Sustainability of Mezcal Part 1 – Introduction and Cultivated Agave

Mezcal is made from plants that take a long time to grow. These plants--agaves--are harvested--often from the w...

Mezcal is made from plants that take a long time to grow. These plants–agaves–are harvested–often from the wild–then roasted in an underground oven (horno) using collected firewood as the heat source. Finally, the distillation process produces often-unused cuts that don’t get bottled and sold. These are known as vinazas. So, we have four concerns: continuing supply of cultivated agave; continuing supply of wild (sylvestres) agaves and the potential for over-collection; continuing supply of firewood and the potential for over-collection; and what to do with vinazas, which in large volumes pose an environmental hazard and disposal problem. Let’s take this in four posts. Today’s post is about the posing of the problems and a look at cultivated agaves, followed by a post for each of the remaining three of the four concerns just listed. I will try to keep this brief, although there’s easily a thesis’ worth in here.

An idea to help establish the baseline for understanding all of these problems: mezcal has been, up to recently, sustainable for over 400 years. Think about that. Tiny production levels (well below 1% of that of Tequila for all this time), small footprint, and obviously a steady supply of all needed components or it would have been abandoned. The fact that it still exists and is still being made traditionally after 400 years is a good indicator. If you think that idea is crazy, my reply would be to ask how many years out you need to go to determine that something is sustainable. 400 years, I think, settles the question. Now, in 2018, the volume of mezcal production is way up–it’s now just over 2% of the volume of Tequila production. That doubling, while still minuscule in comparison to Tequila, has made people notice–and question–if mezcal can survive its popularity. Maybe it’s because I am a meliorist by nature, but I think there is good reason to hope that the answer is yes.

Cultivated agave–the least of the issues is still an issue. When people hear about agave shortages in the news, this is almost always about Agave tequilana Weber–the plant required for production of Tequila. This plant has been the subject of innumerable bust-and-boom cycles and its supply has historically been closely connected to Mexican politics. During the period known as the Porfiriato (1876-1911), the hacienda system concentrated wealth, land, and the industrialization of Tequila began in earnest. After the Mexican Revolution, Emeliano Zapata’s policy of land reform was enacted (by his successor, Carranza, in 1917), reinstating the ejido system (formerly banned by the Spanish). Under this system land-use rights belong to the people. This means that the haciendas (which owned the production apparatus) could no longer run the agave farms. With fewer wealthy farmers, and a long growing cycle, the boom/bust cycle began. A farmer seeing a neighbor cash in handsomely on a crop of agave during a sellers’ market might plant a crop himself, only to find in 7-9 years that many other farmers had the same idea and his crop is now being sold into a buyers’ market. That person, now disgusted with the waste of many years’ time, might move on to something annual, such as corn for a while. Rinse and repeat–you see the problem. (A note on the ejido system: the constitutional right to establish ejidos was abolished in the ’90s when NAFTA was being negotiated because foreign investors feared that their land rights could be expropriated by nationals.)

Add to this the possibility of disease and you have a real management juggernaut looking at you. What happens (as I posted about previously some time in October), if at year 4 the agave snout weevil shows up and starts to devastate your crop? The piñas you have now are immature, low on sugar, and under weight. That’s going to hurt. To make matters worse, the Tequila DO calls for A. tequilana W–a monocrop with little genetic diversity. This is a recipe for disaster, and disaster has struck many times. After millions spent trying to solve the problem, science has not provided much more than a pesticide and the advice (which runs contrary to the directive of the CRT) to diversify the gene pool. And so the boom/bust cycle continues.

In Oaxaca where mezcal is King, the espadín agave (A. angustifolia) is often drawn into the Tequila bust cycles because it is genetically similar to A. Tequilana W. This is not technically allowed, of course, but many a blind eye gets turned when the Tequila industry wants something. (These boom/bust cycles are also, incidentally, why other sugars are allowed in the production of Tequila–a stopgap to help producers through hard times.) Espadín is subject to the same fate as A. tequilana W, although at a reduced intensity given the difference in volume and greater natural genetic diversity in the espadín.


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