Agave spirits are quickly becoming sought-after alcoholic beverages. Hearty desert plants, agaves spend years or even decades developing indigestible carbohydrates that can be hydrolyzed for fermentation, resulting in spirits like mezcal.
“We’re at a golden age of agave spirits right now,” says Lou Bank, cohost of the Agave Road Trip podcast. Bank and cohost Chava Periban shared the centuries-old fermentation processes used to create mezcal in the TFA webinar Artisanal Agave Spirits.
Adds Periban: “The beautiful thing about mezcal is we want diversity and you can use any agave under the sun to be able to make mezcal, which makes this category probably the most intensively diverse category in the spirits world.”
Tequila vs. Mezcal
Tequila and mezcal are both spirits distilled from fermented agave. But tequila can be made only from the blue Weber variety of agave and is made by steaming the agave’s heart (pina) in above-ground ovens. Mezcal can be from any of 30 types of agave and is made by cooking the agave in underground pits lined with lava rocks.
As the market for tequila grew, the term “tequila” was declared intellectual property of the Mexican government in 1974. Extensive regulations were established that, among other things, required tequila — formerly considered a regional type of mezcal — to come from only a specified area of Mexico.
Regulations for mezcal weren’t established until 1994, when it received its own Denomination of Origin. Similar to how champagne can only be made in a specific part of France, mezcal can only be made in nine of Mexico’s 32 states.
Periban and Bank point out a major issue with this certification process for mezcal. It ostracizes rural mezcaleros who may not have the money for certification or may not reside within the geographical boundaries.
“A lot of the communities and the traditions that nourish this nostalgia and this beauty of mezcal, they cannot use this word anymore to name their own spirits, the same spirits that they have been producing for centuries in their communities,” Periban says.
Adds Bank: “We love the flavors, but we are very much about preserving the process and in preserving the process, the number one ingredient in the process are the men and women who make the spirits.”
Bank runs a non-profit, SACRED (Saving Agave for Culture, Recreation, Education and Development), that helps improve lives in the rural Mexican communities where heirloom agave spirits are made.
Wild Fermentation of Agave Spirits
Tequila is made similarly to most alcohol — the producer pitches in a yeast to eat the sugar, picking a specific yeast for the desired flavor.
On the other hand, agave spirits such as mezcal and pulque are made in open air fermentation vats. Wild yeasts off nearby fruit trees change the flavor.
Bank estimates only 1 out of every 100 different commercial tequilas is made using pre-industrial, heritage processes. Mezcal, meanwhile, is just the opposite, with 1 in 100 bottles made using commercialized techniques.
“As the world gets more interested (in mezcal), you’re going to see more industrialization and you’re going to see less and less of this beautiful handmade stuff.”
Mezcal’s flavor palate varies by region, the agave type and the processing. Most mezcal is made and sold locally, to neighbors for weddings and religious festivities.
“If you’re making mezcal, you’re not just selling the product. You’re selling the drink that’s going to be part of their most important days of their lives,” Periban says.
Artisanal drinks with natural ingredients are on the rise, especially in America. Mark McTavish, president of 101 Cider House and co-founder & CEO of Pulp Culture (and TFA Advisory Board member), doesn’t see this trend slowing.
Mezcal, he says, will aid growth in the category, as it’s an alcoholic beverage that, instead of chugging, you sip to taste the complexity of the flavors.
“I really love fermentation and what it gives to a beverage, and I think it’s way more than just alcohol,” McTavish says. “There’s just such a richness there to the connection to a sense of place and a people behind it…that’s why fermentation is so beautiful.”