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. Read more
Posts tagged ‘nom 70’
NOTE: I edited this piece slightly because a sharp eyed commenter noted that diffusors are explicitly allowed, a fact that I flat out missed while reading and translating the NOM. I’m going to be writing more about that in the coming days but for now I’m just updating this post with the relevant information.
— Max Garrone
Ever so quietly NOM 70 was passed into Mexican law on February 23nd. This after years of debate and discussion – a process that was unusual for its inclusiveness and for how the voices of the people impacted by the law are included in it. Now that we have a law it’s time to figure out what it means. Here’s the full text.
Big picture: Read more
Now that the new NOM 70‘s categories of Ancestral, Artisanal and Mezcal are here it’s time to consider how the Law of Unintended Consequences is going to impact the mezcal world. As we’ve outlined before, 70 increases transparency for the consumer in understanding what is in their bottle and how it has been made. Can you think of another spirit that goes to these lengths?
But don’t confuse this new labeling system with sustainability – that’s a completely separate issue that everyone is grappling with in one way or another. It’s an especially hot topic now because mezcal is growing at a galloping pace: 2016 mezcal sales are set to outpace 2015 by more than 20%.
How to drink sustainably?
The good folks at the Tequila Interchange Project are circulating a petition in opposition to the newly proposed NOM 199 that came out of left field. This is the NOM put forward to streamling and regulate the entire spirits industry in Mexico, which in theory sounds great. Of course like so many good intentions, it has gone horribly awry and is terrible news for any producer of agave distillates that falls outside of the DO.
The CRM doesn’t have a way to publicly comment on the recent release of NOM 70 so we’ve created this Change.org petition to express support for it. As you’ll see it’s most textly from our earlier blog post on the issue. We support 70 because it achieves most of the goals that the mezcal world, from small palenqueros to global consumers, have articulated over the past three years during the drafting and discussion process. Here is Hipocrates’ letter introducing it. Here is the full text of the proposal. So, definitely sign the petition and we’ll pass the results onto Hipocrates Nolasco, head of the CRM. It’s really important that you sign it so don’t be shy and distribute it far and wide on FaceBook, email, Twitter, and in your bar side conversations.
There’s nothing quite like an unexpected news dump on Thanksgiving that took more than a couple of days to bubble up into the public view.
David Suro first flagged the release of heretofore unheard of NOM 199 which seems to be some sort of bastard child of the failed NOM 186. Clayton Szczech, who has done great work covering the evolution of the NOM in Mexico, has a great synopsis and preliminary thoughts of the document and implications for mezcal: Read more
It’s been months since the CRM or Consejo Regulador Mezcal, the new name for COMERCAM, dropped their annual report Informe 2015, a 72 page powerpoint presentation on the state of the industry. It’s fascinating stuff and less daunting than its page count threatens because most of the slides are exactly that, bullet points or graphs synopsizing the industry. In many ways it’s a rallying point for everyone invested and interested in the fate of the agave spirits industry because, while it doesn’t cover tequila directly, it does speak to the larger questions on everyone’s mind starting with identity because this is first, and foremost, a positive pitch for Plan Mezcal from Hipócrates Nolasco Cancinco, the president of the CRM. While not written with much voice it very clearly comes from his desk and retains a degree of personality usually washed out of C Suite presentations. Among the many things mezcal needs right now, it’s that sort of cheerleader-in-chief just to keep getting the branding message across while keeping everyone positive about the future.
And Hipócrates clearly sees himself in that role. He casts the CRM, the agency that certifies anything that legally calls itself a mezcal, as the “punta de lanza de la industria,” which is quite forceful language for what has been something of a whipping boy for smaller producers. It’s high time that mezcal’s representative organization stood up and stood for something positive. This presentation is the clearest indication of that ambition to date. And Hipócrates isn’t making this a, pardon the pun, purely militaristic charge. Right there on the same page he says:
Algo inedito sucedió hace tres años, arstesanos y empresarios se unieron en una sola voz y se llamaron a sí mismos “hermano maguey” para convertir al CRM en su aliado y conductor de la industria, como resultado del hartazgo de la visión corta y poco efectiva de la autoridades.
In plain language, ‘I’m a uniter, not a divider.’ Hipócrates wants the CRM to lead and he follows up with much more in that vein through his introductory slides culminating in this statement:
El Mezcal continúa su ascenso en las cumbres internacionales, sus estadísticas son muy prometedoras, en los próximos años se decide si cosolidamos una tendencia o solo somos una moda, para hacerlo bien debemos prepararnos en todos los ámbitos y estar a la altura de lo que el consumidor nacional e interncional exige: autenticidad, identidad, cultura, sustentabilidad, calidad, etc. (emphasis added)
There you have it: ‘I’m growing brand mezcal and we’re at a transformational point, either we continue with mezcal as a hobby or we make it into a globalized industry based on a brand identity built on the ideas of authenticity and Mexican culture.’ That’s the most succinct and clear description of a brand for mezcal I’ve ever seen and the only one to really rise above the daily chisme. So, pay attention, the man has ambition, whether he can pull it all off is a question that the rest of the report really struggles with.
A quick note about numbers, unless otherwise noted I’m citing certified production numbers which obviously don’t include anyone who hasn’t received certification. No one has a good estimate for how much that undercounts mezcal production in Mexico but it’s significant.
Growth is the Story
If there’s one master narrative in this report it’s that mezcal is growing. More is being made, more types, more states, more exported. As always it’s the details that matter and they tell a more complex story that bears out much of what we’ve been hearing and reporting.
The report shows point after point of growth starting with a huge jump in asociados, an additional 46 from 2013 to 2014 for a total of 526 which is an even more impressive total when measured against the base of 303 in the rather ambiguously defined baseline of 2003-2011. That’s all good stuff, presumably asociados means brands registered with the CRM which means that the market is vivacious, possibly even crowding up. Of course that probably doesn’t measure the sum total of mezcal producers in Mexico which would add hundreds, if not thousands, to this total. That points up the larger problem in certification, lots of mezcaleros haven’t managed to certify their mezcals because of the expense and complexity. We have heard rather constant laments from a variety of mezcal makers who are desperately trying to get certified, for some any process is too much, for most it sounds like the CRM doesn’t have enough resources go make the process run smoothly for everyone, everywhere.
While Oaxaca still accounts for over 90% of mezcal, the one state that is suddenly growing is Michoacán which was only added to the Denominación de Origen in 2012 but is rapidly becoming a top tier mezcal producer. That only confirms what we’ve seen and heard, many of those laments about difficulty getting certified come straight from that state. Still, it only accounts for 0.5% of all mezcal making it third in total production behind Guerrero which was add to the DOM way back in 1994. That should tell you plenty about the untapped production in Michoacan even while some locals worry about the opposite.
Certified mezcal production is surging, in 2011 more than 980,000 liters were made. In 2014 that total eclipsed 1,450,000 liters. But growth hasn’t been linear, in 2013 production suddenly spiked at 2.5 million liters before dropping by more than a million liters in 2014. The report attributes this to an agave surplus which hints at a lot going on out there in the Mexican landscape. Who is growing all that agave? What compelled them to start in the early 2,000’s?
Even though mezcal is growing it still barely registers for Mexican drinkers. In Mexico it still only counts for 0.2% of spirit consumption just behind cognac’s 0.3% but far behind tequila’s 16.3% and aguardiente’s 15.3%. The presentation highlights that mezcal consumption has grown 36% year over year which is important, especially since drinks like cognac are decreasing but it’s still a bit of a downer when you consider how important mezcal is to all of us. Of course mezcal is worth far more than its competitors, more than double the value of tequila by bottle, the report gets back to that point later, so will we.
Where’s it All Going?
Mezcal is increasingly going abroad – just under 650,000 liters were exported in 2011. By 2014 that number had popped above 1,150,000 liters. That’s a leap of 79%. And while the major export market has been consistently the United States there’s a strange story to be told about other export markets because Chile has been consistently second or third changing places with Australia until 2014 when Spain muscled into the third spot. Other markets have opened over the past three years including potential powerhouses like China but also lesser known markets like the Emirates.
How Many Agaves in Your Bottle?
No doubt you’ve seen many different species of agave popping up on bottles lately and the CRM’s figures bear that out. In 2014 only 77% were angustifolia, aka espadin, and 23% from other species. That’s a huge drop from espadin’s absolutely dominating 95% in 2013 and the trend line in previous years. While somewhat difficult to believe exactly because the reported change was so sudden and dramatic, it is potentially great news for the people who have figured out how to cultivate other species. It’s equally potentially troubling news for the sustainability of the industry because plenty of agaves are still being harvested from the wild and they’re probably not going to exist in the wild much longer. Definitely cherish those silvestres bottles on shelves today, maybe even store them for the future, because once those truly wild agaves are harvested they’re probably not coming back.
Making the case for quality
The presentation repeatedly mentions the growth of premium market categories and how well mezcal fits into that trend. Page 49 makes this case most clearly by noting that the value category has dropped 1.3% by volume while premium rose +3.1%, high end +5.8%, and super premium +5.1%. Those categories are notoriously squishily defined but it’s the thought that counts and it gets all the elaboration you need on the following page when the growth of higher quality spirits is paired with the higher value placed on artisanal products and the growth of emerging markets, especially in Asia which put a high value on premium products. If that’s not an argument for a different industrial path from tequila, I don’t know what is.
Do you see where this is going? This is a clear argument for mezcal as a special brand and for the CRM itself. Now that we’ve checked that box, the next step is defining the importance of the Denominanción de Origen del Mezcal and the CRM’s role in regulating it. The presentation digs into this argument and talks of defending and defining mezcal globaly as a signal goal while enumerating all the progress points the organization has made in recent years. Just to remind you how much ground the CRM has covered recently, the enumeration consumes six pages. Sure, much of this is of critical importance but you wouldn’t be the only one wondering whether there’s a bit of old fashioned resume padding because the whole report concludes with another list, “Plan de Trabajo 2015-2018.” For its next act the CRM will do important things like finally elaborate and pass NOM 70 and build out mezcal.com. That domain was originally registered by the smart people at Del Maguey and recently handed over to the CRM. Kudos to Del Maguey for taking one for team mezcal. Now the ball is in the CRM’s court to hire a decent design firm and really make their digital presence sing the song of maguey.
A Mystifying Absence
There’s a torrent of information here and Hipócrates is clearly trying to rally the troops while consolidating the CRM’s grip on everything. It must feel like herding cats with issues like sustainability exploding while small producers continue to complain about not being heard. In the interim the market isn’t getting any smaller and bigger companies are suddenly appearing on the scene. If that wasn’t tough enough, what about all the producers who are doing an end run around the CRM altogether and just creating destilados de agave? So many questions but this is a great foundational document.
And yet, for all the structure and good intentions, there is still one major mystifying absence, what is NOM 70? It’s been hanging in the air for quite some time so the gossip has gone through quite a few cycles. Everyone is anxious to hear the final proposal and rumors are that NOM 70 should be released this week. Perhaps we’ll know soon enough but, man, it’s been a long quiet period and this company isn’t even going public.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
All photos courtesy of Rion Toal.
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.