In Pursuit of Sustainable Mezcal

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When I arrive in Guadalajara to meet with Pedro Jiménez Gurría, I know a few things. I know that Pedro is the founder of Mezonte, an NGO whose mission is to preserve traditional agave culture. I know that agave plants, part of the asparagaceae family, are native to the Americas, particularly Mexico, and take years to mature. I know that for centuries Indigenous people have been creating all kinds of things from agave, including food, textiles, rope, paper, and mezcal. And I know that growing international demand for mezcal is putting tremendous pressure on the communities and environment that produce it.

While many people compare mezcal to a “smokey tequila,” there is much more to it than that. Both spirits are produced by chopping and roasting the hearts of the agave, or piñas, in ovens—some underground—before crushing and distilling them. With mezcal, smoke is a part of the process, whereas with tequila, it’s not. Distillers use various vehicles to smoke the piñas, such as agave leaves, mesquite, or wood, and often distill the mezcal two or three times to bring out the plant’s flavors. Clay or bamboo stills are favored over more-modern copper ones. These traditional techniques have been passed down through generations of mezcaleros.

Agave—the plant, the spirit—is woven into the fabric of the country’s landscape, economy, history, and social life. Moreover, agave culture symbolizes the relationship between the environment and the people of Mexico.

That relationship is being strained as people around the world have become enamored with agave spirits over the last two decades. According to Statista, close to 352 million liters of tequila were made in Mexico in 2019, the highest volume since 1995, which means that production increased by almost 237 percent over twenty-four years.

 In 2018, five million liters of mezcal were made, an increase of 38 percent over a five-year period. Those spikes have led to agave shortages, a problem exacerbated by the plant’s long growing cycles. In turn, agave farmers have turned to industrial practices, often sacrificing water quality and soil health, and risking plant disease, in an effort to satisfy a thirsty global market.

The United States is the biggest export market for mezcal and tequila. I’ve heard a lot of opinions on these issues from white men, and a few women, who have a financial interest in selling agave in the United States; some have expert knowledge, though they are still tourists. And I’ve heard the opinions of others who claim to know a lot about the industry but perpetuate problems that reek of colonialism. As a white woman who has visited Mexico a few times, I can’t claim to fully understand the nuances of Mexico’s agave culture. 

This is why I’ve come to Guadalajara. To better understand. And this begins with Pedro Jiménez Gurría. Pedro started Mezonte in 2009 because he loves mezcal, the people who produce it, and the places where they make it. The NGO works with small producers in a few states, mostly Jalisco, to bottle and sell their mezcal—at a fair wage. 

Pedro is in his forties, his graying hair giving away his age. He is handsome and friendly, with a good sense of humor. He has a touch of artistry, which makes sense when you learn that he used to be in film production and takes many of Mezonte’s photos himself. 

“How did you originally get interested in all of this?” I ask.

“By drinking mezcales,” he replies with a smile. He says that he has been drinking mezcal since he was eighteen, back when he couldn’t be picky and most of what he drank was cheap. “But every time I drank mezcal, it was a different experience. I started to ask myself, ‘What’s with this mezcal thing?’”

He was living in Mexico City then and didn’t have much access to mezcal. He started working in film production and was doing documentary and commercial work, which took him all over Mexico. Whenever he traveled, especially to Oaxaca, he would bring bottles back. He would ask locals what type of mezcal they had there and occasionally got to meet the producers. Eventually, he moved to Guadalajara after he met his wife, Mónica Leyva, in 1998 (though they didn’t get together until 2004).

“When I moved here, there weren’t any good mezcales available. I was in pain. I was suffering,” he says with a laugh.

Pedro continued traveling for work and amassed a solid mezcal collection. He released a documentary, Viva Mezcal, in 2012, which was about contemporary mezcal culture; today, people are more aware of the importance of agave’s place in shaping Mexico’s national identity than ever before. His love for agave was palpable, and his friends jokingly told him that he should open a mezcaleria.

“I would think, ‘Oh, maybe that would be a good way to have access to good mezcales for myself. Very selfish, but maybe that’s the way,” he recalls.

Pedro opened his mezcaleria, Pare de Sufrir, which translates to “stop suffering,” in 2009. He stocked the bar with bottles from producers whom he already knew. It snowballed from there as recommendations rolled in for other producers. His network grew, and he’s been working with many of the same mezcaleros for more than ten years.

 “For me, it was essential to have a place where you could have more information available to appreciate what agave culture is,” Pedro says. “We decided to open another space so there would be a link to what you’re drinking at Pare de Sufrir. If you want to know more and have a conversation, Mezonte is the place.” 

I ask Pedro about his relationships with the producers. “What’s the process of getting them to work with you?”

“It was the same thing as doing documentaries. You have to start knowing them before you start working with them. We had conversations to see if we’re on the same track,” he explains.

Pedro talks extensively with all the producers about how much mezcal they are currently making and their potential to generate more. If sowing more agave plants will put too much pressure on the land or make the crops vulnerable to disease, Pedro won’t push production volume. Sometimes, this means that producers will make less than they want, but the trade-off is that the land will be able to support agave crops for years to come.

In many cases, Pedro is paying producers more than what they are used to making, which eases their desire to distill more mezcal and push the limits of the environment. In addition to sustainability, his biggest priority is the producers’ financial livelihood. His third criterion is geography. He prefers to support mezcaleros from areas such as Jalisco and Durango and Michoacán that are often completely ignored. “Besides, Oaxaca doesn’t need more promotion,” he says, chuckling.

“When you’re talking to producers about environmental issues, are you hearing anything come up that concerns them the most?” I ask.

“The shortage of agave is the main one,” he says.

There are over 200 agave varietals, 150 of which grow in Mexico. Agave has been a Mexican staple for thousands of years. But in 1949, when the Mexican government mandated that tequila be made from only 100 percent blue Weber agave, it set off a cycle of boom and bust.

The tequila industry grew in the 1950s and ’60s, which, on the heels of these new quality standards, quickly created an agave shortage. Demand for tequila went up as availability of blue Weber agaves in Jalisco plummeted when the plants were harvested.

During that 1960 shortage, farmers also sought to benefit from the high prices created by scarcity, so they planted more blue Weber agaves. When these plants matured six to eight years later, an abundance of these agave plants was suddenly available for sale, driving down the price. This was exacerbated by tequila coyotes, the intermediaries between independent agave growers and large distilleries. These coyotes had the power to drive down the price of agave that is paid to the smaller farmers who can’t sell directly to the big companies. Therein lies the rub: during a surplus, farmers can’t get a good price for agave so they don’t want to plant more, though that would help them plan for the next shortage. In some cases, farmers have abandoned entire fields, unable to sell what they’ve grown, unable to reap any reward from a nearly decade-long investment.

This economic roller-coaster gets even bumpier when farmers turn to monocultures to ramp up production of one specific crop. There’s no more intercropping, so soil health deteriorates, and without other crops to act as a buffer, the plants become more susceptible to disease and insect infestation. And since most blue Webers are grown from the same clone, an entire field can fall victim to viruses and bacteria because they are genetically weak, allowing disease to spread like wildfire. This often causes farmers to ramp up their use of agrochemicals that target one or two types of pests while killing dozens of other good ones in the process. Some of the chemicals that farmers use as pesticides are extremely toxic to the pests and people alike. The herbicides that are sprayed on the land end up stripping the soil of the nutrients it needs to be fertile, thus depleting the vegetative cover, which leads to erosion.

The cycle continues, and it isn’t exclusive to blue Weber. In the 1980s, there was a wild agave shortage. Agave prices shot up, and many small producers couldn’t afford to buy wild agave. In Oaxaca, the region where most of Mexico’s mezcal is made, over 1,000 palenques (distilleries) were forced out of business. Through the 1990s and 2000s, the mezcal industry began to face the same boom-and-bust fate as tequila.

 We have to build some other ways, some outside ways, to protect producers and protect the culture around the spirit,” Pedro says. “But the good thing is, we’ve built bigger networks with people who are concerned. People who are conscious and aware and committed to these spirits or agave production or the ecosystem. We get to spread more information, and people at all levels, from the producers to the consumers, are more aware of what is happening. Hopefully there will be a point where we can stand together and say, ‘No.’

From A Good Drink: In Pursuit of Sustainable Spirits 

by Shanna Farrell.  Copyright © 2021 Shanna Farrell. 

Reproduced by permission of Island Press, Washington, D.C.

Shanna Farrell is an interviewer at UC Berkeley’s Oral History Center, where she works on a wide variety of projects and specializes in drink cultural and environmental history. She is the author of Bay Area Cocktails. Her writing has appeared in Imbibe magazine, Life & Thyme, PUNCH, and The San Francisco Chronicle. She holds Master’s Degrees from both New York University and Columbia University.

Photo: A mezcalero’s agave field in Mexico. Photo: Marco/stock.adobe.com