Last month we reported on NOM-186, an initiative which was proposed by the Ministry of Economy in Mexico with the intent on branding agave products. Here are its main objectives:
1) Only agave spirits produced within three of the four Appellations of Origin - tequila, mezcal and bacanora - are allowed to continue labeling their products as such. Sotol is not included.
2) Spirits using 100% agave cannot be produced above 35% alcohol by volume.
3) A spirit produced with 100% agave cannot be aged.
4) A spirit produced using agave outside these three AO’s will now be called “agavacea aguardiente,” regardless of percentage.
5) Other agave distillates which are produced within these AO’s, such as raicilla and comiteca, will not be legal for commercial sale.
6) Only six of the hundreds of agave varietals available will be legal for commercial production.
In late January, a petition against NOM-186 was presented to the Ministry and is currently being reviewed.
We spoke to David Suro-Piñera, founder of Siembra Azul tequila and Tequila’s agave bar in Philadelphia, and Philip Ward, owner of Mayahuel agave bar in New York City. Both are ambassadors for the Tequila Interchange Project (TIP), a non-profit consumer awareness program for the agave spirits industry that works closely with bar professionals, producers and academics between the U.S. and Mexico.
One of the biggest questions is what NOM-186 hopes to achieve.
“The way this is designed doesn’t make any sense culturally or economically,” according to Suro. “The only conclusion we can make is that corporate tequila producers are unhappy with the rising niche of artisanal craft spirits.”
Suro explained that NOM protects tequila corporations by stopping small farmers from using the species of agave or alcoholic proof that has been their tradition. Without this ability, small producers would be prevented from selling their products. “The socio-economic consequences of this are just evil,” he said. “This is a set of rules for competitors designed to eliminate competition.”
Ward had similar feelings.
“For Mexico to hinder a growing sector of their economy unique to their country alone is just plain stupid,” he said. “One can’t help but suppose there are malevolent intentions behind them ... it makes no sense.”
Both Ward and Suro compared the rising popularity of small production agave spirits to craft brewing in America.
“You’re seeing a lot of big companies like Budweiser rolling out special bottlings to make themselves sound more artisanal to compete with the microbreweries,” Ward said. “Big brand tequila is responding to these smaller craft producers by trying to squash it, never mind compete with it.”
The biggest market for tequila is “mixtos,” those made with a mixture of agave and additives such as sugars, caramel coloring and other distillates. As Ward points out, mixtos are not required to list all ingredients on their labels.
“Their best selling product is 51% agave ... and then they’re saying these people who make a product with 100% agave can’t put that on their bottle. That’s just crazy,” he said.
Another possible consequence is the over-cultivation of the allowed agave varietals, especially Blue Weber from which tequila is exclusively made. When asked if tequila producers are worried about running out of product, Ward and Suro responded that some mixto producers say they have at least five years’ worth of supplies, and with faith more will grow by then.
“The sickest fields are in Jalisco [where most tequila is produced],” according to Ward. “These are clones, of clones, of clones, of clones. No natural evolution. They’re not using any sort of foresight into letting their plants evolve to become stronger.”
Recently, Suro gave a presentation about TIP and NOM-186 for bar and spirits professionals at Mayahuel. He mentioned that agave cultivation is traditionally organic, but that with so many of the plants sickened, farmers are beginning to use chemicals they didn’t previously work with. TIP wants to perform toxicology studies on certain mixtos to screen them for possibly harmful substances.
Another point brought up during the session is that many small producers use techniques and traditions that have passed down through generations by experience, with nothing written down. If these small production sites go out of business, those involved will likely migrate, and these techniques will disappear with them.
“Here’s the hypocrisy of this: The tequila industry made the word agave valuable,” Ward said. “The fact is, who gave birth to the tequila industry? The smaller, artisanal producers. They’re forsaking their forefathers here! These are the people who made their global business possible.”
This is not to say that these industries shouldn’t be organized to protect consumers.
“I strongly believe in regulations to protect the quality of spirits’ infrastructure. I would never argue against that,” Suro said. “But it has to be done where everyone affected participates.”
He went on to say that the bigger corporations in the industry have helped to promote the categories as a whole. “We need the big guys. But we also need them to show fairness to the small guys. The idea of terroir should be promoted. They should celebrate the diversity in these regions and learn from them, not see them as competition.”
One of the most effective lines of communication has been social media, according to Suro. “I am overwhelmed by the reaction from the spirits community. There was not much time to introduce these signatures and we had thousands of names within just 48 hours! Very influential people in the community signed that petition from all over the world.”
Although the petition has been presented, TIP is still collecting signatures to present their case. They are also raising funds to hire full-time translators to wade through the legal documents which can be confusing even to native Spanish-speakers, and will also hire more academic researchers.
Many high profile companies give considerable incentives to businesses who buy in bulk, making them more readily available at bars and retail establishments. Both Suro and Ward urge consumers to read labels to become more aware of which brands use 100% agave and which are mixtos.
“We need to find good booze to use as good booze,” Ward said.
Despite the signatures and meetings, there is still a possibility that NOM-186 will go through, though no one has been given an exact date or deadline. And if it passes?
“I would be clearing half my bar,” Suro said.
To sign the NOM-186 petition, donate and find out more about TIP, please visit the Tequila Interchange Project.