The imaginative strategies with which mezcal producers in Mexico try to overcome the tremendous impact of the pandemic

Patricia Ruíz is a producer of mezcal, the Mexican alcoholic beverage, and last year she didn’t have many reasons to toast.

In normal times, his business, Los Dioses de Agave, bottles between 1,000 and 1,500 liters of his brand La Maliciosa every four weeks.

But for more than four months in 2020, production at his distillery in the southern state of Oaxaca came to a complete halt.

“Our most frequent customers are bars across the state,” he says. But all closed by decree of the government when the coronavirus pandemic hit the country.

agave in Oaxaca

Getty Images Mezcal is made with the agave found throughout Mexico.

Restaurants also had to close their doors and American tourists that are important for the hotel sector in Oaxaca and buy a lot of mezcal, they disappeared.

“It was a great challenge for us to accept it,” says Ruíz. “The cash flow was reduced a lot, because we could not buy the usual inputs, and then we could not pay people, so everything slowed down.”

“We had to stop production and [solo tratar de vender] the supplies we already had ”.

Most other mezcal producers they were similarly affected.

Exporters saw sales drop as bars were also closed around the world.

As the pandemic is expected to come to an end in the near future, how quickly can the sector recover?

But first, what exactly is mezcal?

Like tequila, which is much better known, mezcal is made by fermenting and then distilling the cooked sap and pulp of the plant. agave.

Although tequila must be made with a certain type of agave, blue, grown in a particular region of central Mexico, any variety of the plant can be used to make mezcal.

Mezcal can also be made throughout Mexico, although production is centered in the state of Oaxaca, In the south.

Global sales of tequila dwarf those of mezcal (355 million liters in 2019 compared to just 7.14 million), but the latter has been growing in popularity.

Gabriel Martínez has been producing mezcal in the southwestern state of Guerrero for the past seven years under the label ¡Ay Dolor!

It is based in a small village that is home to the Nahua Indians.

Transportation in and out of the local area was restricted with the arrival of the pandemic.

Gabriel MartinezGabriel Martinez
Gabriel Martínez Gabriel Martínez (left) was unable to distribute his mezcal.

Oh Pain! production has just started again. And Martinez recently met with other growers in the state to compare loss notes and plan for future recovery.

“The truth is that exports [de Guerrero] they have fallen between 50% and 60%, ”he says.

In all of Mexico, mezcal exports last year fell by 21% and went from 5.77 million liters being sold abroad in 2019 to 4.54 million being exported, according to figures from the Ministry of Economy.

Total production of the drink was 6.5 million liters in 2020, up from 7.14 million in 2019.

These declines came after an export boom of more than a third a year since 2015, driven by high demand in the US.

However, the decline in production last year It could be a good thing for the environment.

International sales skyrocketed in 2019 and many were concerned about the impact of this demand on agave plantations, such as depletion of the soil and water supply.

agave pineapplesagave pineapples
Getty Images Mezcal is produced from the pineapples of the agave plant.

Miriam Luna sells mezcal from the states of Oaxaca and Durango under her Limbo label, and has observed that plantations are also affected by pests and that some varieties are at risk of extinction.

He also points out that, with or without a pandemic, the industry already faces many challenges whose roots intersect not only with environmental sustainability, but also with poverty and lack of regulation.

“There are high costs for producers, especially those who suffer from marginalization and poverty,” says Luna.

When it comes to managing its brand, last year it converted the majority of its sales into home deliveries in Mexico City.

Another mezcal producer, Leyla Daw, hosted Zoom conferences to boost her business last year.

“When the pandemic hit, it was really scared for my business“Says Daw, whose brand is called Eternal Freedom.

“I was about to put my mezcal in restaurants, in retail stores, and I had to put all of that on hold.”

“No one was buying,” he says.

However, “this pandemic came into my life to show me something: that people want to know about mezcal “, believes the businesswoman.

He realized that during the pandemic “everyone was behind the screen.” So he brought his product to Zoom, organized tastings online for anyone who wanted to join, and sold bottles through an online beverage store.

Leyla Daw at a tasting at ZoomLeyla Daw at a tasting at Zoom
Leyla DawLeyla Daw organizes mezcal tastings at Zoom.

Daw says the tastings have been a success: “I reach more people now, in 2020 and 2021, than in the previous five years that I have been producing mezcal.”

“I had a mezcal tasting last year with 700 people connected! And then companies started contacting me saying that they wanted this experience for their clients ”.

Daw claims that he has discovered that “people really want to know how to drink mezcal.”

Unlike its close cousin, tequila, one drinks mezcal slowly, not in quick drinks.

Across the country, state and federal governments have pledged resources to help parts of the industry affected by the pandemic recover.

And for producers like Patricia Ruíz, Gabriel Martínez, Miriam Luna and Leyla Daw not to go anywhere else.

Getty Images There are hundreds of mezcal producers in Mexico.

“We are planning to create a ‘mezcal route’ for tourists in Guerrero,” says Martínez about his plans for the future with other local producers.

“We have had to rethink things,” says Ruiz. “We had to find new customers, new markets and learn about e-commerce.”

“Of course the pandemic affected production,” says Luna. “It is a domino effect: if there are no sales, there is no demand, and if there is no demand, there is no production.”

“But in 2021 we are moving forward with enthusiasm and I hope we continue like this.

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