text size: smaller reset larger

 

 

Mexican mezcal: traditional spirit for sustainable cultivation

The distilled spirit mezcal is proving to be an increasingly important source of income (Catarina Illsey, GEA)
The distilled spirit mezcal is proving to be an increasingly important source of income
Catarina Illsey, GEA

Throughout southern Mexico, the traditional skills required to produce the distilled spirit mezcal have been passed from one generation to the next. For centuries, mezcal produced by families or small distilleries has been used at local celebrations, but increasingly it is providing an important source of income as appreciation for this new specialty product grows, particularly among North American consumers.

Made from both cultivated and wild agave plants, mezcal is similar to tequila (made only from blue agave) but has a stronger, smokier flavour. The variety of agave used, as well as the material the storage casks are made from, greatly affects the liquor's taste, as does the method by which the agave hearts (piñas) are baked before mashing and distillation. Small plots of agave are cultivated by around 14,000 farmers but there is increasing concern that the rising popularity of mezcal, both within Mexico and by foreign consumers, is putting wild populations at risk.

Agave species such as the endemic Maguey papalote - which grow in oak woodland, grassland, and the understorey of tropical dry forests - are particularly under pressure from overharvesting. Forest fires and grazing livestock also destroy many smaller plants. The need for firewood to fuel the ovens in which the agave hearts are baked puts added pressure on the forest ecosystem. But by giving local communities more control of the production process, several initiatives are encouraging for more sustainable methods of agave harvesting and cultivation.

Towards sustainability and transparency

Removing the agave leaves to get to the heart of the plant (Catarina Illsey, GEA)
Removing the agave leaves to get to the heart of the plant
Catarina Illsey, GEA

The Association of Agave and Mezcal Producers of Chilapan (AMMCHI) is one organisation supporting the sustainable production of mezcal throughout the entire production chain. Directives have been established by AMMCHI for sustainable self-regulation by agave producers, nursery and reforestation committees, agave and firewood harvesters, distillery operators, bottlers and sellers. If compliance with all directives is achieved, mezcal produced from the distillery is then certified as legal for sale.

AMMCHI is keen to persuade more agave growers of the advantages of belonging to the organisation. Catarina Illsley, coordinator of the non-profit Grupo de Estudios Ambientales AC (Group for Environmental Studies) which works closely with AMMCHI, reports that "recently, government money has been given to the mezcaleros (for improving their distilleries)... This has caused resentment among the agave growers, who feel an economic gap will grow between these two sectors." She says AMMCHI is doing its best to use this opportunity to convince growers that by joining, they will be involved in deciding regional prices for agave and mezcal, and also be able to provide input into other mechanisms besides price-setting to ensure fair distribution of profits for everyone involved.

Once the leaves are removed, the wild agave heart can be harvested (Catarina Illsey, GEA)
Once the leaves are removed, the wild agave heart can be harvested
Catarina Illsey, GEA

With assistance from partners, AMMCHI is also working to create GIS (geographic information system) maps of wild and cultivated agave plantations and location of distilleries, allowing everyone in the production chain to receive a fair profit and to monitor levels of harvesting of wild agave. In addition, Illsley says the maps will help to plan sustainable levels of extraction from the forests. She adds: "As these are very new ideas, it means changing the way people do things. But there are some communities and private agave producers who are catching on and we hope it will grow."

Fair trade for fair benefits

Mexcalli Papálotl del Chilapan is a organisation that supports the bottling and commercialisation of certified mezcal. The organization is actively looking into Fairtrade and other niche markets, hoping to attract the interest of consumers who demand a high-quality specialised product and are willing to support community-based sustainable production. The organisation has recently established an alliance with a group of owners of important bars and restaurants in Mexico City who see the advantage of being the first to tap the diversity of mezcals from different species and regions. This alliance will provide ongoing support for certified mezcal and its related requirements for sustainable production will continue to grow.

Despite these initiatives, Illsey emphasises that wild populations remain at risk. A government-funded program to grow agave seedlings in seven nurseries for transplanting was highly successful until government funding cuts in 2002. A few nurseries continue to operate through community efforts but at very low capacities.

The need for firewood, to fuel the ovens in which the agave hearts are baked, puts added pressure on the forest eco-system (Catarina Illsey, GEA)
The need for firewood, to fuel the ovens in which the agave hearts are baked, puts added pressure on the forest eco-system
Catarina Illsey, GEA

Other constraints to sustainable production of mezcal include the high costs and bureaucracy involved in export certification, which tends to exclude small producers. Illsey concludes that "efficiency for firewood use - technological improvement for smallscale production and rapid growth firewood plantations - is critical for sustainability, as well as more research to develop better sustainable organic agave production and more development of alternative markets. "Nevertheless," she adds, "it is encouraging that so far this year (2007), 11 distillery and producer groups have achieved certification.

Written by: Treena Hein

Date published: September 2007

 

Have your say

 

The New Agriculturist is a WRENmedia production.

This website uses cookies to improve your experience. By continuing to browse the site you are agreeing to our use of cookies.
Accept
Read more