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.
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.
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.
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.