What’s happening in the mezcal world
Production of mezcal is traditionally linked to small family farms. The spirit has always been produced according to artisanal and traditional methods in the palenque (distillery), where the agaves were grown in harmony with, and alongside, other crops. It can be said that the main difference between mezcal and tequila is precisely this quality of production: while tequila has been contaminated by industrialization - with many distilleries ending up in the portfolio of multinationals - mezcal has always been made in an artisanal way.
Today, however, this characteristic is under threat from a phenomenon similar to that which happened to tequila.
When, about ten years ago, multinationals realized that there was a good market for mezcal, they started investing in the product, first of all by purchasing raw materials from small producers, with two important consequences.
On the one hand, when it is obtained from raw materials from different soils, the product loses its originality and its distinctive character as an artisan spirit. On the other, by purchasing from individual producers, big companies demand significant changes in work habits, pushing for an increase in production and, consequently creating changes to both cultivation and distillation methods.
The risk in all of this is that fundamental values are lost, such as the importance of the author or maker, the ancestral processing methods, and respect for the raw material.
The Consejo Regulador del Mezcal
An important historical change has taken place since 2004 with the establishment of the Consejo Regulador del Mezcal (CRM), which governs application of the DO (Denominaciones de Origen), that is to say that it has the task of authorizing a company to call its agave distillate “mezcal”. Since then, each distillery recognized by the CRM has had a NOM, an identification number placed on the label that allows the origin of the product to be identified.
However, the new legislation sets out very strict rules and regulations to allow producers to name their agave distillates "mezcal". In fact, CRM rules require data, analyses and certifications that can only be obtained with rather complex procedures.
The first big problem, therefore, arises from the fact that the complexity of these procedures has especially penalized the smaller producers. In particular, chemicals and sophisticated instruments are needed for the measurement and analysis of raw materials and processed products, something that small local producers cannot afford.
So if on the one hand these regulations seem to guarantee some characteristics of the products authorized to be called "mezcal", on the other hand obtaining DO certification is a very expensive and laborious process for the most authentic, traditional mezcal farmer-producers, and is a procedure feasible only for well-financed and organized companies.
To overcome these obstacles, therefore, small producers are forced to work for the larger ones in order to obtain certification, but in so doing, they renounce quality in the name of quantity, as well as the “authorial” value of their product.
What has changed, from agriculture to distillation
So it is that the CRM rules also favour large companies to the detriment of small family-run enterprises, which being unable to equip themselves, are forced to sell.
The two things are obviously connected - small producers sell raw materials to larger companies to increase their earnings, and consequently are forced to focus on quantity and no longer on quality. If their production was once limited to about 4 or 5 batches per year, today they cultivate agaves more intensively to increase production, sometimes as a mono-crop and no longer growing the plants with the traditional intercropping system, i.e. alongside other crops typically farmed locally, such as corn, lettuce and beans - the crops that form the dieta de la milpa, the basic Mexican diet.
Cultivation of agave is therefore greatly increased, with a consequent loss of quality, and with an impact that changes the entire process up to distillation. The result is that the historical taste of mezcal has already changed: much of what we have been drinking in recent years comes from tender, unripe agaves, grown as a mono-crop, and without a large variety of raw materials, since almost all of them are the Espadin type, i.e. the agave that grows more quickly and gives more yield.
Other wild varieties of agave traditionally used for distillation, although much less distilled, are in turn intensively cultivated, and in this way lose their wild nature, with very tangible consequences which also affect the balance of the mezcal world in general.
If we think about current climate change, the problems caused by the developments of recent years become manifold. Removing other plants, deforesting and cultivating only agave results in more erosion, which, combined with changes in the microclimate of the land due to the lack of plants that create shade, also causes more drought, leading to avalanches and landslides.
The rigid implementation of the norms also directly affects distillation, not only because of the differences in the raw material.
For example, it is becoming common to use stainless steel components in the still (such as the agitator and the coil), because the new rules prohibit the use of heavy metals such as lead, with which the oldest stills were made.
More generally, facilities being are enlarged, with the consequence that continuous multi-column distillation is also starting to be used.
With all these changes, the mezcal produced by large companies can no longer have the originality and authenticity that have always distinguished this spirit.
A basic concept in terms of mezcal quality has in fact always been the connection between farmer and artisan: mezcal is considered a somewhat “d'auteur" product, where it is the individual producer who grows and processes his agave on his own land, taking advantage of everything that is present, including growing other crops typical of the Mexican diet.
The “leaving the CRM” phenomenon
CRM certification was first established in 2004. Since then, many small producers have tried to adapt to the required norms, but as already said, not all of them are able to.
To counter this problem, which risks the loss of all the heritage of ancestral artisan mezcal production, a sort of "movement" developed among some traditional producers, a reaction that simply consists in no longer calling their spirit "mezcal", and so renouncing the denomination, but preserving the entire process in accordance with tradition.
In fact, by simply calling their product "agave distillate" or "aguardiente de agave", they can forgo all the procedures required for certification, while producing the same spirit traditionally made, and of course complying fully with payment of taxes, and hygiene and production standards, as well as carrying out standard, less complex laboratory analyses.
A new market has thus developed for a type of mezcal which cannot technically be called mezcal - that is, this name cannot appear on the bottle, even though one could say it is “more mezcal” than the others.
It is above all in the USA that these agave spirits are considered “more authentic” by many aficionados.
To help in the choice, in many cases a good "narrative label” can be worth as much, if not more, as a certification, highlighting what matters most in the production process - that is, taking the raw material from a single piece of land and selecting a precise type of agave. This fundamental starting point alone is the expression of a precise way of working, which starts from respect for the terroir, from the land to the plant, and continues with the production process, which must be clean and chemical-free, and concludes with the quality of the distillation.
It is all this that allows the individual producer to go back to being, as he has always been in the world of mezcal, an "author" - a farmer and craftsman - who makes a good, authentic and original product.