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Can Cooperatives Save Mezcal? | Civil Eats

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.

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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