food / travel

Salud! Tequila Aims Upmarket, But Hangover Of Lax Standards Linger

Not the real thing
Not the real thing
David Santa Cruz

MEXICO CITY - Alfredo, an Argentine in his 30s who lives in Madrid, swears he will never drink tequila again. His Mexican friends tell him that what he had was not the real tequila, their homeland's national drink. Still, he insists, with the look of someone who has stared the devil straight in the eyes, that the label clearly said that he was drinking tequila.

Alfredo is not alone. There are many people who feel queasy just hearing people talk about the Mexican liquor. Tequila evokes images of armed machismos drinking from the bottle and firing guns in the air, or American students losing all of their inhibitions thanks to a few brief but lethal shots.

Today makers of this liquor from the juice of the agave plant are trying to open up the world markets to their product, and position tequila as a premium alcoholic beverage, much like cognac, vodka and whisky. But there is a problem.

According to a national survey on the consumption of distilled alcohol in Mexico, the nation drinks around 30 million cases of the stuff annually. However, the distilled alcohol industry reports having sold only 16 million cases in the same time period. That means that 40 to 45% of the distilled alcoholic beverages sold in Mexico have some kind of irregularity.

According to Cristobal Mariscal, vice president of the National Chamber of the Tequila Industry, the producers are faced with “problems of unfair competition from the so-called tequilados or agave liquors that trick the consumer by evoking tequila.”

In spite of those problems, the numbers are solid. In 2011, 284 million liters of tequila were sold in total. The export market continues to rise, with 131.5 million liters of tequila exported, representing a total value of around $665 million.

Raw materials

Tequila is produced from the Tequilana Weber Blue variety of Agave, a cactus that is similar to aloe. The roots of the agave are sliced, baked and then the juice is extracted. The juice is then distilled and mixed with water for a final alcohol content between 32 and 38 proof.

The resulting drink is known as mescal, and has different names and properties depending on the region where it is produced. The most famous mescal comes from the town of Tequila, in the state of Jalisco. Other famous types of mescal are sotol, mezcal and bacanora, a unique variety that was illegal for 77 years between 1915 and 1992.

According to market research done by Euromonitor, the global sales of tequila grew 2 percent in 2011. Although it is not even close to the meteoric rise of vodka on the global market or the whisky boom in India, tequila is making solid progress towards the premium sector.

In 2008 the United States bought 46 percent of the global production, more even than Mexico, which consumed 40 percent of the world’s tequila. The rest of the market, though, is very fragmented.

According to Euromonitor, the industry’s main strategy has been to appeal to the feminine market and try to position tequila as a luxury product, far from the idea of a powerful drink to get drunk on quickly. Pernod Ricard, owner of the tequila brand Olmeca, has decided to make Russia one of his principal markets and sends 20% of its inventory there.

Producers of mezcal and bacanora have adopted similar strategies, according to Pavel Dennis, president of the Regulatory Council of Bacanora. However, industry estimates indicate that in order to conquer the BRIC market, the industry would have to double the amount of agave grown (around 80,000 hectares). That’s not easy in a country with as little water as Mexico.

Real Tequila

There are 818 recognized brands of tequila in Mexico, and in the rest of the world you can find another 143 brands. Bottles are labeled so that customers can verify that it is authentic tequila and not alcohol made from sugar cane and then mixed with artificial flavors and colorants. For true tequila, the label should indicate the type of tequila (white, rested or aged), and should say that the tequila is 100 percent agave, and should have the letters CRT-NOM, for the Tequila Regulation Council and the Official Mexican Standard, which regulate tequila production.

The NOM designation is required of all 100 percent agave tequilas, and indicates that the government’s standards have been met, but it does not guarantee quality. That is because there are two types of tequila allowed under NOM rules - the 100 percent agave kind, and “mixtos,” which must contain at least 51 percent agave sugars, but up to 49 percent of the alcohol can come from distillation of different sugars.

Mariscal, from the National Chamber of the Tequila Industry, clarifies that the distillation process is always started with the agave, regardless of whether the product is a “mixto” or pure agave tequila.

For some specialists in hard liquor, the fact that the Mexican government even allows the “mixto” category is in and of itself a way of ripping off the consumer, who is expecting a pure product and not something that is barely different from alcohol made from sugar.

Not only is the “mixto” cheaper, it can also have effects like those that scared off Alfredo. In contrast, the long-time drinkers in Matatlan, Oaxaca insist that drinking tequila or mescal not only doesn’t give you a hangover, but can also give you a “mystical” experience.

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Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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