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Battle Lines Drawn Over Mezcal Rule Changes

Battle Lines Drawn Over Mezcal Rule Changes

by Clayton J. Szczech, June 18, 2014
This is the second article in a series on COMERCAM’s proposed changes to the Mezcal Norm. Read the first part here. 

While the leadership of COMERCAM seeks to build consensus around a modified version of their proposed changes to the Mezcal Norm, there is opposition from both the industrial sector, which has dug in to resist all change, as well as advocates of traditional mezcal, who would like to see the changes go further in recognizing and protecting the oldest surviving production methods.

This article is based on my attendance at the June 2 meeting of producers in Mexico City, reports from the May 26 meeting in Oaxaca and off the record comments from many of the involved parties. While there was extensive debate (the DF meeting lasted 8 hours) on myriad proposed changes, rather than report on points they may ultimately be made moot, I will focus on the basic arguments made at the two ends of the spectrum, and some areas where there appears to be consensus in the middle.

Under the leadership of biochemist Dr. Hipócrates Nolasco, COMERCAM has undertaken a study of various Denominations of Origin (DOs), and proposed that Cognac is the example for mezcal to follow. Nolasco proposes “divorcing ourselves from Tequila,” and opting for a French-style alternative that would prioritize preserving and adding value to the category, even at the expense of limiting growth in volume. While there are many disagreements over details, this vision is largely supported by mezcal producers, though there are powerful exceptions. Fundamentally, the question boils down to this: will the Norm follow the model of Tequila, and allow for potentially unlimited growth in production, or the model of Cognac and limit production methods (and therefore growth) to preserve quality and increase prices? This will be the central conflict of mezcal in the coming months and years.

The Emerging Consensus

At the time of this article, all but one of the regional meetings of producers have taken place. It must be emphasized that these meetings are strictly advisory. It’s clear that COMERCAM is taking the perspective of all present seriously, and incorporating amendments and changes that are agreed upon by a majority of those present. The following points seem to me to comprise the emerging numerical consensus regarding changes to the COMERCAM proposal. To be clear, there is strong opposition to many or all of these points from either the industrial or traditional camps, which will be addressed below.

Emerging points of agreement

[bulletlist]

  • accepting COMERCAM’s proposed class / category scheme, including  allowing only 100% agave mezcals.
  • accepting two classes – one being “artisanal,” defined by process and possibly by maximum volume produced
  • making the artisanal category and the “mezcal” category mutually exclusive. Under the original COMERCAM proposal, all artisanal mezcal was also “mezcal”
  • not requiring “double distillation,” to allow for single distillation (traditional in some regions), triple distillation (include some pechugas) and “mini-columns” or plates that are contained in alembic stills
  • limiting either batch size or the size of ovens, fermentation vats and/or stills in the case of artisanal mezcal
  • maintaing “abocado” as a label term, and not its own class (to continue to allow for “reposados con gusano,” for example)
  • more specifically defining “mature agave”
  • requiring labels to list scientific name(s) of agave(s) used, and allowing the use of the common / local name(s)
  • requiring some type of minimum percentage of agave used in blends / ensembles
  • limiting maximum saleable bottle size to 5 liters

[/bulletlist]

The Cornered Industrial Giant

Casa Armando Guillermo Prieto (CAGP) produced over 20% of all certified mezcal by volume in 2013, including the brands Zignum, Recuerdo de Oaxaca, Senorio and other industrial mezcals and mezcal-based products. They sent a team of 5 or more representatives to the regional meetings of producers in Oaxaca, Mexico City and Guerrero and planned to send them to the remaining meetings in Michoacán, Zacatecas, San Luís Potosí and Tamualipas as well.

It is clear that CAGP has a vision for mezcal that is not shared by the majority of producers. CAGP insists that no restrictions whatsoever on production methods are valid, and that their industrial production processes must be allowed because of the money they have already invested in them. The abyss between CAGP and most other producers in terms of what mezcal is or should be was encapsulated by debate over the diffuser at the Mexico City meeting.

The diffuser is a machine that extracts nearly 100% of all fermentable carbohydrates from the agave, using acids or enzymes, even from the raw plant. This process is the pinnacle of achievement for maximizing efficiency and lowering costs, but leaves much to be desired in terms aroma and flavor. After all, if the agave isn’t cooked, there is no cooked agave flavor.

This was one of many points raised by producers in favor of the current proposal’s prohibition on diffuser hydrolysis. The very word mezcal is derived from the Nahuátl words for “cooked agave,” and almost all producers see the diffuser process as so foreign to mezcal that allowing it strips the term “mezcal” of any meaning. CAGP, on the other hand, feel that they are being unfairly singled out (there is another produced in San Luís Potosí with a diffuser, but they are producing hardly any mezcal). They argue that since firing up five years ago, they have operated within the confines of the existing Norm, have invested significant funds into this process, and that it wouldn’t be fair to change it on them now. The response of the majority is that the current Norm is deeply flawed and that a process so antithetical to historical mezcal processes should never have  been permitted.

Since the diffuser can also be used to extract sugar from cooked agave (as CAGP does in fact, with the Recuerdo de Oaxaca line), many at the Mexico City meeting suggested a compromise position: do not explicitly ban the diffuser, but require that all agave for mezcal be cooked. This would allow for the modified oven-diffuser process currently used for Recuerdo de Oaxaca to be used for all of CAGP’s products. (One attendee even, quite seriously, suggested to CAGP that although they are fighting this compromise, it would ultimately result in them being forced to produce a slightly superior product!)

Goliath on the Offensive

As mentioned, CAGP is participating aggressively in each of the regional producers’ meetings. They haven’t limited their activity to the meetings, however. Many assume that CAGP is behind the Mexican press assault on the proposed Norm change and COMERCAM’s Director. The worst of these (June 12, June 11, May 29)  have appeared in Oaxaca’s ironically named “Imparcial”  Unfortunately, many people have been misled by these articles into thinking that the proposed changes are an attack on traditional mezcal, rather than an attempt to level the playing field for them somewhat.

On the public front, CAGP has officially issued a counter proposal that would change….almost nothing. “Type II” (mixto) mezcal, diffusers, column stills and carbon filtration would continue to be allowed. They would do away with the proposed changes to make terminology more consistent, as well as axing the “madurado” (glass-aged) class, the requirement that additives be clearly stated on the label, and they would maintain the nonsensical maximum allowed level of acidity. Indeed, their only apparent concession to the nearly universal desire for change would be to define the term “artisanal.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, CAGP’s proposed definition of artisanal mezcal would please practically nobody. First of all, the “artisanal” label could potentially be applied to Type II (mixto) mezcales, as well as reposados and añejos. The “artisanal” process would be defined as cooked with wood (curiously, not defined as cooked in earthen pits), milled by hand or stone wheel, fermented in stone, wood, earth, clay or skin (with agave fiber), and distilled in alembics of any material (including stainless steel).

It’s interesting to say the least that CAGP proposed to define “artisanal” mezcal, since they have otherwise made it clear that they would just as soon these mezcals disappear entirely in the name of progress. Their strongly worded letter to COMERCAM that accompanied the counter-proposal is worth reading in its entirety (the English translation used here is my own). CAGP make clear that they are opposed to any Normative restriction whatsoever on production methods. They argue that the very purpose of the Norm should be economic growth, increasing efficiency and lowering production costs, rather than preserving tradition. They also make reference to the pro-growth policies of Mexican President Peña-Nieto, none too subtly suggesting that they will fight any proposed changes further up the political ladder (all Norm changes must ultimately be approved by the Legislature). Most remarkably, they protest that the meetings of producers have been run democratically, which they claim as unfair since of course the smaller producers outnumber them. (As a reminder, these meetings are simply advisory in nature, and every individual member of CAPG’s team has voted in each of the meetings they have attended. Most brands have, at most, one representative voting at one meeting.)

Speaking Up for the Little Guy

At the other end of the spectrum, Erick Rodriguez (Almamezcalera) and Marco Ochoa (Mezcaloteca), educators and strong advocates for traditional mezcal, are organizing among producers and crafting their own counter proposal. At the June 2 meeting in Mexico City, Rodriguez proposed and passionately argued for a three-category Norm of industrial, artisanal and traditional mezcals. Responding to semantic argument over the idea of “traditional,” Rodriguez made it clear that the terminology is secondary to creating some more restrictive category that recognizes the most primitive production techniques, and was amenable, for example, to the idea of a “rústico” category. At the time of voting however, there was not sufficient support for a third category.

The traditionalists will be present at the Oaxaca meeting on June 23 to formally present their counter-proposal. While they would like a third category to be limited to mezcales produced with earth ovens (up to 15 tons), hand-mashing, and clay- or copper-distillation, they are also calling on COMERCAM to fully study production methods in the various communities to ensure that no traditional process is left out of any new Norm.

Meanwhile, COMERCAM is urging all interested parties to submit their written comments on the proposed Norm changes. Please take the time to educate yourself and comment. Another opportunity to affect changes to the mezcal Norm might be years down the road.

UPDATE: This article continues in Part Three.

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