In the moonlight and also under the sun, a field of agaves is pure beauty beyond time.
Some old mezcaleros can still harvest a big agave, or maguey in a matter of minutes. They have such strength.
They’re the voice of the earth when they speak, nature itself when they see you, and when they say nothing they’re the silence of the fields.
The serenity of agaves is history without words, told with aromas and flavors during centuries.
The old sages of maguey and their mezcal are an ancestral event, a living practice of customs and rituals immemorial about to vanish forever.
We can’t allow their disappearance because with them also goes the entire alphabet of mezcal, a spirit so profound and complex it has mysteries still unfolding.
We need to make haste so those who live the secrets of mezcal may go on living, because they are México mágico, the magical Mexico that should never die.
All Tequila is mezcal, but not all mezcal is Tequila. Tequila is mezcal made from one particular species of agave, the blue kind, but there are dozens more species of agave that yield quite diverse temperaments of mezcal, each one capturing the soil, people and climate that gave it life, and to whom the spirit gives life in return.
Tequila is an actual city in a region of Mexico where mezcal had a taste many people liked. The geography there favored easy communication with other parts of Mexico and beyond, so the fame of that mezcal spread far and wide. It became known as Tequila. The global Tequila industry today is many times richer than all the artisanal mezcal producers combined. But fortunes brutalize nature.
The open spaces and light in the sky, with deserts and mountains and waters that flow, together make life that we know as maguey, then people bring fire and alchemy starts: the plant after cooking is mashed into wine, a spirit still called vino de mezcal.
But unlike the grape that grows back every year on the same vine, you harvest a maguey only once. It takes the plant from six to eight, and sometimes many more years to mature, and you cut it when the time is right. Big Tequila industry hates waiting because global financialization is short-sighted.
Agaves feel. They feel the hand of the local mezcalero who ministers to them, and they also feel the iron fist of Big Tequila cutting them down before they can flower. The sugars nature intended for those big blooms go instead toward forcing a greater yield from a tortured plant cut prematurely so shareholders far away can get a better return on their money.
The absence of agave flowers in the field is killing something else. It’s killing the maguey bat which depends on the flowers’ nectar to survive. The bat is the indispensable pollinator of agaves, and without it the continuing industrial rape of the plants has now weakened their genetics causing the extinction of several species and threatening more extinctions going forward.
There are people around the world interested in the rescue of authentic mezcal and its immense biodiversity. They include master distillers and retailers, ethnobotanists and ecologists, bartenders, restaurant owners, academics of all stripes, and folks everywhere who enjoy the culture and traditions of mezcal. They have formed associations like the Tequila International Exchange (TIP)
These activists have won a few battles to promote best practices and the sustainability of mezcal. They fight against the undue influence lobbyists from Big Tequila have on the wording of Official Mexican Standards, Normas Oficiales Mexicanas, or NOM’s. Corporations bend the NOM’s to increase their profit.
The big firms keep pushing to own more share in branding, and in designations of origin. They also make the certifications of compliance with the NOM’s very expensive for the small mezcal producers they intend to put out of business.
The activists responded by defeating NOM 186, of 2011, and NOM 199, of 2016, because those NOM’s gave corporations more than just insolence: they were a carte blanche to steal, written without consulting mezcaleros and small distillers.
In the case of NOM 186, thousands signatures from around the world through social media stopped the Tequila barons from usurping the words agave, mezcal and Tequila mostly for themselves, thus decimating the economic prospects of Mexican families and their authentic agave spirits.
Shareholders don’t care whether agave, mezcal and Tequila denote spirits adulterated with diffusers, non-agave sugars, or other chemicals that destroy the soul of the maguey. Although the global agave spirits industry is counted in hundreds of millions of liters, it represents extremely few people in Mexico.
The worst corporate offenders use multi-million-dollar diffusing machines to crush and shred the agave so completely they can bypass even the cooking process. They denature nature and then reconstitute it with lies, putting additives to bring some taste back into the lifeless distillate they’ve extracted from plants too young to have the natural sugars that only sun, air, rain and soil can give them over time.
Mezcal spirits produced by monopolies have few notes, so they can’t sing or charm. They leave the heart of agave without voice or vote. Activists also work to persuade those who now collaborate with such powers to think differently.
For their part, consumers know very little about mezcal and sometimes fail to moderate its use. The consumer needs to be educated so deep mezcal can survive with integrity — as it must do — side by side with the corporate interests of global Tequila that have arrived to stay.
Artisanal mezcaleros have to live with these transnational giants, yes, but not with their abuse, and that is where they’re drawing the line.
In Mexico, espinudo y huracanado — spiny and hurricane-swept — as Pablo Neruda would refer to it, the colonization of something as intimate as agave is being resisted, and rightly so. Before it was a spirit, agave gave people food and textile fibers for thousands of years. Today its spirits continue to be with us in our most intimate rituals and ceremonies.
There is no other distillate in the world with as much biodiversity as mezcal, which is made from a great many species of agave. Tequila is a product enjoying a protected designation of origin universally recognized, and UNESCO has declared the agave landscape in the Tequila region a World Heritage Site. And yet with all this, the industrial-scale assault on agave still continues.
The speculative and brutal financialization of world economy in the context of asymmetric globalization is also eviscerating traditional mezcal out of existence. In other words, multinationals gobble up everything, homogenize diversity, and divide the world between those who have it all, and the rest who live on crumbs.
The drive of big firms to own all agave spirits still marinates the Mexican regulatory system, so the struggle to preserve México mágico rages on.
This noble battle is less about new technology and more about reigniting a sense of respect, compassion, and planetary civics so the forgotten people who cultivate agave and then transform it into mezcal may remain in place and live with dignity.
To that end, mezcal activists are once again joining hands around the world putting forth various new initiatives. As of this writing, here is what their experts propose:
Certify at less cost and with less red tape any small-batch mezcal producer now lacking certification and forced to produce and sell his spirits in clandestinity.
Reject or decrease the Value Added Tax (IVA) in the certification process.
Reject or decrease the Special Tax on Products and Services (IEPS). Together, IVA and IEPS parasitize almost 60% of the small distiller’s profit.
Replace the current process of designation of origins, now transacted by the state’s Consejo Regulador de Tequila which does not favor small-batch producers, with a local trademark, appellation of origin, or geographic indicator for each tradition of agave spirits. This new system would be managed through an alternative non-profit civil association of the local producers themselves.
Protect the maguey bat by letting flower three out of ten agaves, thus reforesting the wild species. Do the same with the trees burned as fuel in agave roasting and distilling.
Establish buffer zones, five kilometers wide, separating wild agaves from the blue agaves for tequila production. This will diminish the tristeza y muerte (sadness and death) pathogens, as well as the picudo (spiked) infestations.
Cancel permits for harvesting areas of wild agaves that appear on the IUCN list of threatened species, and increase the vigilance and protection of the eighteen species of agave identified in NOM 059-SEMARNAT-2010.
Give carbon offsets only to the commons (ejidos), or to owners of private land smaller than fifty hectares who cultivate four or more species of agave. Carbon offsets should not go, as they do now, to owners of monocultural plantings of blue tequila, espadín, or henequén.
Pay living wages to distillers, harvesters, and daily workers in agave fields, and give them the full health care and pension benefits provided by the IMSS (Instituto Mexicano del Seguro Social ) .
Expand rural clinics for testing and for monitoring the exposure to toxins from pesticides, herbicides and agrochemicals; and for treating the rising incidence of accidents, heat stroke, dehydration and exhaustion related to climate change.
Invest in community infrastructure to facilitate the local and affordable processing of agave inulins, and not high-fructose agave syrups causing obesity and diabetes.
Subsidize on-farm development of new means for using agave leaves left in fields, and bagasse left in distilleries as fermented silage for livestock feed, or as organic soil amendments.
This ambitious agenda will need a record-breaking number of signatures from around the world and hopefully they will come.