In recent years the popularity of mezcal has skyrocketed as more and more people discover the ancient and rarified spirit. However, given mezcal’s deep-rooted tradition and culture and increased demands for products that are environmentally responsible and ethically sourced, there’s growing concern around maintaining mezcal’s integrity and protecting the natural resources tied to it.
What is Mezcal?
Mezcal is a traditional Mexican alcoholic beverage made from agave plants. Whereas mezcal and tequila are often discussed in the same breath, mezcal is the umbrella of agave spirits under which tequila falls. Just as wines can be categorized by their region or grape of origin, tequila and other forms of mezcal come from distinct regions of Mexico and tequila can only be made from blue agave while mezcal can be crafted from over 30 species of the plant. This rich diversity creates a wide range of flavors and aromas for consumers to explore and discover.
A Brief History of Mezcal
To best understand mezcal, you must first understand the agave plant itself, also known as maguey. The significance of agave dates back to Mesoamerica with archeological evidence showing that indigenous peoples throughout what is now parts of Central and North America used it for food, fibers, religious ceremonies, and medicine as early as 9000 BC.
In pre-Spanish Mexico, indigenous peoples would cook the piña, or heart, of the agave in underground pits and ferment its juices forming pulque. According to legend, this “elixir of the gods” originated after a lightning bolt struck an agave plant, cooking and opening it to release a magical liquid.
During the Spanish conquest of the Aztec empire in the early 1500s, they brought with them copper and a new distillation process, giving new life to a centuries-old tradition in the form of mezcal which comes from the Nahuatl word mexcalli meaning “cooked agave.”
Traditional Mezcal Production
The production of mezcal is distinctly artisanal with mezcaleros, the traditional producers of mezcal, performing almost every step by hand. The first and most challenging step in the process is the cutting of the agave—producers select harvest-ready plants based on their age, size, and appearance. With each species having different maturation timelines ranging from seven years to more than 15, this intentional selection is a crucial step in ensuring that the resulting mezcal has the proper flavor, character, and aroma.
Once the plant is selected, the mezcalero begins the process of preparing the heart of the agave. This involves removing the leaves from the plant and transporting the piña back to the palenque or distillery, often part of a mezcaleros home or property, where it is hand-trimmed and readied for cooking.
Following traditional methods used for thousands of years, the mezcaleros prepare an earth oven called a horno where the piñas are roasted for three to five days. Once fully cooked, the piñas are placed in the shade for about a week where they begin to ferment. This fermentation process allows the sugars of the maguey to break down and for mezcal’s characteristic features to develop.
At the end of the week, the fermented piñas are moved to the crushing area where they're chopped into smaller pieces and put in a circular pit. While early crafting of mezcal featured producers crushing the piñas by hand, today it is more common to use a tahona, a large stone wheel pulled by a horse or mule. The force provided by the tahona allows for maximum extraction of juice and flavor from the piñas, adding to the complexity and richness of the mezcal.
Once the piñas have been crushed by the tahona, the resulting mash is placed into a fermentation vat called a tina. Here, the mash undergoes another natural fermentation process. The length of this process varies based on environmental factors and the expertise of mezcaleros who use their intuition and generational knowledge to decide when the process is complete. Only then do they add water to the fermented maguey juice called tepache which goes through yet another round of natural fermentation.
After this third fermentation, the next and final step in production is distillation. The tepache is heated in a clay or copper pot over a wood-fired oven with the mezcaleros keeping a close eye on the process as they wait for the purest part of the mezcal—the hearts—to emerge from the still. They must also determine when to discard the heads and tails. To make this call, the mezcaleros use their expertise and often taste the mezcal to figure out the best time to cut. It's a skill that's essential to crafting the perfect mezcal
Modern Mezcal Production
Market intelligence company Straits Research valued the global mezcal market at a whopping$338M USD in 2022 with projections that the market will skyrocket to $2.1B USD by 2030. To keep up with this rapid growth, it's crucial to optimize the supply chain, prioritize sustainability, and minimize environmental impact.
At the heart of the agave spirits industry is the agave plant itself. As previously outlined, mezcal can come from a variety of species, but the plant takes years—in some cases decades—to mature. While most mezcaleros have a deep connection and understanding of the natural environment that’s been passed down and honed through generations, as larger companies work to meet consumer demands, they may implement business practices that harm both the ecosystem and the communities dependent on it such as overharvesting, inflexible production cycles, and poor waste management.
Blending Tradition with Technology
At MGx, we recognize that there must be an intentional balance between planting and harvesting agave to protect our natural resources and biodiversity for future generations. We also recognize that we must respect and collaborate with the communities where these products originate so that their livelihoods are not sacrificed in the name of profit. That’s why in response to the complexities of globalized supply chains along with the strain on our natural environment, the Maguey Exchange is committed to driving the ethical exchange of resources necessary to craft and experience agave spirits.
We’re working directly with producers and buyers on our platform to optimize management initiatives, forecast environmental and production impact, and encourage the use of waste and natural inputs as a resource. And as we meet growing demands for more transparent and efficient supply chains and the imperative for an ethical exchange of agricultural goods that protects vulnerable populations and depleting natural resources, we’re keeping mezcaleros and their communities front and center.
As demand for natural goods such as agave products grows, it’s our collective responsibility to thoughtfully meet the challenge. In this way, everybody wins—consumers are hungry for sustainable products that align with their personal values and vision for future generations and businesses can better embody the values and ethos they share in their marketing and
end-of-year reports. After all, without sustainably addressing the production of agave spirits, there will be no agave spirits in the future.
Now it’s your turn—as you go through your day and interact with any number of products, do you know the story behind them? Here are some questions you can keep in the back of your mind as you look ahead to sustainable and conscious consumerism:
- Where do these products come from?
- How do the businesses and companies I support with my attention and dollars impact the environment and communities where their products originate?
- As a consumer, what role am I playing in the production of these products and does that role need to change?
Enjoy what you read here? Sign up for our monthly newsletter where we take you to the heart of MGx and the communities we serve. Last month in honor of Women's History Month we highlighted mezcaleras on our platform who are playing a pivotal role in the production, distribution, and expansion of mezcal throughout Mexico and beyond. To learn more and sign up, visit www.magueyexchange.com.