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COMERCAM Proposal Would Recognize, Define Artisanal Mezcal

COMERCAM Proposal Would Recognize, Define Artisanal Mezcal

by Clayton J. Szczech, June 1, 2014

For years, artisanal mezcal producers and their advocates have critiqued the mezcal Norm as biased in favor 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.

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 labeled.

Please keep in mind that the proposal is a “draft for discussion,” and that these or any changes to the Norm would require a political process, most likely lasting years. The Mexican government ultimately establishes what is in the Norm, and authorizes COMERCAM to enforce it. I’m putting this very basic piece out immediately in the interest of timely dissemination of the proposal in English, and will follow up with analysis and perspective from various parties – on the content of the proposal, the process of changing the Norm, and the interests involved in both.

The current article is based on a line-by-line read through of the draft proposal against the 2000 revision to the Norm (NOM-EM-007-SCFI-2000). The originals documents are in Spanish, and the translated English text presented here is my own. Before getting into the nitty-gritty, here’s the take away: there is a lot in the proposal that should please fans of traditional and artisanal mezcal. COMERCAM is proposing that all mezcal be 100% agave, the creation of a traditional / artisanal mezcal category, and a couple of significant changes to the classes within each category, which would include the prohibition of both diffusors and continuous (column) distillation.

Prioritizing the Agave and the Mezcalero

The proposal would change 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.”

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 (section 4.1), it places the traditional elements of agave, land, water, climate, native yeast and, crucially, 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).

Good-bye ‘Mixto,’ Hello ‘Madurado

Ironically, while the mezcal Norm is criticized for mimicking the Tequila Norm in nonsensical ways, it doesn’t follow the same logic of classification and nomenclature, leading to a lot of confusion between the two spirit categories. The proposed changes would recognize more traditional mezcals in its content, but at the same time change the nomenclature to make it more consistent with that of Tequila (2 categories, comprised of various classes), presumably to smooth the commercial path for mezcal into larger national and international markets.

Table 1: Current Versus Proposed Norm

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Current Norm

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          • Type I (100% Agave Mezcal), Type II (80 / 20 Mezcal)
          • 3 categories within each Type (any can be abocado)
          • “Joven” category: un-aged, may be abocado
          • [N/A]

 

          • “Reposado” category: rested a minimum of 2 months in oak, may be abocado
          • “Añejo / añejado” category: matured a minimum of 1 year in oak containers of max. 200L, may be abocado
          • [N/A]

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Proposed Changes

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            • Categories: Mezcal; Traditional / Artisanal Mezcal (both 100% agave)
            • 5 classes within each category (abocado is a class to itself)
            • “Blanco” class: un-aged
            • “Madurado” (matured) class: Mezcal contained in a glass recipient for at least 6 months, underground or in a space with stable temperature and humidity
            • “Reposado” class: contained in wood 2-12 months, in a space with stable temperature and humidity
            • “Añejado” class: contained in wood a minimum of 1 year
            • “Abocado” class: flavored or smoothed via the addition of regional ingredients such as insects, fruits, herbs, vegetables, honey, salt, meats, biochemically obtained colorings, among others, as long as there is no health risk. Limited to 5% mass/volume

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The proposal would change “Types” to “categories” and establish “classes” within them. The allowance for 80 / 20 mezcal would be scrapped altogether and, crucially, a Traditional/Artisanal mezcal category would be created. The traditional practice of maturing mezcal in glass would be recognized in the “Madurado” class, and “Abocado” would become its own class. The latter would formally recognize traditional pechugas, as well as allow for continued production of caramel- and other flavored, commercial mezcals.

The proposed changes to the reposado and añejo classes seem to reflect a relative lack of concern for them, which makes sense in the context of bringing the Norm more into line with mezcal traditions. Gone is the specification that the wood used be white oak, and there is actually filler text where parameters for the volume of the wood containers could be inserted.

Defining Traditional

The two new proposed categories – Mezcal and Traditional /Artisanal Mezcal – would be defined by the specific techniques used in production, reflecting a longstanding demand of smaller, more traditional producers.

Table 2: Proposed New Categories

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Mezcal

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            • Cooking: Earthen pit, clay ovens, autoclaves
            • Crushing/milling: by hand, stone wheel, mechanical shredder or mill chain
            • Fermentation: stone, wood, earth, clay, animal hide or stainless steel containers or holes, with yeasts native to Mexico (cultivated or not)
            • Double, discontinuous distillation in alembics with clay, copper or stainless steel pots and [/or] clay, wood, copper or stainless steel “monteras”

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Traditional / Artisanal Mezcal

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            • Cooking: Earthen pits, maximum 10 tons
            • Crushing/milling: by hand, stone wheel, mechanical shredder
            • Fermentation: stone, wood, earth, clay, animal hide containers or holes (≤1500L), with agave fiber & yeasts native to Mexico (cultivated or not)
            • Double, discontinuous distillation with agave fiber, by direct flame, in alembics (≤500L) with clay or copper pots and [/or] clay, wood, copper or stainless steel “monteras.”

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The most striking proposal is that diffusors and column distillation would be disallowed entirely, in either category. (This will certainly be controversial to the largest industrial producer, which I’ll address in a separate article.) Both clay ovens and autoclaves could continue to be used in the Mezcal category, though all Traditional/Artisanal Mezcal would have to be produced from earthen pits. The only difference in milling would be that Traditional / Artisanal Mezcal could not employ the type of milling chains widely used in Tequila production.

In fermentation and distillation, Traditional /Artisanal Mezcals would be prohibited from using stainless steel and both fermentation tanks and stills would be limited to a maximum volume. Only mezcals including agave fiber in both fermentation and distillation could be labeled Traditional /Artisanal. The specification of “yeasts native to Mexico (cultivated or not)” would seem to prohibit the use of imported commercial yeasts, but allow for those developed in Mexican labs.

Other Changes: Maturity, Acidity, Filtration

Other significant proposed changes include:

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            • Agave

              • Defining mature agave as ““near the development of its inflorescence or having had the inflorescence cut, or being at least five years old”
              • Effectively 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
              • Introducing controls and oversight of agave fields
            • Labeling

              • Requiring that additives be listed by name on the label (whether traditional or biochemical)
              • Requiring the scientific or common name of the agave(s) used, on the label
              • Requiring blends or ensembles of more than one agave to state the percentage of each agave used
              • Substituting “DOM” (Denominación de Origin Mezcal) for “NOM” on the labels, with the producer’s identifying number
            • Physicochemical Parameters

              • Removing the parameter for maximum acidity allowed (artisanal mezcals tend to be more acidic, and the existing maximum threshold for acidity has effectively blocked many from becoming certified)
              • Lowering the minimum parameters for methanol and dry extract
            • Bottling

              • Prohibiting activated carbon filtration
              • Establishing a 19 liter maximum on bottles for sale
              • Establishing new rules for bottling

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What is Next?

Meetings between mezcal producers / brands and COMERCAM took place in Oaxaca City on May 26, and Mexico City on June 2. In the coming weeks more will be held in Guerrero, Michoacán, Sal Luis Potosí and Tamaulipas. COMERCAM is collecting comments and feedback from producers, and a meeting with representatives of all 8 DO states will be help in Oaxaca City on June 23. I’ll continue to report on developments here.

UPDATE: This article continues in Part Two and Part Three.

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