16:01 GMT // 24 Jan 2012
Almost 2,000 bartenders have petitioned the Mexican authorities to oppose sweeping plans they say will decimate artisanal agave spirit production and severely narrow consumer choice.
They say the plans, which would limit use of the word 'agave' and closely regulate the way agave spirits are made and labelled, are cynically motivated to protect large producers within the appellations of Tequila, Mezcal and Bacanora.
Smaller producers outside of these areas would be forced out, says the Tequila Interchange Project, a non-profit organisation dedicated to promoting awareness about tequila culture among industry professionals in the US and Mexico. It is spearheading the 'STOP NOM-186' campaign.
David Suro, president of Siembra Azul Tequila and founder of TIP, said the moves to brand the word 'agave' by the Mexican Institute of Industrial Property (IMPI) and the NOM-186 regulations proposed by the Secretaría de Economía were a blatant case of protectionism that would "deceive" consumers.
He said he thought he would "collapse with disbelief" when he first heard about the proposals. "Such evil is out of touch with our long traditions. It is a bullying reaction of a giant sector - you don't have to be an expert to see what they are trying to do, which is eliminate competition from rapidly growing boutique agave market.
"Some of these small producers don't know how to read and write but have been producing agave distilled spirits for at least 500 years. If they are not part of the industry they are kicked out of it: they would not be able to commercialise or label their products, which is ridiculous. It takes them outside of the legal framework and pushes them to clandestinity."
The proposals would:
* brand the word 'agave' for the exclusive use of producers within the Tequila, Mezcal, and Bacanora appellations and limit its use to spirits made using only the six genus of agave allowed within these areas
* effectively prohibit from market spirits made from 33 other species of agave outside the appellations
* force producers outside the appellations to label their products 'agavacea aguardiente' or 'distilled agavacea' - agavacea is a much broader term that encompasses several hundred species
* prohibit producers from displaying the percentage of agavacea in their products in labelling, i.e prevent them from displaying '100% agave sugars'
* limit abv outside of the appellations to between 25% and 35% - currently artisanal mezcals are produced between 45% and 55%
Ron Cooper, founder of Del Maguey mezcal, said the proposals would result in limited consumer choice of an increasingly sanitised category. He said powerful non-Mexican brand owners were ultimately behind the proposals, which he labelled "stupid and greedy".
"There are a couple of new tequila brands every week, that's how popular and how saturated the market is becoming," he said. "But tequila has got this really narrow flavour profile that everyone has to shoot for, because they are stuck using the blue agave flavour profile.
"I keep saying that mezcal is the mother is all tequilas, but it has only recently dawned on people that mezcal is wild, the flavours and terroirs are all over the place and that's why they like them so much. There are all these beautiful indigenous people that have been making mezcal for far longer than the Spanish."
He said the existing rules around agave spirit production are already complicated, with some producers making spirit from wild agaves prevented from even calling their products mezcal because they fall outside the Mezcal appellation. "This new initiative wants to screw things up even further."
Axel Huhn, a German-based importer of mezcal, described NOM-186 as "nonsense" and made to protect big business market shares.
"I think that the tequila industry saw the success of mezcal, its potential for being a high-end spirit and its recent success on the international market," he said. "The NOM is made to destroy a big deal of culture outside the appellations and is one in a long row of regulations that have damaged the product, culture and natural resources of agave spirit producers in Mexico."
David Suro said that he had read articles in Spanish language media that argued the case for NOM-186. "It says those in opposition have misread the legislation, and that it is not designed to harm, but even then there is a problem with the adulteration of agave distilled spirits. We need to have regulations but they need to be designed with participation of all interested parties and most of these producers don't have a voice."
He warned of profound social and economic knock-on effects within communities of artisanal producers. "Most of the states where tequila and mezcal is produced already have the largest percentage of migration. If these plans go through there will be even less economic incentive to remain. They will eliminate the means for producers to make a living. Economic migration is the only alternative and with US anti-immigrant laws they will be left in limbo."
For details of how to sign the petition and to read the CLASS editorial stance, click here