Waste materials can help mezcaleros build their businesses. Bagazo, the fibrous solids left over from mezcal production, can be mixed with soil, water and compost to create adobe bricks to use for buildings, and to keep waste out of the Mexican state Oaxaca’s waterways.
“It is a method that our Maestro Mezcalero, Oscar Hernández, and his family learned from previous generations,” says Xaime Niembro, director at Gracias A Dios. After the adobe-bagazo bricks are made, the Gracias A Dios team also varnishes them to keep water out. It’s a time-consuming but worthwhile process, Niembro says. “Oaxaca is not an industrial or wealthy state in Mexico, so people are very creative when it comes to these sorts of projects.”
The Gracias a Dios team constructed their palenque, or mezcal distillery, from these bricks. The 9,000+-square-foot construction required 13,000 bricks. Later, they used them to build a new storage building and wall in their fermentation room.
As the mezcal industry balloons, so does its impact on the environment, and using up leftover bagazo is not the only problem to solve when it comes to securing a sustainable future for the spirit. For every bottle of mezcal produced, 10 times that volume of liquid waste is produced, according to Sombra Mezcal. This acidic waste, known as vinaza, sometimes finds its way into rivers and streams, reducing the oxygen levels and killing fish. The tequila industry also contends with this issue.
“There are still a lot of vinazas making their way into the Río Santiago, as any resident or frequent visitor to Tequila can attest,” says Clayton Szczech, founder and tour leader at Experience Agave.
According to the IWSR, the mezcal market is forecast to increase in volume by more than 85% from 2021–2026. With this predicted growth, those who work at mezcalerias must do their part to keep vinaza out of Mexico’s water.
Jacob Lustig, co-owner at Destilería Real de Minas, invested in a treatment system for vinaza. “[It’s] accomplished by basically putting the vinazas through a whole series of aggregate,” he says. Then, the mezcaleria pays a hazardous waste company to pick it up for further processing and treating.
Mezcaleros at Destilería Real de Minas have also eliminated wood from the production process for one of their mezcals, in hopes of reducing the stress it puts on their land. Instead, they cook their maguey (agave) slowly in a brick kiln using steam.
“I just started doing the math and realized we were essentially using one approximately 20-year-old tree per batch,” says Lustig. He decided this wasn’t sustainable in the local arid climate. Despite planting lots of trees, the barren, dry soils of Oaxaca simply wouldn’t cooperate. “Our fail rate was just huge.” And so, the mezcaleria began producing a mezcal that doesn’t use wood, in addition to making ancestral mezcal using traditional processes.
The long maturation time of agave plants creates another bottleneck for the growing industry. Espadín, the maguey used to make most mezcal, takes seven or more years to be ready for harvest. Other agaves can take much longer.
Szczech sees organic agave farming as an important part of a sustainable strategy. “It takes real planning and commitment to make happen,” he says. “Most certifiers require that the land be chemical-free for one to two years before the hijuelos [baby agave shoots] are even planted.”
Sustainable agriculture and production typically require a patient, measured approach, which can be at odds with those seeking aggressive growth.
“Hundreds of people with absolutely no experience have planted and will continue to plant agave, often on inappropriate parcels of land,” says Szczech. “And many of them are seeking quick fixes.”
Now more than ever, mezcaleros say, it’s crucial to work with the land, not against it.
“We do what we need to do with the means we have in our environment,” says Niembro.
Published: July 20, 2022