Ensuring the sustainable production of mezcal takes a lot of work by everyone involved—from the maestro mezcaleros, to the brand owners, to the importers and distributors in the United States, to the bar, restaurant or store that sells the mezcal, to you the consumer—ALL of whom should demand that the mezcal they sell or consume be environmentally friendly and be responsible to the community where mezcal is made including, not least, that a fair price be paid to the farmers who grow agave and to the mezcaleros who make the mezcal.
The Noble Coyote team is dedicated to achieving these goals.
Bernardo & Eleazar
Maestro José Santiago
SUSTAINABILITY OF MEZCAL FROM THE GROUND UP
Maestro José Santiago is not just talking about the sustainability and social and environmental impacts of making mezcal, he is taking several bold steps to solve the problems.
Maestro José wants to leave a better, cleaner, healthier world for his community and the future including his son, José, who at 16 is already well on the way to becoming the family’s fourth generation of maestro mezcaleros.
FINDING USES FOR THE WASTE GENERATED BY MEZCAL PRODUCTION
One of the main concerns with making mezcal is the waste that is generated in the fermentation and distillation processes.
For every 750 milliliter bottle of mezcal, approximately 10 to 12 liters of vinasa (liquid byproduct) and 15 to 20 kilograms of bagazo (spent agave fibers) are left behind as waste. Vinasa and bagazo are both acidic and depleted of oxygen. On a typical palenque, vinasa is stored in a small unlined retention pond and bagazo is heaped up into piles. These storage/disposal methods allow vinasa and bagazo to leach into the ground water and into the streams often located near palenques.
When this occurs, these materials can absorb a great deal of oxygen from the water and significantly lower the pH of the water. These effects can make the water unsuitable for drinking and unsupportable for aquatic life. This is particularly problematic due the fact that most mezcal is made in the generally arid region of Oaxaca.
Maestro José is using the vinasa and bagazo leftover from his mezcal production to make adobe bricks which he is using to upgrade the buildings on his palenque in Santiago Matatlán—the capital of mezcal in Oaxaca.
Maestro José uses hydraulic compression to make the adobe bricks stronger than traditional adobe bricks. They are also nearly impermeable to water and thus will not leach into the water supply. Maestro José has already made one thousand adobe bricks which he is using in the construction of the main building of his palenque.
Once construction of his palenque is completed, he will make his adobe bricks available to others in the community—many of which are members of his family.
Jose built this bar and stools with adobe bricks.
BIOFUEL TO REDUCE WOOD CONSUMPTION
In addition, Maestro José is beginning to convert bagazo into a biofuel which he will use instead of the wood typically used in the furnaces used to heat the stills used to make mezcal. Because of the arid region in which mezcal is grown, not enough wood is available to sustainably make all of the mezcal currently being made.
As a result, the net effect of wood consumption is widespread deforestation which increases carbon dioxide, causes habitat loss and leads to erosion. Although the use of wood, such as mesquite, in the cooking of agave remains essential in creating traditional mezcal, the use of wood in the furnaces for the stills does not contribute in any way to the essence of the mezcal because the still is a closed system. Thus, the use of bagazo as a biofuel instead of wood in the still furnaces is an important means for reducing the environmental impacts of making mezcal.
RECYCLED PAPER MADE OF AGAVE LEAVES
Maestro José is also partnering with Master Papermaker Sr. Alberto Valenzuela in San Augustín Etla who is using the agave leaves (henequen) collected when the agave is harvested along with some bagazo to make paper which will in turn be used to make the labels which will be used on the bottles of Maestro José’s mezcal.
He is also even exploring the possibility of making the bottles for his mezcal from bagazo. Maestro José continues to explore other potential uses of bagazo and other means of minimizing the impact of vinasa in order to bring the total impact of his mezcal to as close to zero as possible.
USING LESS WATER
Another achievement that has been made by Maestro José is in the use of water. Water is intensively used in making mezcal. First, water is used in the fermentation process. This water ultimately becomes either mezcal or vinasa. In addition, water is used to cool the still coils which condenses the distilled alcohol vapor.
Typically, more water is used to cool the still coils than is added to the fermentation vats. The use of water to cool the still coils, like the wood used in the still furnace, does not contribute in any way to the essence of the mezcal as the water is outside the closed system of the still. In order to minimize the use of water in making his mezcal, Maestro José does two things.
First, he uses only collected rainwater for his cooling tanks. Second, he has built additional storage tanks in order to allow the water used in a distillation to cool naturally. Typically, a mezcalero will simply flush out the hot water after it has been used to distill mezcal. Maestro José’s method means that virtually no additional water—and none other than rainwater—is used to distill his mezcal and importantly less than half the amount of water is used in the entire process.
REDUCING ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACT TO THE MINIMUM
Maestro José continues to seek improvements to the operation to his palenque to make it a closed system with minimal to no environmental impact.
Among other things, Maestro is exploring methods of sustainable mesquite tree production including planting mesquite trees in cultivated agave fields, adding a biodigester to convert vinasa into biofuel, adding a wind turbine and/or solar power cells to meet all of the electric needs of the palenque and the Santiago household, and adding a cooling tower to speed the process of cooling the water after it is used in the condensation of mezcal during distillation.
Bernardo Sada and Maestro Eleazar Brena
SUSTAINABILITY OF AGAVE AND MEZCAL
Agave, locally known as maguey, has been used by the indigenous population of Oaxaca for centuries as food and to make textiles, rope, paper, roofs and carpets. In addition, there is evidence that agave beverages have been fermented and distill more than 1,000 years before European colonialization. The cultivation of agave and the use of agave, both cultivated and wild, in the production of mezcal have been a very important activity for the people of Oaxaca. In fact, for many parts of the last century, the cultivation of agave and the production of mezcal have been the sole source of income for many indigenous communities in the highlands of Oaxaca.
This is why the sustainability of agave and mezcal are extremely important to Oaxaca and to Noble Coyote.
THE RISKS OF INTENSIVE CULTIVATION
Agave can be grown from clones (hijuelas and bulbilos) or from seeds. Because germination rates from seeds have traditionally been low and because growing agave from plentiful clones is typically quicker and less expensive, cultivation of agave—particularly blue Weber agave (agave tequilana) from which tequila is exclusively made and Espadin (agave angustifolia Haw) from which most mezcal is made—are mostly grown from clones. The result has been intensive cultivation of genetically-degraded plants that have lower sugar content and are more susceptible to large scale insect and disease infestations.
These potential problems necessitate more intensive cultivation of agave and the use of chemical herbicides and pesticides that are anything but environmentally friendly. When these problems do manifest, they contribute to the boom and bust cycles of agave cultivation which can be catastrophic to the livelihoods of the small farmers who grow most of the agave not grown by the large multinational companies that make tequila and industrial mezcal.
RECOLLECTING SEEDS FROM THE WILD
Both Noble Coyote founder Bernardo Sada and Maestro Mezcalero Eleazar Brena regularly search the wilds of Oaxaca not for wild agave to harvest for producing mezcal but for gathering their seeds. They then use these seeds to grow hundreds of thousands of baby agave plants every year in our Oaxacan nurseries in San Luis Amatlán and San Agustín Etla.
Growing agave from seed rather than clones, means our plants are better adapted, more efficient and have richer genetics to pass along to the next generation of agave. It also allows us to avoid the use of chemical herbicides or pesticides. All we do for the plants in our nursery is water them and protect them from animals that would eat them in their first year of life. After they are a year old, we plant them in our fields, sell them to agave farmers or plant them in the wild.
PIONEERS IN TOBALA CULTIVATION
While others do grow agave Espadín from seed, the Noble Coyote team has led in the cultivation of agave Tobalá (agave potatorum). Prior to the research of Professor Eleazar, the conventional wisdom was the germination rates for Tobalá were too low for this species of agave to be effectively cultivated.
However, Professor Eleazar has shown that it can be done successfully with germination rates over 95%. In fact, we are growing thousands of Tobalá in our nurseries alongside Espadín. We also collect and germinate the seeds of other agave including Tepeztate which can take up to 35 years to reach maturity.
We hope that one day our efforts will lead to the sustainable cultivation of Tepeztate but for now we believe it is irresponsible to produce mezcal from Tepeztate for export because it faces a very real risk of extinction.
REDUCE THE IMPACT ON THE WILD SPECIES
Sustainability and our cultivation successes were the primary reasons why we selected the four agaves we use to make our mezcals.
We are cultivating genetically diverse Espadín and now Tobalá to ensure our future supplies of piñas for these mezcals. We also use Coyote agave (agave karwinskii) which is a semi-cultivated species in Oaxaca. It grows tall and straight and is often used as fence posts. Lastly, Jabalí agave (agave convallis) is plentiful in Oaxaca because it reproduces at much higher rates than other species of agave and is a very tricky plant to use to make mezcal. Therefore, the harvesting of Jabalí agave has very little impact on the wild population of this species.
CROP ROTATION & DRIP IRRIGATION
In addition to growing agave from seed, we also take great care to not deplete the soil of our nurseries and fields. Borrowing techniques used in Mesoamerica for more than 15,000 years, we rotate three crops—agave, corn and beans—in the nursery to ensure that the soil does not get depleted. Although watering agave is necessary during their first year of life, we use drip irrigation methods that use less water—a very important consideration in this semiarid region of Mexico. In the fields, we grow a range of agave species to improve the biodiversity needed by the animals and insects that are part of the ecosystem of which agave is a part.
For most of the past three or four centuries, mezcal has been produced from agave harvested from the wild. The recent international popularity of mezcal has placed significant pressure on the wild stock of agave plants which can take between 8 and 35+ years to reach maturity. For this reason, agave reforestation is perhaps the most important aspects of our sustainability efforts. We frequently re-plant one-year old agave plants in the wild particularly in the Amatlánes region of Oaxaca. This is done not for purposes of our later harvesting these plants but simply for increasing the abundance of future generations of wild agave. Our goal is to plant 20 one-year agave plants in the wild for each quiote we cut down. The compares very favorably to the average number of plants (2 to 5 depending on the species) that would typically grow to maturity in the wild from a quiote.
Last and by no means least, we are also germinating mesquite—a local tree frequently used in the ovens used to produce mezcal. The overharvesting of mesquite for use as fuel has caused significant deforestation and soil erosion in Oaxaca. We have found that mesquite trees are a complement to cultivated agave fields and enrich the local biodiversity.