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Spirited Conversations – talking alternative business models and mezcal

We’re really looking forward to our upcoming tasting and talk in Sacramento with Rion Toal of Maestros del Mezcal. Mestros is a cooperative of small producers from several regions in Mexico. This is the kick off of our Spirited Conversations series where we focus on a specific topic while tasting mezcal. The event will be held April 3 at Sacramento’s newest agave spirits and Mexican craft beer focused restaurant and bar Cantina Alley. For tickets, check here.

The idea behind Spirited Conversations is to certainly taste mezcals but to take a step beyond by introducing fascinating people from the mezcal world who will discuss  topics that are important anyone who loves mezcal. Maestros del Mezcal and the cooperative project is a great place for us to start. Max first wrote about the cooperative a couple of years ago in an interview with founder Abel Alcántara, and we’ve had the pleasure of attending some of their past tasting events in Oaxaca. We’re also looking forward to the big national encuentro in Mexico City April 22-23.

So why so much interest in this project? Well aside from the great mezcal, it’s also an interesting model for the industry. To date it has been exceedingly difficult for small producers to actually get their mezcal to people who want to buy it. The certification model for legal mezcal is incredibly expensive and bureaucratic – the bar is far too high for truly small producers. Officially certified mezcal is clearly designed to create an industry defined by brands who can deliver consistent product to international markets. Clearly grass roots economic development and maintenance of tradition are not priorities within the official system. But Maestros del Mezcal has a different model: By banding together and pooling resources to host these tasting events producers can reach a larger market and sell directly to consumers. It’s also a chance for them to meet with potential third party organizations that have more resources – read money – to help cover costs of certification and distribution.

In my recent travels to Oaxaca I have seen first hand how increasingly bifurcated the mezcal market has become. It favors producers that have access cash and who can develop businesses to create their own brands or to sell to third parties who create the brands. I first wrote about this a couple of years ago, the same trends continue but even more rapidly.

Projects like Maestros del Mezcal fascinate us because they are trying to bridge the increasing gap between demand and interest for truly traditional mezcal here in the United States and around the world. While we applaud the work the CRM is doing to bring structure and definition to the world of mezcal through certification, there is still so much work to be done to make sustainability and economic assistance for certification a core part of the industry. One of the key arguments the CRM has made about the necessity of certification is that it will eliminate any potentially unsafe mezcal from the market place. To our knowledge that specter is just that, to date a phantom and probably more of a marketing device than anything with basis in fact but it’s clearly targeted at small producers like those represented by the Maestros collective.

More than anything we hear reports of delays in certifying small producers, especially those outside of the core mezcal producing areas in the Valles Centrales let alone outside of the state of Oaxaca. And, of course, we hear consistently that costs are prohibitive and not scaled to production runs or brand size. Projects like Maestros del Mezcal not only are a kind of stop gap solution, but also act as a kind of shadow organization to help maintain small producer operations by supporting sustainability efforts and production. The conversation with Rion is a great opportunity to hear more about this project and the work they are doing. And of course to taste some pretty out of this world mezcal.

Susan Coss is the Co-founder of Mezcalistas. She is a long time business, marketing and communications strategist in the sustainable food and beverage worlds. Over the past 15 years, Susan's work has focused on promoting the connection between land, farmers and food and beverage crafters.

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