*Photo Credit: Joanna Pinneo
Few can deny that we are in the midst of a mezcal boom. It seems like every week we are seeing either a new producer or new varietal get released. It has been great to be a part of this Golden Age of mezcal. And to be honest, we have definitely benefited from it. You have helped us to grow and produce some incredible mezcal, while helping to better the lives of our mezcaleros and the communities they live in. However, the industry is reaching a dangerous precipice; one where we will have to start making some important, conscious decisions about how we all, consumers, brands, and mezcaleros want the industry to proceed. We are in the process of taking mezcal production, something which had traditionally been only one of a variety of ways many subsistence farmers of Mexico had provided for themselves, and watching it become something, that without a concerted effort, will become exploitative of the people, the plants and the land. In the centuries before, mezcal was something that was produced when the land and the plants were ready to give themselves to the pursuit. Producers worked with the land, and let the environment tell them when plants were ready, rather than harvest an entire field of unripe agave in an effort to meet a brand’s need. It was something reserved for family, friends, and the surrounding community.
While the agave boom of the last five years has been great to bring attention to the historical culture and incredible art that is mezcal, the massive growth in demand has created a nearly innumerable number of brands and even more producers in an effort to slake the thirst of the domestic and international market. While there has undoubtedly been an increase in the availability of quality mezcals, this sudden growth has also given foothold to brands that are not entirely concerned with concepts like stewardship of the land, health of agave, or living conditions of mezcaleros. This difference in priorities, paired with the lack of understanding among consumers has allowed demand to truly threaten the long-term viability of mezcal. If the quality mezcales that so many of us have come to cherish are to remain commercially and environmentally viable, then conversations need to begin to change. Spirits buyers, bartenders, and home consumers need to start asking questions. Brands need to become more transparent. While the mystery and mysticism of mezcal was an acceptable approach in the outset, as the demand and availability have exploded, it has allowed some brand owners to exploit that mystery and lack of transparency by modifying environmental practices, production methods and compensation terms in an effort to cuts costs and increase margins. We at Mezcal Vago truly believe that brands, ourselves included, need to earn the trust of our consumers that when they reach for a particular label, they know that it was produced with the greatest respect for the culture; from plant to producer. In return, those brands who are working to preserve this beautiful thing need to be able to trust consumers to ask questions and demand answers before they make a purchase decision in order to hold producers accountable.
With this piece, we are not trying to create some type of mezcal dogma to say that this is the only way to produce mezcal responsibly. Rather we are simply highlighting the issues that we consider to be important to the long-term sustainability of the industry and how we as a brand have chosen to approach those issues. As always, we encourage a healthy, open discourse on these things; it is only through working collaboratively that we can protect this tradition. These are complex problems without easy solutions.
We at Mezcal Vago strive every day to share our connection with the families, communities, and land that have existed for centuries. It is a world that now provides us with what is arguably the most complex and unique spirit in the world. In each bottle is the culmination of countless influences to that come together to create an experience that conveys exactly where that mezcal came from. From the moment the agave plants begin their difficult life, they are a part of our family and we will one day be fortunate enough to harness the nutritional stores of these plants to make what we believe is some of the best mezcal in the world. We recently had the opportunity to produce mezcal from agave that were 45 years old. It is a rare thing to be able to experience a spirit that is connected to three generations of a single family.
It is because of this delicate harmony, that stewardship of the land and our plants and the well-being of our palenqueros is of utmost importance to us as a brand. We try as hard as we can to explain to people that our model allows us to have a more direct relationship with our mezcaleros. We believe we have to earn customer loyalty by building trust that we at Vago are making responsible decisions regarding how we conduct our business; from the land, to the mezcalero. Because of this need for a relationship of mutual trust, we would like to take this opportunity to illustrate some of our practices that we hope will help you as mezcal drinkers understand some of the underlying sustainability issues and how Vago is approaching them.
Wild harvested. If you drink a fair amount of mezcal, you are probably familiar with the term. In fact, you’ve probably actively sought out mezcals made from wild harvested agave. Hell, we are putting it in your bottle. We are already past the point of this being sustainable. . According to figures from the Consejo Regulador del Mezcal, mezcal production grew 48% between 2011 & 2014 to almost 1.5 million liters. Production from agave other than Espadín has fluctuated from 18% to 10% to 5% to 23% during that same time. With such drastic fluctuation in such a short time frame, the raw materials for these mezcales (typically wild harvested) have not had a chance to catch-up and replenish their stores; sexually, naturally reproduced specimens continue to become more rare.
With many of these plant species, particularly the more sought-after varieties such as Tobalá and Tepeztate, we are looking at decadal time scales before these plants are ready for harvest. It is not an annual crop like corn and barley for whisk(e)y production, grain for vodka, or grapes for brandy. Even in the case of a relatively quick-ripening maguey like Espadín or Mexicano, we are waiting 8 - 10 years before we can harvest. When the plant has matured, it is approaching the end of its lifecycle. It is now ready to grow its flower stalk, or quixote, in an effort to sexually reproduce before it dies. In this process, the agave begins to store starches in its’ piña to provide energy for the reproduction process. It is the cutting of this quixote that allows agaveros to take advantage of this natural process and allow the agave to keep producing starches and storing them, which will then be fermented to make mezcal. The entire lifecycle of the plant is contained in that bottle of mezcal you are drinking. This fact remains to be lost on a lot of mezcal consumers. It does not grow back. That is why people need to think about what they are purchasing and asking how the plants are grown and cared for as well as where they came from before they purchase that bottle of mezcal.
*Agave Seed Pod
We have been working with our producers over the last few years to responsibly rotate which agave they are using to produce mezcal and producing in small enough batches that the local biodiversity is not threatened. As a result, this means that some batches may be unavailable from time to time. While this irregular availability may understandably frustrate some mezcal fans, we hope that the majority of you will appreciate that is a result of us working with the land; taking what it gives us and sharing it with you beautiful people. In the case of Tío Rey, this means taking advantage of the fact that the area around Sola de Vega has some of the greatest agave diversity in the world and producing an ensámble, rather than a constantly available Espadín. This means that while the Ensámble en Barro will always be available and identifiably Tío Rey’s style, the specific agave blend and flavor complexity will vary from batch to batch. When it comes to the rarer varieties of mezcal, we are often dealing with batches that are between 50 and 100 liters. We are okay having to tell people that Aquilino’s Tepeztate or Tío Rey’s Arroqueño en Barro may not be available at a given moment. We hope you are too. This spirit is something special, sacred, even. We as a family try to be as respectful and understanding as we can of what the environment can bare. In return… Mezcal. It seems like a pretty fair deal.
*Tepeztate Sprouts Up In Our Vivero In Sola de Vega
We have discussed how we are working with what the land has available, but that only deals with the present. We would now like to look towards the future. We at Mezcal Vago are very proud of the small, humble reproduction facilities we have been able to start with each of our mezcaleros. These are often nothing more than cordoned off areas lined with chicken wire or sometimes only demarcated by carrizo. It is in these viveros, or nurseries that our future is sewn. While we harvested 8,334 piñas last year, between our three mezcaleros and our office in Oaxaca City, we planted over 45,000 agave in 2015, the majority from seed. From seed. Two words that mean so much. It means so much in fact, that over the next 8-10 years, Mezcal Vago is committed to removing most wild harvested agave from our supply stream. Our goal is to plant at least 3 plants for every one we harvest, if not more. The broader concept of agave and what they mean to the land and the people must become, across the industry, one of our guiding principles.
*Cultivated Tobalá in Sola de Vega
For those familiar with the tequila industry and the agave crisis, you already know where this is headed. For the uninitiated, around the end of the 20th century and into the 21st, there has been a growing plague within the Blue Weber Agave fields. Decades of irresponsible cultivation has led to entire fields falling victim to the same blights. This susceptibility arose from the popular practice of taking advantage of Blue Weber’s ability to propagate through clones, or reproduce by making copies of itself. While all agave reproduce sexually by growing a quixote at the end of its life cycle in order to produce flowers, pollinate, and then disperse seeds, some agave like Blue Weber and Espadín have the ability to produce small clones of itself around its base when the plant reaches around 3 years of age. While this can lead to much greater efficiency, this also has a pitfall; genetic uniformity. Because the plants are not getting pollinated and reproducing sexually, thereby mixing DNA with other plants, the generations continue to have the exact same disease susceptibility. This means that entire fields of agave can be completely wiped out by the same bug or disease. For obvious reasons, this practice has also taken root (pardon the pun….please) in the mezcal industry. This practice, when coupled by the practice of harvesting agave to make mezcal, is threatening the agave diversity in Oaxaca in the same way it has in Jalisco, particularly among Espadín. In response, Mezcal Vago has begun working with our mezcaleros to ensure that at least 5% of our agave are being allowed to go to seed. This practice is not only vital to increasing agave diversity, but other plants as well. Agave are the main food source for bats that pass through central Oaxaca during their migration. These bats are the main pollinators of agave plants in the region and also pollinate several other plants as well. If the agave flowers are not present to attract the bats, the effect begins to trickle down and affect other flowering plants.
While quality control and the ability to shape our own destiny in regards to agave supply means the world to us, the reality is that demand is simply too great for Mezcal Vago to be completely self-sufficient at this point. Since we are buying a portion of the agave that we use for production from friends and family, we must be cognizant of the impact our buying decisions are having on the land and the people that supply maguey. The best thing we can do is be extremely discerning when it comes to the standards we set for purchasing. While it is (relatively) easy for people with land and agave but no production facilities to harvest their plants and sell it to a mezcalero, there is no way to set a clear standard for all mezcaleros when it comes to the maturity level of agave that they are willing to purchase. As a result, it is not unheard of for agaveros to harvest all the maguey they can and sell it to any mezcalero that will take it. We as consumers can hardly blame a hardworking farmer for seeing the truckloads of agave, ripe and unripe, rolling along the dirt roads and not want to cash in. However, as producers, we at Mezcal Vago try to establish a clear understanding with our surrounding agaveros and communities that we will only accept responsibly grown and properly matured agave. Too often, agave are clear-cut from a field in order to maximize yield and then sold for a standard rate to a mezcalero with a similar eye to maximizing production. This results in ripped-up, desolate fields that used to be rife with healthy agave and leaves them looking like a scene from the last pages of Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax. In exchange for family and friends bringing us loads of beautiful, ripe, sustainably grown agave, Mezcal Vago does our best to make sure that our mezcaleros pay a premium over what would normally be fetched for a kilo of agave.
Issues of agave sustainability are further complicated by the complexities of land rights in rural, central Mexico. There are several types of land ownership, which can range from outright ownership of the land immediately surrounding a mezcalero’s home and palenque, to part ownership of communal lands, to future harvesting rights of agave grown on someone’s land a couple of kilometers away. As a result, when bartenders, academics, and enthusiastic consumers ask us about “land ownership,” our answer is often formed by looking through several different lenses. Obviously, if agave is grown on land that is owned outright by our mezcaleros, it makes quality and agave sustainability much easier to control. The same goes for agave that is grown on a “neighbor’s” land, as we have the discretion of what and when to harvest. However, the real problem arises when wild agave is agave that is taken from a plot of land that is owned by the community. Often, isolated communities that have agave, but lack any producers in their immediate area will harvest their local wild maguey in order to sell to a mezcalero a few kilometers down the road. Now, we as distant consumers can easily balk at this idea, criticizing them for lacking the “respect” for their own land, but do not these people have a right to harvest their own plants when they want to if the community needs the income? Of course. Therefore, we as buyers strive to instill an understanding that the practice of allowing agave to reach proper maturity before harvest, and allowing a portion of the plants to go to seed will reap a greater windfall in the long run. We also try to establish that we will pay a higher than market premium for agave that are properly matured and that is all we will pay for, and we cultivate these same strains at a 3 to 1 ratio to ween ourselves off of wild agave Obviously, we cannot speak for nor monitor the buying practices of all mezcaleros, or more to the point, larger corporations. However, we hope that by openly discussing these topics and our approach, that we will inspire you, the consumers, to demand similar practices from your other suppliers.
While many mezcal fanatics discuss the deforestation of wild agave, many don’t seem to be discussing the deforestation of natural hardwood in order to provide fuel for roasting agave and heating stills. We can all agree it is not because we don’t care, but it is an issue that simply does not get as much attention as the threat of agave crisis. While already prioritizing the use of dead and fallen trees as a fuel source, we do occasionally have to use living wood. However, we do try and rotate the types of living wood we use in order to prevent damaging natural populations. In 2016, we have also started an effort to plant 1,000 indigenous trees per year in the areas surrounding our palenques.
Mezcal production uses a substantial amount of water for each batch. There is the water to cool the still, the water that is added to fermentation and, depending on how you bottle your mezcal, the water to bring it to proof. Due to this amount of water that is drawn from a palenque’s water source, refuse is obviously going to be an issue as well. While we can not speak to other producers’ techniques, we try and reuse as much of this water as possible, rather than simply letting it drain into the hillsides. For example in Sola de Vega, Tío Rey reuses all of the water drawn for cooling the stills and drains it to his milpa and nursery. We are also currently looking at ways to responsibly handle the runoff that is drained from our stills after distillation.
At Mezcal Vago, we have been fortunate enough to find several ways to reuse the bagasse that is a byproduct of traditional mezcal distillation. Once the agave fiber has been taken out of the still, it is piled next to the palenque and allowed to dry in the sun. Once it has dried, it is used around the palenque for a variety of things. We mix it with the liquid that is drained from our boilers in order to help seal the stills. We also use it as a fuel source to help ignite the fires that will heat our stills and roast our agave. They are used as insulation during our roast.
Finally, a large portion of agave fiber that around the palenque is trucked to San Augustín Etla, north of Oaxaca City, where an artisanal paper maker named Eric Ramirez processes it further in order to produce every single one of our labels. Eric is a graduate of the ancestral paper-making program called El Taller Arte Papel Oaxaca offered at the Centro de las Artes de San Augustin. Here students learn a variety of techniques in order to use native, natural materials to make a variety of papers. Eric’s workshop is truly a wonder to behold, as he has hundreds of samples in a rainbow of colors with different textures. Some of the materials he as worked with include Cochineal beetle, Tomato skin, Marigold & Bougainvillea petals, and tree sap. Below is a video of Eric explaining his process as well as a link to the cultural center’s website.
Community Health and Upward Mobility
While we at Vago work extremely hard to ensure the livelihood of our own mezcaleros, it is extremely important to understand that we are a members of larger communities; communities that welcomed our families from Miahuatlán roughly 150 years ago. Since then, they have supported us, worked with us, and influenced us. As a result, they have in-turn become part of who we are and we would neglectful not to strive to better those communities; both in the long and the short term.
In 2015, Mezcal Vago helped launch a crowdsourcing campaign that raised $4,100 USD to help fund a young man named Anthony Zaguilan. Anthony and Judah met while living in a small coastal community in Oaxaca several years ago. Recently, Anthony’s parents have had trouble finding the money to continue sending him to secondary school. Through a YouCaring.com effort, we have helped source $4,100 of the $10,000 needed to pay for Anthony’s tuition and provide a small stipend for him over the next three years. We have been fortunate enough to meet and work with some incredible individuals that learned about Anthony’s situation through our efforts and have helped contribute. Thank you to all those that have contributed and those that will read this and give in the future. Those that would like to contribute can follow the link below
The kitchen is a central part of Oaxacan life. Regardless of how you feel about gender roles, the reality in rural Oaxaca is that men typically spend the day performing some kind of labor, whether it is tilling a field, building a house, or producing mezcal while the women spend the day laboring around the home. A large part of that is spent preparing the meals for the family. This becomes a health issue when one considers that these kitchens are often poorly ventilated and rely on some type of solid fuel stove, usually using wood as the main fuel source. According to the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves, a non-profit organization hosted by the United Nations, household air pollution has been linked to an annual 4 million premature deaths globally. This does not take into account the effect that added deforestation has on the area as people continue to cut trees to provide fuel for these stoves. We have just started to work with Stoveteam International to learn about how we can help provide the people in the area around Candelaria Yegolé with more efficient, cleaner cooking stoves. We will begin trying these stoves in the homes of our mezcaleros to see how they function in a rural Oaxacan setting with an eye to introduce them to the area on a larger scale. You can follow the links for more information on both organizations below.
Additionally, we are working to improve internet access for local residents by installing internet at the local school in Candelaria Yegolé. By establishing open internet access at the school, we are hoping to provide service for the surrounding community.
The following issue is one that we cannot possibly stress enough: Our mezcaleros are the most important part of who we are as a brand. Everything we do is to showcase who they are and what they do. While some brands are structured such that they contract with mezcaleros as suppliers, our mezcaleros are completely integrated into the structure of our company. Beyond being paid as suppliers for the mezcal they produce, they have equity in the brand. The better Vago does, the better off they inherently are. Beyond their ownership in the brand, Mezcal Vago pays them above market value per liter as well as paying all their income tax, laboratory and regulatory costs. Holiday bonuses are also part of their compensation package and we have provided extensive health care help that the families desperately needed..
In the last year we have been able to watch, Tio Rey has been able to completely renovate his palenque, enclosing it to protect it from the elements as well as adding a new floor and roof, a bodega room for resting mezcal and a small room with a communal table for hosting guests. Perhaps even more importantly is the fact that they have been able to upgrade their living conditions as well. They have installed new plumbed bathrooms, showers and a septic system. The pride he takes in his recent renovations is evident. Since the brand started, Aquilino has been able to begin construction on a new house for his son Mateo who is getting ready to start a family. And one of the life changes the brand is most proud to have made possible is the return of Aquilino’s son, Temo. After having spent 7 years in the southern United States harvesting fruit, Temo has been able to return to the family homestead in order to help his father and brother craft their mezcal. The brand is finally viable enough to give our mezcaleros and their families a stable, meaningful income that provides them an incentive to stay in their historical communities rather than flee to the larger cities or even worse, leaving north in order to eek out a living thousands of miles from their families and their homeland. Even more, it helps ensure that these traditions and techniques have a path forward into the future rather than be lost as the current generation of mezcaleros head into their twilight. In spite of all that has been written of these skills and flavors being lost to the passage of time, we are striving to ensure that there is a light on the horizon. The greater a quality of life that this industry can provide these stewards, a quality of life they undoubtedly deserve, the more pride they take in their work and more incentive they have to sustain their communities. These people deserve stability and a gainful means to make a living. We start and end each day with this being our core value. These incredible people create something remarkable and are gracious enough to share it with the world; we all owe it to them to respect what they do and do everything we can to ensure their future.
*The Next Generation of Mezcal Vago
Centuries. Perhaps even millennia. That is how long certainly agave and perhaps even mezcal have been a part of Mesoamerican culture. Our families as producers, ourselves as a brand, and yourselves as consumers are fortunate enough to be enjoying and benefiting from that history every time we have a copita in our hands. We all owe it to the land and the people that provide it for us to respect it. Enjoy it, but treat it with reverence. Think about what label is on that bottle. Is there an appreciation for the mezcalero or where specifically that mezcal came from? Is there any mention of the time-honored techniques that produced it? How long did those agave strain to eek out a living in the hillsides before giving themselves up to provide you with the essence of their life in the sierra? There are memories in that bottle. There is so much that makes mezcal special and we need to be cognizant of every piece. We speak a lot of trust, but that is what it really does come down to. We can speak all we want about these things, but ultimately the question is whether or not you as Bar Managers, Bartenders, Beverage Directors and consumers trust us to be doing things properly; in a manner that will ensure the viability of agave and mezcal production for generations to come. Not for ourselves as consumers, but for the people of the 20-plus Mexican states that have been eking out a living in the sierra for hundreds of years preserving mezcal culture. Stewards of tradition. That is what is of the utmost importance. It would be selfish of us to endanger that lineage in order to taste the rarest, or oldest agave we can in a bottle. As the link between those plants, fields, people and yourselves, we try and put those things at the forefront of what we do. As much as we wish we could get every person that buys a bottle of Vago down to the palenque to meet Tío Rey or Aquilino and smell the smoke that permeates every part of the production facility, we simply cannot. All we can do is talk about the backbreaking work and generational knowledge that we know goes into every single batch and try and make that connection. The producers can’t physically show you the entire production process that went into that bottle, so they rely on us to do it for them. We become those stewards. That’s why we try to be completely transparent in how we get this incredible juice to you as consumers. We need to be in order to earn that trust. It goes both ways. The people in those communities and the generations before them need to be able to trust you as consumers. They need to be able to trust that you are making intelligent, informed decisions when you pull a bottle off of a shelf. What does that label say? What does it mean? Who is that label representing?
We want to thank all of you for accompanying us on this crazy journey over the last four years. It has been truly incredible to such passion and curiosity for the mezcal category. However, if left unchecked, the strains put on wild agave and tree populations will exceed their ability to sustain themselves. Without a shift in conversations, attitudes, and approaches to agave and tree cultivation and repopulation, we are seriously endangering the natural populations. To do so would remove a lynchpin of a culture that dates back millennia. Decadal time cycles. That is what people need to realize the mezcal world operates on. With the boom happening over the last 5 years, these populations have not had time to recover. In addition to the environmental impact, there is the human factor. The people that produce these incredible spirits are remarkable in their own right. They are kind, generous, hard-working and intelligent. They have been keepers of an eternal flame. Kind of like that old dude in Indiana Jones & The Last Crusade. They need to be cherished, not exploited. Given the amount of labor and maturation time that goes into every bottle, there is no better value in the market. However, we must respect it and take the proper steps now to safeguard its future.
We at Mezcal Vago, hope that this is a jumpstarter to steer the conversation in a more sustainable direction. We love you guys, and we hope the feeling is mutual. We all need to work together in order to be responsible consumers. We do not claim to have all the answers. Hell, we are not even saying the way we do things is the right way, but we are open to discuss even the most taboo subjects and are committed to absolute transparency. Talk to us, ask us, share with others. Maybe we can all find the right way together.
Written by Francisco Terrazas, edited by Dylan Sloan and Judah Kuper