Mezcal has a history of sustainability. Traditionally, land is used to cultivate agaves for a decade or two, and then left fallow or used for other crops to balance the soil before another round of agave plantings. Some varieties, however, are difficult to cultivate and are not planted, but found in their natural habitat and looked after by the mezcalero in that area until they are ready for harvest. These wild agaves are prized for their intense character and unique flavor. In order to ensure the continuation of the wild plants, there is an unspoken pact between man and nature, and some plants are left to flower and propagate. But now this system of sustainability, which has been in place for as long as agave and people have coexisted, is being threatened. In order to meet new market demands, farmers and mezcaleros are overharvesting agaves, stripping the land bare.
There are over 200 varieties of agave, around 40 of which are used to make mezcal. The most common variety, espadin, takes 5-15 years to mature and grows in the wild as well as in cultivated plots of land. Most mezcal in the U.S. market is espadin based, and a lot of it is very good. But other spirit categories have taught consumers that the best of anything is exclusive and rare, which many people have applied to mezcal without a second thought. After tasting a few espadin mezcals, drinkers fancy themselves experts and seek out other “more exciting” options, like those made from rarer agave like tobala, cuixe and barril.
Wanting only rare varieties short changes a drinker’s ability to cultivate their palate and fully appreciate the subtleties of mezcal’s terroir. Since espadin grows in almost all regions, it is the best way to familiarize your palate with regional differences that are a result of variables like microclimates and soil, as well as human traditions such as the use of copper versus clay stills. Many of the rare varieties are intense and challenging to an uninitiated palate; it’d be like immediately jumping from only drinking jammy, friendly Argentinian Malbec to tasting nuanced, complex Grand Cru Bordeaux. In all likelihood, your palate wouldn’t catch up to your intellectual curiosity and you’d just wind up wasting your money. Those who spend the time getting to know the fundamentals of any alcoholic beverage end up appreciating the high end bottles more.
The farther reaching problem, though, is that the popularity of mezcal (especially the rarer bottlings) has created a never before seen demand on a product that is naturally scarce. Producers are already struggling to keep up, even using cultivated agaves that mature in as little as six years. Varieties like tepeztate and arroqueno, which have become fashionable among the agave obsessed, often take up to two decades or more to mature. So producers looking to capitalize on the popularity of these sparsely available varieties have started blending them with more readily available agaves to stretch supply.
It is traditional to blend agaves based on what is ripe at the moment. A typical breakdown of a mezcal made from wild agaves would be something like 80 percent wild tobala and 20 percent cultivated espadin, or 95 percent tepeztate and 5 percent espadin, whereas the blends now contain the minimum amount of the wild variety—mostly so they can advertise it on the label. The lack of laws surrounding this practice makes it all too easy to use an insignificant amount of wild agave or to fabricate its inclusion completely in some cases.
In an effort to corner the market, brands are trying to snatch up as much wild agave as possible before someone else does. In many cases, the laws are blurry as to who owns wild agaves that grow outside of privately owned property. Agave heists are a real threat and a heartbreaking reality for producers who have taken care of a group of plants for decades only to find them missing just before they reach ripeness. Even if the plants are not stolen before they ripen, the rightful owners themselves might harvest their agave too early in order to make a quick profit. Using agave that hasn’t developed phenolic ripeness results in a mezcal that still bears the name and price tag of a quality wild agave-based mezcal, but not the flavor. In both instances, it is a waste of a precious natural resource in exchange for immediate financial gain. In doing this, producers are shortchanging not only the consumers, but also the natural landscape and biodiversity, as well as their future heirs.
For those looking to do their part to encourage sustainability without sacrificing the opportunity to drink wild agave mezcal, try looking outside of Oaxaca. Regions like Michoacan and Puebla still have a wealth of wild varieties and a better chance of preserving a sustainable system. It also helps to remember that cultivated agaves and espadin make incredible mezcal, and to encourage your friends to invest in those bottles. Lastly, when investing in a top dollar bottle of wild agave mezcal, do a little research into the brand. Ensure you are getting the best available quality while supporting a family or network of producers with respect for the land, the consumer and their craft.
While the situation is bleak, it’s important to remember that the mezcal community is strong, creative, and as committed to survival as ever. Mezcaleros and their natural resources have been challenged before, and this time around they are better equipped than ever to address the current issues. Within the last five years, there have been full force efforts to preserve seeds and rare varieties that are on the brink of extinction. Many of the traditionally wild varieties have been successfully cultivated, and new experiments to work with some of the more difficult varieties are underway. There are countless nurseries growing varieties that were previously only found and propagated in the wild, and, once strong enough, these agaves will be replanted in their natural environments. We will see these “semi-wild” agaves in bottles in the future, and they may help explain why the wild tepeztate you taste today will be vastly different from the wild tepeztate you taste in 20, 30 or 40 years. Enjoy them while you can (in moderation).