Can Cooperatives Save Mezcal? | Civil Eats

Can Cooperatives Save Mezcal?

A booming mezcal market, driven by imports to the US, is fueling unsustainable farming and production practices in Mexico. Collective ownership is helping growers protect agave’s genetic diversity, local biodiversity, and mezcal’s ancestral roots.

Erika Meneses, director of Aguerrido, stands by a wild agave plant with one of the cooperative's mezcaleros. (Photo courtesy of Aguerrido)

Erika Meneses, director of Aguerrido, stands by a wild agave plant with one of the cooperative’s mezcaleros. (Photo courtesy of Aguerrido)

Erika Meneses never set out to form her own mezcal cooperative. But a series of setbacks—the pandemic, a job loss, and, most devastating, the death of her husband in 2019—pushed her to innovate. Meneses’s husband was a mezcalero, a mezcal producer. Together they worked at the cooperatively owned brand Sanzekan in Guerrero, a state on Mexico’s Pacific coast. After losing her husband and then her source of income in 2020, Meneses decided to take what she had learned at Sanzekan and apply it to her own community of Chilapa in the mountains of Guerrero.

She asked local master mezcaleros, or maestros, if they were interested in producing and selling their mezcal collaboratively. Meneses believed that if they banded together, they could reach larger markets while remaining faithful to ancestral practices. Four maestros joined her.

They named the brand Aguerrido, meaning fierce or valiant. “The cooperative is a warrior that does not give up, that fights, that defends its culture, but above all, defends traditional mezcals,” Meneses says. By “traditional mezcals,” she means agave-distilled spirits that reflect local terroir and are made in small batches according to ancestral methods, rather than mass produced.

“The boom has done a lot of damage. Traditions are being lost in communities.”

The need to distinguish and defend traditional mezcal is a result of the spirit’s explosive global popularity. Over the last decade, Mexico’s mezcal production increased by approximately 700 percent, with the majority designated for international markets. In 2019, the United States surpassed Mexico to become the world’s largest mezcal market. And as with demand for other Mexican crops—such as avocados and corn—the American obsession with mezcal unleashed a host of downstream effects that impact small producers most acutely.

Many brands are no longer producer-owned, Meneses explains, but rather run by businesses with the capital to invest in flashy marketing. Some foreign-owned brands offer to buy mezcal in bulk from small mezcaleros being squeezed from the market, leading to industrialized production methods.

As a result, many mezcaleros turn to unsustainable practices to produce greater volumes in the short term at the expense of their futures. “The boom has done a lot of damage,” says Meneses. “Traditions are being lost in communities.”

Traditional mezcal production is synonymous with sustainability. Producers have historically practiced rotational agave growing, selective harvesting, and small-batch distillation. But when they try to keep up with unsustainable demand, ecological damage follows. As growers across Mexico and as far north as the Western U.S. are realizing, agave opens the door to a lucrative market.

In some cases, communities are deforesting hillsides to make room for monocultures of fast-growing agave. Meanwhile, rare agave species—which can take up to 35 years to mature—are disappearing from the wild. Overharvesting and monocropping both threaten the agave’s genetic diversity and local biodiversity.

An agave plant growing in Mexico. (Photo courtesy of Aguerrido)

Agave plant photo courtesy of Aguerrido.

In the face of these challenges, mezcal cooperatives are designed to protect small producers. At their best, collectively owned and cooperatively operated brands model a future in which mezcaleros can maintain ancestral and ecologically beneficial practices, while still gaining access to an exploding market.

Preserving Ancestral Traditions

Despite her entrepreneurial savvy, Meneses says that Aguerrido’s members “are not businesspeople—we are farming families looking for a market.” The collective’s core members are lifelong mezcaleros, old enough to remember a time when mezcal faced social stigma.

“They were always fighting to continue making mezcal, even though they hid it, even though it was not well paid,” Meneses says. “They feel proud to say, ‘I make a very good mezcal passed down from my grandfather.’” The four maestros—Don Refugio, Don Ciro, Don Tomás and Don Antonio—carry on their families’ traditions in their own techniques, which in turn inform Aguerrido’s ethos.

Each co-op member complies with mutually established growing, harvesting, and production regulations. Because of agave’s long lifespan, some mezcal producers succumb to the temptation of harvesting immature, unripe agave. These plants have lower sugar content, which requires more of them to produce the same volume.

Rather than “looting the hills,” Meneses says, Aguerrido’s members select only mature plants for production. They plant more agave than they harvest, and all replanting is carried out with close attention to the ecosystem as a whole. “That is another agreement, that you must reforest—but without damaging the ecosystem, removing woody trees, or damaging the soil.”

The members of Aguerrido raise their fists as a nod to the cooperative's logo, symbolizing their desire to raise their voices and fight to preserve their traditions.

The members of Aguerrido raise their fists as a nod to the cooperative’s logo, symbolizing their desire to raise their voices and fight to preserve their traditions. (Photo courtesy of Aguerrido)

The mezcal production season runs from February to June. Then they turn their attention to cultivating other crops such as corn and squash. Meneses says this choice is part of Aguerrido’s effort to maintain soil health and biodiversity, despite the larger growing trend among producers and growers to monocrop agave. The group’s vision is “to protect our mezcal precisely from people who only seek a particular benefit for themselves.”

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And instead of focusing on short-term profit, she says they’re working to produce mezcal as they always have—in small batches with ancestral techniques.

Member-led Sustainable Practices

Bordering Guerrero is the state of Oaxaca, the beating heart of Mexico’s mezcal industry. Oaxaca accounts for 85 percent of mezcal production and is also where mezcal’s ecological impact is most visible. “Communities are becoming like dust bowls because of monoculture of agave,” says Niki Nakazawa, co-founder of Neta Spirits.

But this isn’t the case everywhere. In Logoche, a 110-person village in Oaxaca’s Sierra Sur region, traditional practices still rule the day. Neta Spirits represents the 12-family cooperative Grupo Productor Logoche. Neta purchases from the producers and commercializes the mezcal under the Neta brand. The 12 member families oversee everything else, from planting to distilling to bottling to labeling. An elected committee, appointed by the cooperative, organizes the bottling and labeling process.

Unlike some neighboring communities, producers in the village of Logoche prioritize the long-term health of the land. Members plant their fields with multiple varieties of agave in alternating rows to preserve genetic diversity and insulate the crops from disease and pests. They use the milpa system of rotational planting, which includes crops like corn, beans, and squash to enrich the soil and prevent erosion. Using goat and donkey manure, they prepare natural fertilizers to replenish the fields.

The cooperative also follows the indigenous custom of harvesting agave during the full moon, when they believe the plant’s heart or piña is most concentrated with sugar. Pooling their labor, resources, and profits allows the cooperative to preserve ancestral—and often more labor-intensive—methods.

Community members in the village of Logoche work collectively to roast the agave hearts that will then be crushed and fermented before distillation. (Photo courtesy of Aguerrido)

Community members in the village of Logoche work collectively to roast the agave hearts that will then be crushed and fermented before distillation. (Photo courtesy of Aguerrido)

Though much larger, Banhez Mezcal follows similar cultivation practices. A cooperative of 44 families in Ejutla, Oaxaca, Banhez adheres to a member-established code of conduct that focuses on the sustainable management of their agave fields. Its collaborative structure also incentivizes responsible production, including better waste management.

Mezcal’s distillation process produces an acidic liquid waste called viñaza, which can pollute local water sources. Not long ago, one Banhez member built his palenque—distillation site—in a location that impacted local groundwater. When the community realized that viñaza was threatening its water quality, the member took out a loan from Banhez and rebuilt the palenque elsewhere.

“When you look at the brands that are able to maintain environmental ethics, it’s really down to ownership,” says Alex Jandernoa, director of education at Banhez. “In order to move [a palenque], you have to keep producing mezcal. If you’re not part of a cooperative, you can’t move. You don’t have the money; you don’t have the safety net.”

Rooted in Indigenous Values

In some cases, it’s less the cooperative business model and more a community’s cooperatively held values that insulate producers from market pressure. Nakazawa says Grupo Productor Logoche’s collective ethos is rooted primarily in traditional customs. Logoche, like hundreds of Oaxaca’s municipalities, is governed by two systems: the federal government and customary indigenous laws called usos y costumbres. Grupo Productor Logoche’s cooperation, Nakazawa says, “is rooted in older ways of participation.”

In communities governed by customary indigenous law, “people participate directly in the well-being of other members of the community and in the stewardship of the land.” Every village member participates in communal work, called tequio, in lieu of paying taxes at the local level. Because mezcal is Logoche’s main industry, everyone pitches in at some step during production, and pricing is set by community consensus. “The idea of cooperativism and collectivism is really embedded in those forms of political participation,” says Nakazawa.

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The Cooperative Potential

From a commercial perspective, Meneses believes that cooperatively owned brands have an advantage in their product diversity. In the case of Aguerrido, each bottle is a unique representation of the local ecosystem, the agave, and the producer’s skill. “[Consumers] can find diversity in expressions from each producer,” she says.

Maestros del Mezcal, a nongovernmental organization representing hundreds of small producers across Mexico, provides financial and technical support to preserve traditional production practices and protect the land from exploitation. Maestros recently launched a collective brand under the label MDM Asociación Civil, exporting its first shipment to the U.S. last year.

Members of Grupo Productor Logoche gather in their cooperatively owned and managed bottling plant. (Photo courtesy of Aguerrido)

Members of Grupo Productor Logoche gather in their cooperatively owned and managed bottling plant. (Photo courtesy of Aguerrido)

“I do think collective brands can help preserve tradition—by pooling fiscal and regulatory resources and providing easier access to the markets, which is much more costly and time consuming for just one person to do,” says co-organizer Rion Toal. He thinks it’s a model that could be applied successfully to other Mexican products for export. In the case of coffee, for example, “if small producers were able to form co-ops and roast their own beans and legally export them, they could make a lot more money per kilo.”

As pressure from foreign demand mounts, Mexico’s mezcal producers face a choice: turn to industrialized methods and damaging cultivation practices for quick economic gain or differentiate by preserving and promoting ancestral methods. The cooperative model makes the latter option easier. Collective ownership helps producers preserve mezcal’s roots, without losing a foothold in the market.

Meneses says that Aguerrido’s cooperative model looks beyond turning a short-term profit and focuses on the community’s future in mezcal production. “The idea is to be aware, to use good practices—not just right now but also for the future, for the new generations.”

Annelise Jolley is a San Diego-based writer and editor who covers food, farming, travel, and the terrain in between. Read more >

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