, hollows in stone, earth or tree trunks, and process may use maguey fibers Direct fire on copper stills or clay pots and coils made of clay, wood, copper, or stainless steel, and process may include maguey fibers
Ancestral Mezcal Pit ovens only Tahona, Chilean or Egyptian mill, or mallets Wood, clay or masonry tanks, animal skins, hollows in stone, earth or tree trunks, and processmust use maguey fibers Direct fire on clay pots and coils made clay or wood, and process mustinclude maguey fibers

The discussion about the distinction between Aristanal and Ancestral has been pretty well talked to death but take a look at Pedro Jimenez to the barricades post here, John McEvoy’s response, and our own screed about the threats from excessive industrialization. It boils down to making a distinction between people who want credit for continuing to produce mezcal exactly as it has been for hundreds of years. We think  that there’s a good argument for this both for the product and the marketplace because it allows makers like those Erick works with to distinguish themselves just like Cognac or Bourdeaux Crus.

The best news is that it looks like there’s going to be a clean vote on the NORMA within weeks, possibly even this Wednesday. From what Erick has heard the three variations of mezcal will be sealed into the law and three new states will be certified as producing mezcal, Morelos, Estado de Mexico, and Puebla.

And just as they acknowledge those states even more are emerging as mezcal producers. Erick is off to Veracruz where he recently found a bunch of mezcal distillers who blend their products in a local factory and label them as destillados de agave. He said “I told COMERCAM to mention Veracruz, they don’t even know that mezcal is made there! I asked them [the Veracruz producers] if they want to be part of the new NORMA  and they told me ‘No we’re happy with what we have.’ so I’m going to visit the small producers and find the good ones.” Just like he always does. Stay tuned because Erick is working on a very interesting distilling project that we’ll write about very soon.

The debate over COMERCAM’s rules continues

The field of espadin bordering Palenque Roaguia

The field of espadin bordering Palenque Roaguia

The excellent Clayton Szczech continues his coverage of the COMERCAM rule changes with a focus on what he sees as the fulcrum of the discussion:

Fundamentally, the question boils down to this: will the Norm follow the model of Tequila, and allow for potentially unlimited growth in production, or the model of Cognac and limit production methods (and therefore growth) to preserve quality and increase prices? This will be the central conflict of mezcal in the coming months and years.

It’s fantastic that COMERCAM has gotten this far and that many of the parties are involved look to Cognac as a model. I’ve advocated the wine world’s model of denomination of origin, Cognac’s works perfectly to achieve the same goal because it focuses on the constraints inherent in the mezcal industry materially (there is only so much agave to go around as well as other environmental factors) and culturally (there is a definite tradition of mezcal production that’s worth protecting).

The proposal as defined now does a pretty good job of achieving these goals and that alone is something of a triumph. Of course it’s very early in the process. Clayton spends a good chunk of his article looking at how the larger industrial powers within the mezcal industry are working against these proposals because they want to create a mass market from mezcal.

A key letter (in Spanish or English in Clayton’s translation) from Javier Flores on behalf of Casa Armando Guillermo Prieto which is the company behind Zignum, makes it very clear how the industrial producers look at the issue. To paraphrase ‘Mezcal has a great history but in order to fulfill global demand we need to increase production because that’s what consumers demand. Consumers also demand a product that is certified by chemical analysis. And, by letting us produce mezcal in volume we’ll employ local workers. Remember, we’re wholly owned by Mexicans unlike some mezcal and many tequila brands?’

Clayton also highlights the efforts of long time mezcal advocates Erick Rodriguez aka Erick Almamezcalera and Marco Ochoa from Oaxaca’s beloved Mezcaloteca to carve out a third “rústico” category of mezcals that would apply to the truly traditional palenquero who uses only the most basic and time honed techniques.  

Perhaps most important you get a chance to comment on the proposal so definitely tell COMERCAM what you think through their page here.

Digesting COMERCOM’s suggested changes to mezcal

Since they were released May 19th COMERCAM’s suggested revisions to how mezcals are labeled have been the source of a vigorous discussion. Clayton Szczech at Experience Mezcal has the most lucid description of what’s in the proposal that we’ve seen so definitely read his piece thoroughly.

Erick Rodriguez has long been active in this discussion and his Facebook post presents his position succinctly, here’s his opening salvo about this latest circular to give you an idea of the passion and debate this announcement has sparked:

Que puedo decir… Me cagan estos pendejos les falta tener más información y no sólo querer tomar decisiones por sus huevos, si no se revisan muchas cosas injustas para los mezcales tradicionales o una división de categorías ( industriales, artesanales y tradicionales) se seguirán comercializando “pese a quien le pese” (así como se menciona) dejemos por un momento las tradiciones, costumbres lo cultural los que trabajamos con estas familias que por siempre han sido aplastadas por sus intereses económicos y sociales, no los abandonaremos, no les diremos dejen de producir, porque seguro migraran y por consecuencia la desintegración familiar también se violenta la garantía individual de libertad de trabajo, consagrada en el art. 5 de nuestra constitución.
Habrán tomado algún día buen mezcal estas gentes?
Neee! yo me chingo un Mezcalito pal’alma…
Abracen a sus maestros. 

In brief the circular proposes changing the labeling to “mezcal” which sounds like it means industrially produced and a new category of “mezcal artesanal/tradicional” which means pretty much what you expect: Agave hearts have to be cooked underground, crushed, fermented, and then double distilled. The one interesting note about the artesanal/tradicional category is that the cooked agave hearts can be crushed with mechanical means. This is not fully surprising as you do see some palenques that otherwise are fully “traditional” in their process using mechanized chippers. 

However, circular 20 seems to cloud the distinction in the main proposal so we are going to do some more digging on that question. We chatted with a few people already producing mezcal in a traditional and artisanal fashion who say that most changes for them would be relatively small and mean slight changes to their labels. We haven’t been able to find anything on the question of whether this proposal would open the door to a tiered system for certification costs and tax rates but it certainly appears to create the legal distinction needed for that. We’ll have plenty of time to dig since it will probably take years for this to wind its way through the Mexican political system.

Oaxaca’s daily La Imparcial reported the story with quotes from COMERCOM’s head Hippocrates Nolasco Cancino.

 

 

 

COMERCAM Meeting in Oaxaca

We got a heads up on a big COMERCAM meeting happening in Matatlan, Oaxaca this Saturday (full article here.) We are especially interested in this as some pretty contentious issues will likely be discussed including heavy crackdown on uncertified mezcal (small batch/small production mezcal) being sold into the market, domestic vs export market production, and regulatory controls. We’ll have a complete report next week about the meeting and what it might mean for the mezcal industry, or more specifically, small producers.

Oaxacan agave being sent to Jalisco

Since our last post about rumors of agave being shipped north we’ve heard from another source confirming that 3-4 trucks per day are moving agave north to Jalisco. Since then it’s become a more widely reported phenomenon with this piece and this one as well. Per our earlier post there have  rumors about this for quite some time so, on her recent trip to Oaxaca, Susan asked a number of people in the industry about this issue. No one was surprised. When asked why this isn’t a shock they routinely answer that ‘of course this has always happened.’ This is yet another reason why many in the mezcal business have no respect for COMERCAM and it raises even more questions about NOM 186. This would be a huge scandal in the wine world and pretty much anywhere else with an existing denomination system. We’ve seen the initial outcry among journalists in Mexico, now let’s see if it sinks into the industry and bureaucracy.