By Alvin Starkman, M.A., J.D.
Not to scare the bejesus out of mezcal aficionados, but the industry must be careful as the popularity of the spirit skyrockets, so as not to lose one of its hallmarks, that is the uniqueness of every lot distilled. We still hear and read that no two batches of (artisanal) mezcal are the same, and I for one continue to tout this aspect of Mexico’s iconic alcoholic beverage. But with each passing year of the spirit’s skyrocketing popularity, with each new entrant into the export market, and with maintaining healthy profits a major motivator for most in the business, the industry runs a risk of no longer being able to promote the spirit by using the adage. Here’s why.
We must begin with four premises:
- Corporations, large or otherwise, and many individuals with substantial resources, each wanting to enter the mezcal business is motivated by profit more so than altruism;
- Increasing production often requires greater efficiency;
- Efficiency of the steps in production, from growing agave right through to the last stage in arriving at a distillate of the desired ABV, increases profit while at the same time results in standardization of the spirit’s nuances, intentional or not;
- Many of the umpteen factors dictating that no two batches of true artisanal mezcal are the same are admittedly miniscule, but with cumulative impact.
Bacardi Limited, purportedly the largest privately held family-owned spirits company in the world with a portfolio of more than 200 brands and labels, is now reportedly in the mezcal business having begun an association with a traditionally artisanal brand; individuals closely associated with The Coca-Cola Company are purportedly now in the mezcal business; and, large beverage producers and distributors are fishing to purchase successful artisanal brands of the spirit.
Over the last few years small traditionally artisanal mezcal brands have been under pressure to increase production beyond the capabilities of their associate palenqueros and their families. They have two choices: increase efficiency through altering means of production and tools of the trade through at least a modicum of industrialization; or, find additional palenqueros with whom to associate, and keep all working at maximum capacity without yielding to the alternative. A few entrants into this new burgeoning marketplace have opted for the latter, but many use the former approach. Best to not name names, especially regarding those brands which have moved towards industrialization over the past decade or so; it’s enough to comment on the issue with my clients within the context of discussion about the diminution of quality.
The foregoing is not to suggest that there is anything wrong with ardent entrepreneurs making or distributing mezcal, or those of more modest ilk attempting to maintain or increase market share and profit. The examples are merely a precursor to explaining the movement towards greater standardization of product from batch to batch and contextualize it. And the following constitutes only a few of the plethora of factors threatening our perception that “no two batches are the same.” Let’s look at a couple of these explanations relating to each of agave growing, cooking, crushing, fermenting and distilling.
Agave angusifolia Haw, usually referred to as espadín, is the most common specie of the succulent used in Oaxaca to make mezcal. It grows in a wide diversity of climatic regions, relatively large and relatively fast, taking an average of eight years to mature. Many subsistence farmers grow it and then sell it to palenqueros. Since many such campesinos simply cannot afford to wait close to a decade to turn their land into money, in between the rows of maguey (agave) they plant cash crops such as corn, beans, squash, alfalfa and garbanzo. Each crop affects the soil in a different way, thereby impacting the growth of the plant, ultimately influencing the flavor of the end result, mezcal. Some farmers grow different crops from year to year, distinct from what their neighbors do. The point is that the flavor of the mezcal made from one field of agave is necessarily different from that which comes from another.
With the growth of the industry, more large plots of land are being put under cultivation by palenqueros and their brand owners who want to grow only agave, and grow it fast. They don’t need the money cash crops bring in, and don’t need that land to grow the vegetables for their own survival. Accordingly, they do not plant in between the rows of agave for fear of taking away nutrients from the maguey; and they continually weed. This results in greater standardization of the agave, and ultimately leads to less variation in their mezcal from batch to batch.
Two additional factors relating to agave growth viz. flavor consistency are: (1) with more cash infused into mezcal production, the greater the likelihood that the producer will strive to invest in land closer to his palenque with soil of similar quality since it is in the same region and easier to access, and; (2) rather than use natural mulch and fertilizer each of which varies in character from truckload to truckload, he will use a single, specified chemical product which will result in consistency of growth, and, ultimately flavor of his mezcal.
Some palenqureos are now moving away from using typical in-ground airtight ovens in which they had traditionally baked their piñas over firewood and rocks. Steaming in a sealed brick room or iron chamber provides greater efficiency, and, consistency of flavor at the end of the day. These new “industrialists” crank up the fuel to a set temperature for a pre-determined period of time. In their younger years, as they had learned from their fathers, grandfathers and great grandfathers, they would put the firewood in the oven, then the rocks, then the bagazo, then the piñas, then cover it all up, ultimately with earth. Of course there are broad variations on the theme from producer to producer, but the point remains; no two batches of mezcal produced in this way were the same because they never used the same exact amount of firewood and often the specie of log differed from bake to bake, the temperature at which they baked was essentially unknown and of course varied, and some piñas would always get charred more than others despite best efforts for consistent baking of the raw material in the oven. Type of firewood employed, baking temperature, degree of doneness, all ultimately impact flavor, and it’s never the same from batch to batch. Diesel and steam help create consistency.
Be it using a beast of burden pulling a tahona, or a palenquero hand crushing using a mazo y canoa (wooden mallet and shallow long pit of wood or concrete/stone), to mash the baked, sweet agave in either of these two methods results in variability in the time and extent to which environmental yeasts cause fermentation. The recent federal government subsidy program has provided artisanal producers with a fossil fuel powered wood chipper of sorts, which provides consistency of mash. At least one previously artisanal producer is now using a conveyer belt with metal blades for crushing, which again provides consistency.
The aforementioned subsidy program also discounts the cost of purchasing wooden fermentation vats (tinas), the size and composition of which is selected by government or its agents. Again, this leads to standardization. Artisanal producers have traditionally purchased their vats based on price, not necessarily the type of wood used in their fabrication. What you ferment in impacts flavor. The character of the wooden slats joined to make the tinas changes over time.
The program also provides a 1,000 liter stainless steel container, which while presumably intended for storing mezcal, can also be adapted into a fermentation tank. If it’s wood, natural yeasts relied upon for airborne fermentation live in the wood, and they continuously change. Not so with stainless steel, at least not to the same extent especially if stationed in a controlled environment.
Traditional wooden tinas are seldom more than 1,000 liter capacity. As business dictates greater production, much larger vats of stainless steel become normative, and flavor is more controlled, either by design or default.
Well water and mountain spring water are frequently used in fermentation. The character of the water is never the same. There is a worsening water crisis in Oaxaca, with some villagers in mezcal producing regions having been without water in their wells for a year or more. Much more so than a decade ago, we now find mezcal production facilities with water filtration systems whereupon a certain quality of water is trucked in, then further standardized through filtration prior to being added to the sweet, baked, crushed agave.
Temperature at which distillation occurs impacts mezcal quality. With both traditional copper alembic and clay pot distillation, firewood is employed as the fuel, and as such temperature is determined by skill, that is an art form. If it’s burning too hot, water is doused on the flame, and if not hot enough more firewood is added. And batches are small, as little as 70 liters at a time using clay pots, and perhaps an average of 300 liters for copper alambics.
Our previously artisanal palenquero now employs a relatively sophisticated multi-chamber still, and a column still, fueled by either firewood or fossil fuel, at his option. Another nearby palenquero has outright switched to fossil fuel. The movement away from firewood on the one hand ensures an arguably environmentally cleaner burn, and there is no concern with deforestation, yet on the other it provides a less variable end result; just crank it up to the desired temperature where it stays if you are so inclined throughout the entire distillation.
Ancestral and traditional palenqueros usually rely on knowledge and experience gained through generations of family mezcal distillers to determine the “cuts,” that is for example how to adjust and reduce the ABV of the “head and body” by adding back the “tail” of the distillation. And the end result is always a little different. Big business, or little business wanting to ensure a brand following, now more than before is reluctant to leave the cuts to their palenquero associates. Hence, while taking off the tail may be left to the distiller, they are achieving greater predictability by using distilled or filtered water.
And so, even if there is still variability in the face of all of the foregoing “advancements” and more, simply by virtue of the fact of wanting to fill even as little as a container (let’s say 9,000 bottles at 750 ml) for export, thus producing a batch of 6,750 liters of the same quality is a change from artisanal mezcal production and export a decade ago. Just keeping up with volume strongly suggests greater standardization. And this is without even considering the use of autoclaves and diffusors in the industry.
Furthermore, regretfully many producers and brand owners are concerned with public perception, leading to attempting to outwardly produce a sterile production environment. Take for example the use of a wire mesh dome over even traditional wooden fermentation vats, indeed keeping out bees and other insects during susceptible times of year. All that enters into the vat impacts ultimate flavor, of course once again stressing the minutiae of variability.
It all adds up! There’s nothing wrong with improved efficiency nor sterility nor profit driving mezcal production, all of which of course more broadly paints mezcal’s popularity, and yes, often improves the economic lot of artisanal mezcal distillers. But there’s a cost which should not be overlooked or underestimated.
Permanent Oaxaca resident Alvin Starkman owns and operates Mezcal Educational Excursions of Oaxaca (http://www.mezcaleducationaltours.com).