Mezcal fears the bitter fruits of success

(Villa Sola de Vega) At a glance, Sosima Olivera can assess the quality of agave, the mezcal plant, the trendy Mexican alcohol whose artisanal producers fear the bitter fruits of international success and overexploitation.

Posted yesterday at 10:52

Yocel Gonzalez
France media agency

“The (mezcal) bottle is a summary of everything we’ve been doing for years,” says Susima, as she checks out her thick green, giant, climbing, spiky plantations—not to be confused with cacti—through the hills of Sula de Vega, in southwest Mexico.

Sosima, 50, leads the “mezcaleros” group in Oaxaca, a shorthand in Mexico between the Pacific coast and the southern tip of the Sierra Madre, with authentic traditions preserved by the Zapotec and Mixtec communities.

Oaxaca is the birthplace of mezcal, which is gaining popularity in cocktail bars in the United States, Canada, Spain, France and Germany.

Exports rose from $19.7 million in 2015 to $62.9 million in 2020, according to official data.

Brands often indicate the euphoria provided by alcohol that heats the viscera to 40 or 50 degrees: “Viejo indecente” (an indecent old man), “Pierde almas” (lost souls), “Mil Diablos” (a thousand demons).

Photo Pedro Pardo, France Press Agency

At a glance, Sosima Olivera can assess the quality of agave, the mezcal plant.

“Mezcalerias” sniffed a deal around the Santo Domingo Cathedral in Oaxaca-Ville, the stronghold of great Mexican artists of the 20th centurye Century (Francisco Toledo and Rufino Tamayo) captured by tourists.

These drinking establishments serve mezcal in thimbles despite the local saying that it’s better not to take it literally, in fact: “For every evil, a mezcal.” Every happiness too. She is if there is no solution, a liter and a half.”

Without aloe vera no mezcal

Mezcal is derived from aloe vera—also called Maguey, plants of the Asparagaceae family—as does tequila, the only daughter of blue agave in the state of Jalisco, further north.

Tastier, mezcal uses different types of plants and its artisanal production takes longer.

Some plants require 13 and 15 years to mature, and even 17 years in the “tepeztate” state.

Far from rejoicing in mezcal’s bad reputation around the world, Susima is concerned about the consequences of a boom in commercial demand.

Photo Pedro Pardo, France Press Agency

Some plants require 13 and 15 years to mature, and even 17 years in the “tepeztate” state.

“If there is a need for more plants, there is more exploitation of the land, the landscape, the biodiversity, the wood,” she analyzes, facing her clay jars dripping water of his own brand, Fane Kantsini (Three Hummingbirds in Chontal, his language the mother).

“Little effort has been made to preserve the agave species,” said another producer, Graciela Angeles, 43. “Without Magoy, there is no mezcal,” she asserts, a saying as true as that common in “Mezcaleria” in the capital of Oaxaca.

Graciela grows multiple types of grains and seeds in a huge greenhouse.

It details the complex process of making liqueur, the success of which largely depends on the taste and talent of the master “mezcalero”.

And there’s another danger: some artisanal “workshops” (distilleries) are actually subcontractors to major brands, with large amounts of capital coming into the lucrative spirits business. A brand like 400 conejos (400 rabbits) is well established in airport duty free.

On average, a 750ml bottle costs $40 in Oaxaca.

Unlike this wheel dealer model, the Mezcal Susima and Angelis is the result of a slow operation. Susima reflects: “Small producers like us will always be there in the villages.” Producers who follow permaculture, sow little, but well, she explains in essence.

Two Mezcal producers conduct tasting sessions to educate consumers.

“What is behind the mezcal, I learned after I fell in love with the flavour,” said Christopher Govers, a tourist at a mezcal party that has drawn several hundred people to the capital of Oaxaca. Behind him, at the height of the party, two men swayed.

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