Can a Group of Bartenders Save Mezcal?

Concerned by growing threats to the history, culture and livelihood of traditional mezcal, five bartenders and one producer formed the Tequila Interchange Project (TIP). Shanna Farrell on how TIP is influencing policy in Mexico and rallying the bar community in the process.

mezcal production oaxaca mexico

On a rare sunny day in San Francisco, a group of 40 bartenders and agave spirit producers gathered on Bar Agricole’s patio for a meeting about the current state of mezcal (verdict: relatively dire). Ryan Fitzgerald — co-owner of the Mission’s ABV and the meeting’s coordinator — stood and thanked the crowd for coming. On the bar behind him, tall bottles of El Jolgorio, Mezcal Tosba and Del Maguey glinted in the sun, silent reminders of what’s at stake.

Mexicans having been making tequila and mezcal since the 16th century. For hundreds of years, knowledge about how to cultivate, harvest and distill this ancestral spirit was passed down via oral tradition. But when the 20th century brought advances in technology that helped introduce agave-based spirits to a global market, the Mexican government made the call to formalize parameters of production. This happens through the Consejo Regulador del Mezcal (CRM), which oversees production via official documents called Normas Official Mexicana, or NOMs.

NOM 070 — the document that brought the group to Bar Agricole — passed in 1998, but is long outdated. Since its writing, the cocktail renaissance has made drinks like Tommy’s Margarita and the Oaxaca Old Fashioned commonplace and ushered in the birth of bars like Mayahuel. Not surprisingly, multinational spirit companies saw dollar signs in these drink trends. They bought up countless small farms in Mexico, turning them into high-production facilities to ensure that your corner bar has enough mezcal to go around.

To keep up with this kind of demand, producers large and small have begun to practice monoculture, packing fields with as many agave plants as they can. Agave, which is sold on futures — much like coffee beans — takes roughly eight years to mature, but some are harvesting early. This can cause fungal infections, problems with reproduction and diseases, in turn leading to shortages and skyrocketing prices.

“The difficult part of this is accepting that new innovations in industrial production are going to be a part of mezcal,” says Bobby Heugel, owner of Houston’s Anvil Bar & Refuge. “As a whole, industrial production threatens mezcal and may collapse the entire system.”

And there’s more. Climate change is also affecting agave growth rates. As new technology is employed and production becomes quicker and less labor intensive, historic production practices that engendered the category diminish, along with the oral tradition that forged knowledge of these practices for centuries. Transparency is also an issue; there are no laws in place to inform buyers when a company has been sold or production has changed. This trickles all the way down to bartenders, who find it difficult to get information about many brands.

“NOM 186 changed TIP’s priorities,” says Fitzgerald. The group felt that the proposed regulation — which would, among others, restrict use of the word “agave” to spirits produced from only 6 of the plant’s 33 available species, and only in a few regions — would prove devastating to those in Mexico who’d been making agave spirits by means of traditional practices for centuries. They saw the CRM’s proposal as a sacrifice of tradition in favor of the interests of a few large companies. “It’s important to us that mezcal be allowed to keep being made as it has been for thousands of years,” adds Heugel.

Cue the Tequila Interchange Project (TIP). Mezcal producer David Suro, along with current and former bartenders Phil Ward, Bobby Heugel, Ryan Fitzgerald and Misty Kalkofen, founded TIP, a non-profit organization, in 2010. It started with three trips to Mexico, led by Suro, for bartenders who wanted to learn more about tequila. But once they saw firsthand the changing nature of agave spirits and, in 2011, learned of the CRM’s latest proposed Norma — NOM 186 — their mission evolved.

“NOM 186 changed TIP’s priorities,” says Fitzgerald. The group felt that the proposed regulation — which would, among others, restrict use of the word “agave” to spirits produced from only 6 of the plant’s 33 available species, and only in a few regions — would prove devastating to those in Mexico who’d been making agave spirits by means of traditional practices for centuries. They saw the CRM’s proposal as a sacrifice of tradition in favor of the interests of a few large companies. “It’s important to us that mezcal be allowed to keep being made as it has been for thousands of years,” adds Heugel.

TIP brought in scientists, sociologists, lawyers, producers and agave enthusiasts (many of whom are now members) to petition against NOM 186. They garnered 1,600 signatures in less than a week. The Norma was rejected, and TIP quickly earned a reputation as an advocacy leader.

Since then, the group has been involved with other looming issues: the health of jimadores (farmers who harvest agave plants), the potential collapse of certain agave species and exploring pre-Hispanic distilling traditions, which would allow for the making of truly ancestral spirits. They give presentations, throw fundraisers and host seminars — like the one at Bar Agricole — to educate the bar community.

During that meeting, Fitzgerald went over a new set of proposed changes to NOM 070, which may balance out some of the negative forces affecting mezcal and make the whole production system more sustainable. Along with Heugel and Kalkofen, he caught wind of this proposal in Mexico last December, when they met its author, Dr. Hipocrates Nolasco Cancino, the national president of the Mezcal Regulatory Council, at a mezcal festival in Michoacán.

Dr. Cancino, who calls mezcal an “engine of economic development,” spoke with every mezcal producer from Oaxaca, Guerrero, Durango, San Luis Potosi, Zacatecas, Guanajuato, Tamaulipas and Michoacán — the only eight regions whose mezcal production is officially recognized — some of whom drove eight hours to speak with him. His resulting proposal intends to change several key elements of mezcal production in order to recognize the practices not only of large producers, but of smaller and independent distillers who use more traditional methods, such as requiring mezcal to be made with 100 percent agave, cooking it prior to fermentation, allowing it to be made with all species of agave, creating four classes of mezcal (white, matured, rested and aged), breaking up mezcal into three categories — Mezcal (encompassing all types of production), Artisanal and Ancestral — and replacing the term “agave” with “maguey” to honor Mexican culture and tradition.

Because of what went into its creation, the document addresses the concerns of those who created the category and have the most at stake — their livelihood, land and traditions. TIP might be leading the way in what will likely be a long road, but there’s no doubt they’ve helped beat the path.

“This document sets the groundwork to correct errors and creates a baseline to make [the production of mezcal] not just about politics and economics,” says Kalkofen, “but history and culture.”

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Bio: Shanna Farrell is an oral historian in UC Berkeley’s Regional Oral History Office. She is currently working on a project about the legacy of the West Coast craft cocktail. She lives in the Bay Area.

FROM AROUND THE WEB
  • Robert J. Denton

    This is a group of meddlers who have no right, nor knowledge, to interfere in the tequila and mescal industry. Suru is a pretend tequila maker who has no distillery and has a label he owns contract filled. TIP is just a bunch of bartenders wanting to flex their misinformed “knowledge” on an industry that needs them nor wants them.

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