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There are two schools of thought about yeast in tequila production. Some companies use commercial brewers' yeast. Others cultivate existing yeast and save it for future batches. All open tanks are subject to being invaded by wild air-borne yeasts, so the final fermentation is the result of several strains, not just one.
Updated June 27, 2007
There have been suggestions in the media that mezcal might its big break-through any moment now, and burst onto the international drinks scene like tequila did in the early 1990s, becoming the favourite sip of the glitterati, being mentioned in hip-hop songs, and getting a visible profile in hot movies.
So far, it hasn't happened. And it is unlikely to in the foreseeable future.
Mezcal got its once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to break into the market when the tequila shortage caused volume and quality woes among the Jalisco producers. But the incursion into the spirits market, while accompanied by great press and terrific enthusiasm, did little to dent the tequila market's hold.
Mezcal has long way to go to match tequila in production, sales and marketing hype. There are more than 800 brands of tequila available, compared to just over 100 for mezcal. The sheer number of brands of tequila provides a more highly visible presence on the shelves.
Mezcal remains a small-scale production. While there are a couple of larger producers, the majority of mezcal production is done by families, or in small distilleries that make 300-400 litres a month. Even the largest mezcal producer - Beneva - is very small when compared to the larger tequila producers.
Unlike the tequila industry that has been continually updated and modernized over the past 50+ years, Oaxacan mezcal producers still follow the traditional methods in thousands of small, family-operated "palenques" sprinkled around the Central Valleys near Tlacolula, Mitla, Ejutla, Miahuatlan, Ocotlan, and in the Mixteca region of Sola de Vega.
The result of this small scale-production is a higher cost for premium mezcals than an equivalent tequila. That, too, hinders mezcal's wider acceptance among international consumers.
The largest industrial operation is at Santiago Matatlan, where the smaller producers sell to the factory. The total annual mezcal production is about 5 million litres. Compare that to more than 228 million litres of tequila in 2006. Most international mezcal sales are so low they are not tracked by the monitoring agencies. Beneva is the largest mezcal producer at present, making Monte Alban for Chicago-based Barton Brothers. Beneva sells to 18 countries. Their largest competitor is Dos Gusanos, across the road on Highway 157 outside Oaxaca.
Some entrepreneurs like Ron Cooper, of Del Maguey Mezcal, Doug French of Scorpion Mezcal, and Jake Lustig of Don Amado Mezcal, have attempted to promote the artisanal style of mezcal, and market it as a hip sip to the US market. But despite impressive products and individual successes in getting press coverage, sales have not yet taken off - at least no tequila brand has been knocked from its shelf by a mezcal.
As the 'drink with the worm' mezcal has suffered from a bad reputation, and has not been helped by the availability of cheap, poor-quality commercial mezcal that became the defacto mezcal experience for many visitors to Mexico. Ron Cooper and others have struggled to raise mezcal's profile and present it as a premium spirit. Cooper has gone a long way to go beyond the worm image and does not put one in any of his products. Doug French, on the other hand, has played a gambit way beyond it, by putting a scorpion's exoskeleton in his products. And if nothing more, it gained him - and mezcal too - a lot of free publicity.
And mezcal's strong flavour simply does not appeal to a wide range of North American drinkers. Plus there are regional prejudices in Mexico that may hamper the acceptance of one state's products in another. As David Torres-Ruffe wrote on ifood:
Unfortunately, mezcal's bad reputation has steered many people away from what is, in fact, a delicious drink. But recent changes in Mexican law and the emergence of a few super-premium producers should help mezcal take its rightful place in the pantheon of fine liquors. An extremely pale color, a potent smokiness and tremendous complexity distinctively characterize mezcal.
Mezcal is also vulnerable to the same problems tequila makers faced in the 1990s. The espadin agave crop, used for about 90% of all mezcal production, is a monoculture and faces the same genetic-weakening - and reduced resistance to environmental threats - as the blue agave. Although several species of agave are permitted for use in mezcal, espadin has become the main choice. But a few concerned growers, like French, are cultivating other varieties, including the tobala, for future use.
As they have been in the past, mezcal producers could be at the mercy of the fortunes of tequila makers. In the 1998-2003 shortage, many tequila makers bought espadin agave from Oaxaca for their tequila, which saw the price of agave rise as much as five times its initial value. In the impoverished state of Oaxaca, few producers could afford such extravagance. With a predicted agave shortage looming for tequila makers in the 2010-2012 period, it could happen again.
The new options opened by flavoured mezcals has not been fully explored. It remains to be seen if these new cremas mixed with the fiery mezcal find an appropriate market, traditionally among young drinkers or women. This actually has a potentially large market in Mexico, the world's largest per-capita consumer of soda pop. However, as Ron Cooper of Del Maguey Mezcal found out, getting the government to accept cremas was an uphill battle, but one which he finally won.
Mezcal has not yet seen the growth in popularity of aņejo products, as tequila witnessed. This is in part because mezcal producers cannot afford to age their products overly long in barrels, but also because aņejo mezcal is not a tradition: it is a new development and its market is unsure. Scorpion Mezcals have a limited-quantity 5- and 7-year-old mezcal, but it has limited distribution and is very expensive ($200 USD a bottle). There is still an ongoing debate about whether mezcal improves - ages and mellows - in the bottle.
The GEA (Grupo de Estudios Ambientes or Group for Environmental Studies) in Chilapa, Guerrero, estimated that in Guerrero alone four municipalities produce close to 40,000 litres of mezcal, which provides up to 3,000 jobs and an annual income of 20,000$ (USD). Families dependent on agave for economic survival increased their harvest volume as well. Following these increases the ecological impact of tequila and mezcal production became apparent.
Because it uses wood for cooking, if it gains in popularity, mezcal production could potentially deforest the production areas in much the same way tequila production did to Jalisco in the late 19th century. Deforestation in turn creates soil erosion and the reduction of water sources. The GEA has established community nurseries to provide agave plants and trees for firewood, and overseen the establishment of reforestation committees in peasant communities.
But even if the grandiose dreams of the mezcaleros to sweep the consuming palates of North America are not about to come true overnight, mezcal continues to make slow and steady inroads into the spirits market, picking up a small but loyal group of aficionados. And if drinkers can be swayed away from the cheap mezcals to the premium products like Del maguey makes, its possible this trend could continue its slow but steady uphill climb.