Agave Today

Welcome to the world of Mezcal! Wait, what? Only Mezcal? What about Tequila?

Well, tequila is a type of mezcal; namely, a mezcal which was produced utilising blue agave (agave tequiliana) which is native to the state of Jalisco in western Mexico. Tequila is a mezcal which takes its name from the town of Tequila after which this species of agave takes its name. Blue agave is a very high/yield type of agave with respect to the number of years it takes for the plant to reach harvesting maturity as well as to its low-maintenance needs. But more of this later.

Let us first turn to the magnificent plant which today concerns us all, the agave. In 1843, the agave was eloquently described by William H. Prescott as follows:

“But the miracle of nature was the great Mexican aloe, or maguey, whose clustering pyramids of flowers, towering above their dark coronals of leaves, were seen sprinkled over many a broad acre of the table-land. As we have already noticed its bruised leaves afforded a paste from which paper was manufactured, its juice was fermented into an intoxicating beverage, pulque, of which the natives, to this day, are extremely fond; its leaves further supplied an impenetrable thatch for the more humble dwellings; thread, of which coarse stuffs were made, and strong cords, were drawn from its tough and twisted fibres; pins and needles were made from the thorns at the extremity of its leaves; and the root, when properly cooked, was converted into a palatable and nutritious food. The agave, in short, was meat, drink, clothing, and writing materials for the Aztec! Surely, never did Nature enclose in so compact a form so many of the elements of human comfort and civilization!”

This is a pretty good account, but it must be noted that there are many more uses of the agave which Mr. Prescott might not have been aware of in his time. For example, agave can also give us agave syrup, aguamiel (honey-water), its fibrous quiote (stalk) can be cooked and eaten just like cane sugar and it is even said that some people made rain coats out of the pencas. (Here talk about the biomolecular study in IPICIT).

Mezcal and Tequila: The love-hate relationship

Following the blue agave crisis of 1994 in which, due to an increase in demand and consequent production of tequila, the blue agave was almost made extinct. This sudden drop in the possibility to produce tequila drove the worldwide price of the spirit through the roof until the point where it was almost impossible to afford one. In response, the Mexican authorities changed the laws which determine the production requirements of tequila. Here is a brief overview of the requirements for the production of tequila:

Category:

According to the process and according to the NOM (The Oficial Mexican Standard), the tequila is classified as follows:

  • Tequila 100% agave. Retrieved from mostos that exclusively contains sugars from the Weber Blue Agave Tequilana.
  • Tequila 51/49. Obtained from the blue agave mostos at a rate not less than 51%, which have been added up to 49% of other sugars from various sources, but unrelated to any other species of agave.

Class:

  • White Tequila: Product obtained in the correction and adjusted by dilution with water to commercial graduation.
  • Young Tequila: It results of the mixtures of White Tequila with added sweeteners and artificial colour. It can also arise from the combination of White Tequila, aged Tequilas and/or rested.
  • Rested Tequila: White tequila is left resting for a minimum of two months in containers of white oak or oak.
  • Aged Tequila: Tequila subject to a maturation process of at least one year in wooden containers or oak, white oak, with a maximum capacity of 600 litres.
  • Extra Aged Tequila: White Tequila subject to a maturation process of at least three years in wooden containers or oak, white oak, with a maximum capacity of 600 litres.

Joven

A tequila which has been instantly bottled and hence has not been aged in any way. It is transparent and is normally the cheapest option. However, mezcal (as well as some tequila) puritans argue that all agave distillates should only be made, distributed, sold and drunk in this manner for all other processes (ageing, infusions etc.) tamper with the actual taste of the drink (aka are a profanity).

Reposado

A tequila which, after distillation, has been left to age for no more than a year in some form of wooden container. The liquid has generally acquired a light golden like colouring and has been infused with some of the flavour properties of the container.

Añejo

A tequila which, after distillation, has been left to age for at least a year in some form of wooden container. The liquid has generally acquired a dark amber coloring and has been infused with some flavor properties of the container.

Mezcal, then, now and always…

Mezcal is distillate derived from fermented cooked agave. It is obtained by the growing, harvesting, cooking, fermenting and double distillation of the agave plant. Compared to tequila, it is, for the most part, made in a rather rustic way: the agave gets slow-roasted in a large conical pit in the ground, fermented naturally in wooden vats and distilled in small copper – and sometimes even clay – stills. There are hundreds of species of agave plants in Mexico, out of which approximately 30 are used to produce mezcal.  Now, when I say “type of agave” I mean a subspecies of the Agavaceae family. The main reason why the number of subspecies of agaves used to make mezcal vary widely is that, because the same genetic type of agave can look and taste very different depending on where, when and how it’s grown, and thanks to many regional pre-hispanic dialects, it is not uncommon for a species to go by more than one name.

By law, in only 8 out of 31 states (32 counting Mexico City, the Federal District) can the distillate of the agave plant be called “mezcal”. These states are Tamaulipas, Durango, Zacatecas, Guanajuato, San Luis Potosí, Guerrerro, Michoacán and Oaxaca all of which have what can be translated as “Denomination of Origin”. The legislative body which is in charge of all things mezcal is the COMERCAM. It is them who determine the where, when, how and by whom mezcal should be made.

For years, artisanal mezcal producers and their advocates have critiqued the mezcal Norm as biased in favour of large, industrial producers, and out of touch with mezcal culture, tradition and the reality lived by small mezcaleros. Specifically, it seemed to many to have been simplistically copied from Tequila’s Norm, in making no mention of traditional production processes, introducing a mixed sugar source type of mezcal and establishing aging categories not traditional in mezcal.

This year, on May 19, Dr. Hipócrates Nolasco, president of mezcal’s regulatory body, the COMERCAM, issued a draft proposal for changes to the Norm governing mezcal (NOM-070-SCFI-1994) that would take major steps towards elevating the status of artisanal mezcal and its producers by means of some radical changes to everything from mezcal’s very definition, to the way it is bottled and labelled.

The proposal demands the changing of the qualitative definition of mezcal, reflecting a much more traditional approach. The existing Norm defines mezcal as:

“a liquid of sui generis color and flavor according to its type. It is colorless or lightly yellow when it is rested or aged in white oak recipients, or when it contains additives with being rested or aged.”

Now, let’s compare this rather dry definition, with such emphasis on non-traditional oak aging to the proposed new definition:

“A liquid whose aroma and flavor are derived from the type of agave used and the production process, whose qualities are diversified by the soil type, topography, climate, water, producer (maestro mezcalero), percentage of alcohol, and regional yeasts utilized in fermentation, among other factors which define the character and organoleptic sensations of each Mezcal.”

While this passage doesn’t necessarily make any formal rule changes, and is found in the middle of the text, it places the traditional elements of agave, land, water, climate, native yeast and, crucially, the producer, the maestro mezcalero, at the heart of the very definition of mezcal. In the current Norm, these elements are all but absent. Moving from the general to the specific, the changes are even more radical. The current norm allows for two “Types” of mezcal – 100% agave Mezcal (Type I) and Mezcal (Type II), which may be produced with up to 20% non-agave sugar in fermentation. Three “categories” can be produced from each Type: joven, reposado and añejo. Any of the three categories may be “abocado” – enhanced with flavor or color additives (abocantes).

The new proposal, on the other hand, defines all mezcal as 100% agave, and breaks it down into three categories, defined by production methods. This goes quite a ways toward the type of recognition for the most traditional mezcals long demanded by traditionalists.

Three New Categories and classes

  • Mezcal” category: essentially unchanged, though now explicitly lists processes that may be used. Diffusors and column stills continue to be allowed. Stainless steel is allowed in both fermentation and distillation. There were a large number of attendees in favour of calling this category “industrial mezcal,” a proposal which is vehemently opposed by the largest producers and also by many others who believe such a label would tarnish mezcal’s reputation as a whole. (After all, industrial vodkas, gins, etc. are not labelled as such.)
  • Artisanal Mezcal” category: These mezcals may be produced with either earthen pits or stone ovens, but the maguey must be cooked by “direct fire” (this does not necessarily mean firewood). The maguey can be milled by hand, stone wheel or mechanical shredder (but not mill chains). Allowable fermentation vats can be stone, earth, clay, animal hides or wood (but not stainless steel). Distillation is in alembics with copper or clay pots, and monteras may be wood, copper, clay or stainless steel.
  • Ancestral Mezcal” category: The most restrictive of the three, these mezcals must be produced with earthen pits and milled by hand or stone mill. Fermentation vats must be stone, earth, clay or animal hides. Stills must be clay pots, with or without wood or clay Agave fiber must be present in both fermentation and distillation. Disallowing copper alembic stills in this category is perhaps the most controversial element of the entire revised proposal to many traditionalists.

The categories break down into the following four classes:

  • Blanco: the mezcal formerly known as “joven.” This change was not without controversy, with the argument that the tranlation of “joven” to “young” doesn’t do justice to the long maturation period of the agave and the laborious production process being the strongest.
  • Madurado (“matured”): mezcal aged in glass for a minimum of twelve months. The label can state the amount of time it has been aged.
  • Reposado: mezcal aged in barrels between two and twelve months. The wood does not have to be oak, interestingly. The argument is that regional Mexican woods should be given a chance. Also, a limit on barrel size was not established. The label can state the amount of time it has been aged.
  • Añejo: mezcal aged over twelve months, in any type of wood vessel of any size. The label can state the amount of time it has been aged.

The use of additives (abocantes – flavors, aromas and stabilizers, including worms, damiana, caramel, etc.) and production of traditional pechugas are defined as “additional operations.” The ingredients used in either must be listed on the label.

The term “destilado con” is required for pechugas, followed by the ingredients present in the still. Pechugas are only allowed for artisanal and ancestral mescals. So for example, an artisanal pechuga distilled with chicken breast could read (in English) something like “Artesanal Blanco Mezcal, Distilled with Chicken.”

Important Odds and Ends

  • “Mature” maguey is defined as about to or having produced a quiote (flower stalk).
  • The parameters around acidity have been removed entirely.
  • Removing the prohibition against mezcal produced with Agave tequilana in the states of Tamaulipas, Guanajuato and Michoacán, which are in both the Tequila and Mezcal Denominations of Origin
  • All mezcal must now be filtered for solids (essentially with paper), and aggressive activated carbon filtration will continue to be allowed.
  • Labels will be required to list the scientific name(s) of the agave(s) used, and in the case of ensembles, the species must be listed in descending order by mass. (This is to avoid labeling a mezcal simply “tobalá,” for example, when it contains only a small fraction of that agave. This practice is believed to be widespread.)
  • Labels must name the state where the mezcal as produced. This is intended as a small first step towards eventually introducing more specific appellation zones, similar to wine.
  • Introducing controls and oversight of agave fields

So, what next?

The draft now goes to COMERCAM’s legal team, who will ensure the verbiage meets the standards of the General Directorate of Norms (DGN). It will then be reviewed by various other federal entities, including the DGN and Mexico’s trademark institute. These reviews will be followed by a 30 day public comment period. I’ll continue to monitor the process and post updates here.

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