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Posts tagged ‘norma’

Bobby Huegel’s mezcal trip

Hat tip to Andrew Friedman for bringing this fun video featuring Bobby Huegel and crew to our attention. It follows a palenque visit in Jalisco, possibly elsewhere, and featured Bobby discussing the debate over the NORMA, what constitutes a mezcal, and the big sustainability issues facing the industry. He reiterates our shared push to get bartenders and everyone involved in the industry to make it culturally, environmentally, and commercially sustainable. Patricia Coalunga makes an appearance in the background. It must have been quite a trip.

It’s part of the Tequila Interchange Project’s petition on the NOM which you should take a look at here. Really interesting stuff. They’re also relaunching the web site and membership structure later in May.


Out in the field with mezcal and tequila guide Clayton Szczech

Clayton Czczech in action on one of his tours. Is that a Steve Blake jersey?

Clayton Czczech in action on one of his tours. Is that a Steve Blake jersey?

Clayton Szczech has been guiding tours through the world of tequila since 2008 and expanded into mezcal tours in 2012. We’ve been talking a lot lately as he charts a course through many of the agave growing regions of Mexico. If you think Mezcalistas spends a lot of time on mezcal, Clayton is absolutely obsessed and spends almost all his time in the field talking to mezcaleros, growers, and tons of other people connected to the industry. As he told me: “I made the decision that this was going to be my profession,  and it really is. This is all I do.”

When not in the field he’s been attending NORMA meetings and is a general man about the the world of agave distillates. He and Erick Rodriguez are two of the key guides and activists in the world of agave distillates so pay close attention to what they’re saying!

Clayton and I chatted in person and via Facebook over the past three months, this interview is edited together from those conversations. He has tours coming up in Jalisco and Oaxaca this spring. You can always find out about his latest tours at Experience Mezcal  and Experience Tequila  but he has some gems coming up including a Mezcal Boot Camp that will take you up into the Sierra Norte to visit Tosba this April 23-25 and one around Oaxaca immediately afterwards.

How did you get into the guiding business?

I’ve been doing tequila tours, education, events and research as a business since December 2008. It’s called Experience Tequila. But I’ve been traveling intermittently in Mexico since 1995, lived in the state of Veracruz in 2005-2006, and have lived in Mexico City for the past couple of years. I speak fluent Spanish and navigate the culture well. I couldn’t do any of this without the knowledge and generosity of all the maestros – producers and otherwise, in both tequila and mezcal- who have shared with me over the years.

How did you get into mezcal?

Mezcal was always there, in some way, but I didn’t really start to think about it much until my first trip to Oaxaca in about 2010

Did you have a conversion moment from tequila to mezcal?

No, not really. It doesn’t make for a very good story, but to me all of this stuff is part and parcel of Mexican culture. I’ve been a wannabe Mexican since high school, and my real conversion moment was on that first backpacking trip in summer of 1995, right out of high school.

The tahona in action at 7 Leguas tequila

The tahona in action at 7 Leguas tequila

I’ve had something closer to a moment like you might be thinking of after Oaxaca – getting more into Guerrero in particular.

I started to realize how much there is out there in addition to the vastness of  Jalisco and Oaxaca, and how even this boom we’re experiencing in the US is only showing folks the tip of the iceberg in terms of the diversity in regions, flavors, traditions, etc.

You got into Mexico, tequila and mezcal through a love of the culture. How do you bring that out in your tours?

I like the term “specialist,” because it doesn’t presume expertise but it clearly states that I don’t do anything else. It’s a combination of luxury, privilege, and sacrifice that I can spend this kind of time out in the field, learning. So when I do a tasting or a tour, I try to bring a holistic approach – who made this, what are they like, what is special about the process, etc. Where does that fit in with what we think we know about history, etc.

What’s distinctive about what you do?

I call my trips “group tours for people who don’t do group tours.” While typical tour experiences are built around separation from locals and packaged as authenticity, I actually insert people (safely, of course) into places that they would never get to on their own.

It always feels very natural to me, but when other people see me do it, they remark that it very much seems methodically organized. I definitely know that I have a set of things I want to learn from maestros, and that it works a lot better if I approach it as an anthropologist – taking nothing for granted, asking very basic questions in an inductive way, truly listening to what they say and not trying to cram it into my frames of reference.

Moving tuba from the fermentation vats to the stills at the Lupián vinata in Las Abujas, Jalisco.  Photo courtesy of Joel Contreras.

Moving tuba from the fermentation vats to the stills at the Lupián vinata in Las Abujas, Jalisco.
Photo courtesy of Joel Contreras.

Tours are necessarily an artificial experience. But there’s a real positive to that too. It means that I can curate them and create an experience in four days that is way denser than what would just accidentally happen in the same period of time if one were just travelling without a guide.

I chose the word “Experience” for my business very deliberately. I think someone who doesn’t drink much, is reluctantly along with a partner, or even truly doesn’t like mezcal can have a really great experience on these tours, because I’m setting them up to take in culture, broadly speaking – people, relationships, places, food, religion, music and the deep folk knowledge behind mezcal. To come to an understanding that mezcal is a reflection of all these things, and it is reflected in them, like a prism.

What do you notice most when you’re out in the field?

I’m sort of a word nerd so I pay attention to regional differences in vocabulary.

Can you give me an example?

Well to keep it very simple and because I don’t want to give too much away, what is the place where mezcal is made called?

In Oaxaca you’d call it a “palenque”

Folks have such a Oaxaca-centric take on mezcal, that people say “palenque” often without realizing how exclusively Oaxacan that is.


In Michoacan and Jalisco a place where mezcal is made is a taverna or a vinata. In parts of Chihuahua and Sonora, they say vinatería. In Guerrero, it seems pretty universally to be “fábrica,” (“factory”) which is literally true and also pretty hilarious, to an outsider.

And I’m constantly recording this type of variation for parts of the process, qualities of mezcal, obviously different magueyes, but also their characteristics and how they are harvested.

How do people talk about making cuts? What do they call the fermented juice? What do they call the first distillate?

It’s nerdy as hell and one of the things I get most excited about.

So, my idea with tours is that they are meticulously curated in terms of maximizing quality exposure and immersion in a short period of time. But, of course, it’s Mexico and it’s mezcal – so the “wonderful shit happens” factor is also accounted for. There are always pleasant surprises and there’s a certain amount of openness to improvisation.

I can get people into the local nitty gritty, but I know where the hospitals are, I’m insured, I’ve stayed and eaten many times in all the hotels and eateries we use. here’s always a plan B and C.

Clayton Szczech admires what may be an amarillo agave in western Jalisco.

Clayton Szczech admires what may be an amarillo agave in western Jalisco.

My tours are extremely fun and educational, but they’re not particularly relaxing. We start early and we see a lot. Two full days are basically spent in the palenques and the fields

I change things up depending on production schedules. On the tour this April we’re definitely going to see the “tipo palenque” process typical of Matatlán, and the Minas clay-pot process.

We’ll do pulque one of the days – generally going out with the tlachiquero while he extracts aguamiel.

We do a curated tasting each night – one with Mezcaloteca, one at In Situ. They both have a lot to offer and I really like people to get the gamut of perspectives that are out there – from both producers and tasting / expert types

And there’s actually a bit of free time each evening so people can do their own thing in Oaxaca City.

And I HIGHLY recommend folks stay an extra day to tour Monte Albán.

You do an amazing amount of travel so I’m curious how much background research you do before a trip like the one you took through Sonora to taste Bacanora this fall?

Ok. So I did a six day trip, guided by a local guy who’s extremely connected. Sonora is huge and I wanted to see a couple different regions so there was a LOT of driving. I met one to two producers per day, came back with about eight different Bacanoras. It’s a very, very different culture than anything I know -mezcal or otherwise. The north of  Mexico is like a different country to me. The processes are quite similar to traditional and artisanal mezcal in other regions, but for example, all the mezcaleros are cattle ranchers. They wear spurs!

It was the time of year when they’re rounding up calves to be sold and shipped to Texas, so no one was actively producing. But I spent the better part of each day “conviviendo” – just hanging out while they do what they do – ranch work, making cheese and machaca, eating what they eat, and drinking a fair amount of bacanora.

They have maybe the severest maguey shortage in the country – I could be wrong, but it certainly seemed that way to me. This spring we’ll be doing fundraising to get a school bus for the schoolkids in Bacanora. They currently ride to school in police cars!

Is that related to the recent drought in Western states, over harvesting or something else?

Failure to reforest and a historic freeze a few years ago have the hills almost depopulated of maguey. I met with two producers who are raising seedlings on a mass scale, and it’s cool to see someone taking the initiative. One of these guys has gravity-fed irrigation coming from a spring that’s watering his recently planted seedlings. Of course, they have to keep the cattle away from the maguey for the first year or two, or they’ll eat it!

Are they all estate production operations and are they bottling under their own brand or selling the juice to someone else?

There are still very few brands. It’s been legal for so little time. And, my impression was that there’s pretty strong local demand for the juice. I know there are several parties currently actively looking to bottle and commercialize bacanora for the US market.

Where else have you been lately and what are you planning for the future?

I just got back from a short trip to the raicilla region around Cabo Corrientes. That was really great and it’s incredible how such old-school methods thrive so close to a place like Puerto Vallarta.

I’ve been spending a lot of time as always in Jalisco and Oaxaca, and am working on mezcal and tequila tours for Tales of the Cocktail and a really exciting “Mezcal Boot Camp” in the spring. I’m slowly learning about sotol from a producer in Chihuahua. I need to start planning for my summer events season in the US.

I’m trying to keep up my normal schedule of tours and research schedule, catch up on reading of mostly reference and technical books and get years worth of notes in some semblance of order, because I’d like to write more. What I should be doing is looking for an assistant!

Any thoughts on the recent emergence of Raicilla from Jalisco and what that means for the world of tequila?

I think the quality and early success of La Venenosa is fantastic for raicilla. Esteban Morales has been working with those producers for years and it’s great to see how receptive people are to the spirits.

I don’t know how much raicilla will affect tequila, but mezcal as a whole, certified and otherwise, DO – and not, certainly has the industry’s attention. It will be more important than ever to educate consumers on who’s who, and seek out quality and just practices for producers – whether in mezcal, tequila, sotol or some as yet unknown Mexican spirit.

You’ve attended some of the key meetings about the new NORMA proposal. It sounds like it was really energizing. How did it go?

Well, the proposed changes are definitely a step forward, and almost everyone agrees on that, even if they have strong critiques. What’s been inspiring, especially at the last big meeting in Oaxaca City, is seeing so many producers from different regions making the sacrifices to come together and make their voices heard. They’re not intimidated and they’re representing their own interests, which sounds like no big deal to a North American. But in Mexico it’s a sea change. Mexico is waking up in important ways, I think, and mezcal, of course, is a reflection of that cultural change as well.

What are you hearing out in the field about the NORMA proposals?

Very little. People are too busy working! I think everyone is taking a “wait and see” attitude for now.

Are there any new trends in the mezcal world?

I’m probably the wrong guy to ask. I’d like to think more producers are dealing directly with the consumer and getting a bigger piece of the pie, but I don’t know if that’s the case.


The scene outside of Sanzekan.

Unfortunately it can’t be called a trend yet, but I think Sanzekan Timeni’s “Mezcal Solidarity Bond” program could be looked at as a model for lots of small producers and consumers who want to do the right thing. We all want great, artisanal and traditional mezcal to be sustainable and beneficial to the people who have kept it alive. The Solidarity Bonds are a way for us to invest in mezcal’s future. I hope more producers and regions can come up with ways like that for us consumers to invest in the future of mezcal.

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.

As the mezcal world turns


And the award for clarity in labeling goes to… Mezcaloteca really refined how mezcal is labeled by standardizing their labels with all the background information with critical information like mezcalero, agave variant, production location, and much more.

Sorry that we’re way behind in pointing to and discussing fellow mezcal blogger Mezcal PhD, aka John McEvoy, post on the NORMA presentation in New York. For reference here’s the original NORMA from ancient history, 1994. John’s post is from way back in mid-December which should tell you something about how busy we’ve been over the past month. New year, new dedication to work so we’re finally catching up and pushing on with a new resolve to be more productive.

John has a great recap of Danny Mena‘s presentation of the proposed update to the mezcal NORMA which would define three categories; plain old Mezcal, Artisanal Mezcal, and Ancestral Mezcal. He also has a nice table that differentiates each of them. It’s heady stuff and quite at odds with the way the rest of the world is heading. Rather than meaningless terms on food packages like “all natural” or “traditional” the mezcal world may actually get a set of labels with backbone. John wonders whether this will actually help:

Will the average consumer actually know the difference? I doubt it. That’s why I struggle with the whole thing. The mezcal geeks (present company included) understand all this, but does it help the mezcal category? The understanding of what mezcal is? I’m not so sure.

I can see his point clearly. Like him I bet most people won’t care but for the people that do there’s a clear terminology. More important, for the general marketing of mezcal there’s a shared baseline. That means mezcalier programs, bartenders, labels, blogs like this one, and anyone else talking about mezcal won’t reinvent the wheel every time we’re talking about this world or, worse, talk about the same thing with different words.

That linguistic standardization has worked wonders for the culinary world in Europe because it’s forced food sellers to be honest when describing what they’re selling. And, on the bleeding edge of things, it has also motivated some food producers to push back against definitions and create their own categories like Super Tuscan. We can only hope that the mezcal word gets to that point.

And, as John points out, that Ancestral label would seal a true Mexican tradition into law so that anyone who wants to hew closely to the classic way of doing things has protection from loosey goosey marketers and perhaps will push some makers to invest the time and energy to make mezcals in that manner. Kudos to Erick Rodriguez for getting this proposal this far.

Obviously I would have loved to have attend the presentation so I’m hoping that the CRM (read John’s piece if that’s not a familiar term, it soon will be!) releases their presentation in full soon so that everyone in the extended mezcal world gets a chance to experience and consider it fully. One of the craziest things is that the presentation proffered the idea that the NORMA could go into effect in early 2015. Given the way things in this industry go I bet that’s incredibly optimistic but I’ll put all my weight behind the effort because it’s incredible progress.