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Tequila, Mezcal, and the Politics of Production
By Sarah Bowen
UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESSCopyright © 2015 The Regents of the University of California
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The Promise of Place
In May 2012, more than one hundred people crammed into a conference room at the Hotel El Ejecutivo in Mexico City, to debate proposed changes in the regulation of mezcal, a spirit distilled from the roasted heart of Mexico's native agave plant. It was a diverse group that included governmental officials, retailers, producers from all over Mexico, and even a group of American bartenders, whom I had come with. To casual observers, it likely sounded like another dry debate over governmental regulations. In late 2011, the Mexican government had unveiled proposals that would reserve the use of the word agave for producers inside government-designated regions, including specific territories reserved for tequila and mezcal. Proponents of the proposals argued that the latter would protect consumers by ensuring the quality and safety of distilled agave spirits. But the proposals made international headlines because the debate was about something much more profound. Critics contended that the proposals would protect the big tequila and mezcal companies that had pushed for them, and that they threatened small producers throughout Mexico, many of whom had been making distilled agave spirits for generations but which were not included in the protected regions.
Opponents organized quickly and convened two forums, one in Guadalajara and the other in Mexico City, in order to hear from those who had been excluded from the drafting of the original proposal. At the Mexico City forum, which I attended, the group spent a full day trying to collectively develop an alternative set of standards. A gentleman in a dark suit took the floor. "These are artisanal producers, who come in sandals," he said authoritatively. "If we include a thousand rules, the government is going to come and shut them down." The tension in the room was palpable as everyone waited to see how the small mezcal producers, identifiable by their cowboy hats and, in some cases, the aforementioned sandals, would react. One raised his hand. "No one can take away our rights," he said. "We are all equal, and it is our right to defend what we do. And we are proud of it. ... You need to have a little bit of respect, for us, the producers. We all know that the big companies have always gone above the laws; they have trampled us, but we are no longer in the sixteenth century. We are educated, and we want to do things in the best possible way." Many people applauded, while the governmental officials at the front of the room shifted awkwardly in their seats. Jorge Cruz, the owner of a high-end tequila company, was the first to respond. "I have more trust in a producer who is wearing sandals than in a person who is wearing the cowboy boots of an industry executive," he said.
The sentiments expressed in that meeting reflect a larger debate in Mexico, one with roots that reach deep into Mexico's colonial past. It is a debate about what constitutes Mexico's national "spirit" — a discussion of Mexico's national liquor industries, and also a conversation about the past and future of Mexico's people. What is mezcal? Who has the right to produce mezcal, and how should that right be protected? What does mezcal have to do with being Mexican?
THE ORIGINS OF MEZCAL AND TEQUILA
For centuries, people in Mexico have battled over the right to make and sell mezcal and tequila, two of its most iconic products. The word mezcal comes from the Nahuatl words metl (meaning "agave") and ixcalli (meaning "cooked" or "baked"). Colonial settlers used the word mezcal to refer to the agave plants that indigenous populations in Mexico had consumed as food and in fermented beverages for thousands of years. There are more than two hundred species of agave, a stubborn succulent that thrives in dry climates and is endemic to Mexico. Eventually, the meaning of mezcal shifted to refer to distilled agave spirits, which likely originated in the Colima volcanoes region in western Mexico. Scholars debate whether indigenous populations started distilling before the arrival of colonial settlers, but they agree that distillation became widespread in the seventeenth century. Mezcal producers (also known as mezcaleros) collected wild agave, roasted the agave hearts (piñas) in earthen pits, and then chopped the piñas and fermented the mash. This process could take several weeks. They then slowly distilled the fermented juice in wood-fired stills. Distilled spirits were subject to frequent and ongoing periods of prohibition by colonial authorities, which drove production into isolated rural regions. As distillation techniques spread southward into indigenous communities, and northward into mining centers and along trade routes, the mezcaleros adapted their techniques to each region.
Today, at least twenty species of agave are commonly used in the production of mezcal, with some studies finding upward of forty-two species. The type of agave, production practices, and equipment used to make mezcal vary between regions. Of course, most people are familiar with the most famous version of mezcal: tequila, named after the town of Tequila in central Jalisco. In the late nineteenth century, the tequileros (the producers in and around Tequila) began to expand and industrialize, differentiating themselves from the mezcaleros in other parts of Mexico. Tequila is now made in huge factories, while thousands of small mezcaleros continue to make mezcal using methods similar to those employed by their ancestors.
PROTECTING AND DEFINING MEXICO'S SPIRITS
In the second half of the nineteenth century, people began referring to "mezcal from Tequila" simply as tequila. Recalling his travels through Mexico in 1854 and 1855, French writer Ernest Vigneaux noted that "just as [the town of ] Cognac has given its name to French brandies in general, Tequila has given its name to the spirit mezcal." After a "mezcal brandy" from Tequila and a "Tequila wine" were recognized, respectively, at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair and in San Antonio in 1910, the name of the drink became synonymous with the name of the town.
In the twentieth century, as the market for tequila grew, the tequileros sought protection from imposters outside Jalisco who were fraudulently attempting to pass off their products as tequila. In 1949, Mexico established the first official quality standard for tequila. The standard stated that tequila could be made only from one variety of agave (Agave tequilana Weber), cultivated in the state of Jalisco. But in practice, it did little to protect the tequileros from people who were trying to produce tequila abroad. In an attempt to solve this problem and legally establish tequila as Mexico's national spirit, tequila became, in 1974, the first product outside of Europe to be protected by a denomination of origin (DO). DOs, established by national governments in the places where they are produced, confer on particular places the right to produce a food or drink. They also set rules governing how those foods or drinks must be produced. The DO for tequila gave distilleries in Jalisco and parts of four other states the exclusive right to produce tequila. In 1994, the Mexican government established a DO for mezcal, defining the territory where mezcal could be produced, despite the fact that mezcal is a generic term for distilled agave spirits. According to the DO, mezcal can be legally produced only in eight states: in all of Durango, Guerrero, Oaxaca, San Luis Potosí, and Zacatecas; and in parts of Guanajuato, Michoacán, and Tamaulipas.
Advocates of the DOs and the corresponding quality standards argue that they protect Mexico's cultural heritage, expand market opportunities, and ensure the reputation and safety of Mexico's national spirits. However, my research shows that in practice, the institutions that regulate tequila and mezcal adopt a narrow and technical understanding of quality, one that focuses on maximizing economic efficiency and meeting the standards required for export markets. The regulations have not taken into account the perspectives of agave farmers, workers, and small tequila producers and mezcaleros. In addition, they exclude all of the producers who live outside the regions delineated by the DOs. One study found evidence of a history of mezcal production in twenty-four of thirty-one Mexican states and the Federal District of Mexico,10 but the DOs for tequila and mezcal include territories in only ten states.
The debates that I document and analyze in this book are intensely Mexican. At the same time, conflicts over tequila and mezcal mirror debates about the production (and protection) of foods and drinks that are unfolding throughout the world. In recent years, traditional foods and drinks have emerged as profitable and politically salient alternatives to the perceived homogenizing effects of globalization. Initiatives like the Slow Food movement and DOs attempt to "rescue eating establishments, dishes, and products from the flood of standardization" engendered by the industrial food system. In doing so, they strive to support the rural communities, farmers, and processors involved in the production of traditional products. And yet, as my research shows, efforts to regulate Mexico's iconic spirits illustrate the limitations of relying on alternative markets to protect food cultures and the livelihoods of those who produce them. My work demonstrates how cultural symbolism can be manipulated to perpetuate and deepen long-standing inequalities along global commodity chains.
In this book, I investigate the process of using DOs to protect and certify Mexican spirits. I do so by telling the stories of tequila and mezcal: the stories of the people who make them, the institutions that regulate them, and the retailers and consumers who buy and sell them. This book chronicles my work over the past ten years, a project that took me into the living rooms and kitchens of agave farmers and day laborers and to the glitzy offices and gleaming factory floors of tequila companies. It also took me to small mezcal distilleries and trendy mezcal and tequila bars from Oaxaca City to New York. In total, I visited more than thirty distilleries — from tiny family mezcal distilleries perched on mountain bluffs and almost hidden by the surrounding forest, to huge industrial tequila factories. And I participated in mezcal and tequila tastings, agave farmers' meetings, academic conferences, and forums organized by governmental organizations and the Tequila Regulatory Council (CRT). This book uses the stories of these places and these people to investigate the politics of protecting local products in a global market.
FOOD FROM SOMEWHERE
In a modern global food system characterized by "distance and durability," we can get tomatoes in the middle of winter; but many people have never had the sublime experience of biting into a ripe garden tomato on a hot August day. Agribusiness firms rely on global sourcing strategies, and contract arrangements are used to integrate farmers into what is essentially an industrial enterprise, in which hybrid seeds are combined with chemical inputs, and information technology is used to coordinate multiple production sites spread across the globe. And in a context in which our food comes to us from "a global everywhere, yet from nowhere ... in particular," people are trying to find ways to connect with the people — and the places — that produce their food.
Today, within just a few miles of my house in North Carolina, I have my pick of more "farm-to-table" restaurants than I could count on one hand. At these places, rotating chalkboard menus offer seasonal specialties, like fried pickled shrimp from the coast paired with an aioli made with ramps harvested in the mountains, or a salad that combines watermelon from the local farmer's market with farmstead goat cheese from a few counties over. The number of farmers' markets in the United States has exploded in the last twenty years; according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, there are now more than eight thousand, scattered in tiny towns and big cities all over the country. On-farm dinners and farm tours offer city dwellers the opportunity to see how working farms operate. Community-Supported Agriculture, another model, allows consumers to "invest" in a farm, paying upfront and then getting a weekly delivery of produce. Where I live, there are also community-supported fisheries, where customers get weekly deliveries of fresh fish and shellfish from the North Carolina coast. Even the grocery stores where I shop are trying to connect customers with the farmers who grow their produce. They hang huge color photographs of farmers over the coolers where I buy otherwise indistinguishable bags of apples or lettuce, inviting me to "meet my neighbors" who grow and make my food.
The posters at my grocery store are an example of how people who do not literally "know their farmer," as the Department of Agriculture tells us we should, can still have a sense of "knowing their food": by hearing the story of how their food was grown. In contrast to the "food from nowhere" regime, which operates on invisibility, obscuring the social and environmental bases of food production, the "food from somewhere" regime renders the food supply more visible, in response to increased consumer demand for traceability. The "food from somewhere" regime is characterized by wealthy consumption niches, complex new forms of auditing and inspection, and emblematic new products, from certified organic to fair trade. This new set of relations operates globally, in that it makes "local production conditions visible over global-scale distances," as in the case of Kenyan organic green beans that are audited by European certifiers and then sold through Swiss food cooperatives.
In this context, the French notion of terroir — literally translated as "region" or "earth" and understood as evoking the relationship between a product and the land, soil, and specific place that it comes from — has become increasingly salient. Terroir conveys the taste of place. As Starbucks put it in advertisements for their single-origin coffees, terroir is the idea that "geography is a flavor." As a legal concept, DOs, which originated in France but have now been exported around the world, are based on the belief that the environmental and cultural characteristics of particular places — their terroir — are translated into the tastes of the foods and drinks produced there and, moreover, that they deserve to be protected.
Because DOs link the production of agricultural goods to particular local places, but allow these goods to be traded in global markets and require protection by national and global institutions, DOs embody what some scholars refer to as glocalization. This term emphasizes how local cultures and global institutions mutually shape each other. Many scholars have focused on how DOs embed food systems in their social and ecological contexts, drawing on Karl Polanyi's notion of economic embeddedness. Sociologist Elizabeth Barham argues that "by insisting upon a strong link in production to the ecology and culture of specific places, [DOs] reembed a product in the natural processes and social context of its territory." Another rural sociologist, Henk Renting, and his colleagues argue that DOs constitute "short food supply chains" that have the capacity to "resocialize or respatialize food" by increasing the transparency of the people, places, and processes associated with particular foods. Advocates of DOs maintain that focusing on terroir opens up possibilities for an engagement with the "place of food" that goes deeper than simply measuring the distance between producers and consumers.
Excerpted from Divided Spirits by Sarah Bowen. Copyright © 2015 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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