I recently wrote here about the grim realities of mezcal production with regards to degradation of the environment, unsafe conditions for workers, and the inhumane treatment of the animals involved. Amongst the issues discussed, the physical waste from mezcal production is the most noxious of all of them all and the greatest threat to the environment and sustainable mezcal production in Oaxaca and across Mexico.
Consider that for every bottle of mezcal produced, the volume of liquid waste per bottle is equivalent to 10 additional bottles (called vinaza) as well as 12 kilograms of solid waste (known as bagazo.) Historically this has been randomly discarded, frequently in the rivers alongside which most distilleries (palenques) have been built. Those same river systems are a vital source of water for drinking, cooking, and washing as well as serving a central role in the ecosystem. The vinaza that has been dumped in the rivers for nearly six centuries is both acidic and oxygen-starved. When introduced into the river system, it drops pH and soaks up available oxygen, thereby killing most aquatic life. Furthermore, a community that once depended upon the river as a their primary water source is now faced with either utilizing a polluted resource or resorting to alternatives such as bottled water or soft drinks, the latter carrying its own set of health issues.
I’ve witnessed these effects firsthand for more than a decade while working in Oaxaca. A particularly touching example occurred one afternoon when I spent several hours fishing with a young man from the village of San Juan del Río. He had asked me to bring him a fishing pole from the U.S. to teach him how to fish. Having wonderful memories of fishing with my father further persuaded me to make his wish come true. Upon returning to San Juan del Río, pole in hand, he and I spent several hours climbing up and down the local river only to find a complete absence of life (apart from a strong green slime that clung to the rocks.) In addition to being disappointed at not finding a single fish to cast our bait at, I was crestfallen to see that the seemingly innocuous mezcal waste was killing the river and everything in it.
When we finally built our own palenque for Sombra Mezcal, a chief concern was how to deal with the vinaza and bagazo waste while hopefully identifying a solution that can work for all of Mexico’s mezcal producers. We set out investigating three avenues to deal with the waste including: creating an organic fertilizer, turning the waste into bio fuel, and making adobe bricks. We committed to sharing our findings with the larger mezcal community with the hope that they too would aim to work more responsibly, with an eye towards truly sustainable mezcal production. We have also shared our mistakes (i.e. vinaza will eat right through your cement storage tank) as part of the path forward of total transparency.
We’re now nearly a year in on our efforts and amongst the three avenues we’ve been pushing on, the adobe bricks have proven to be a resounding success. The thinking originated with my upbringing in the desert southwest of the U.S. and Sonora Mexico where adobe was, and remains, an important building material. Typically adobe bricks are made of dirt, water and hay. We have chosen to use local dirt, replace to the water with vinaza and the hay with bagazo in order to make the same bricks. It’s working.
The bagazo turns out to be fine replacement for hay, dirt is plentiful, and the vinaza has been a very suitable replacement for water; it’s biologic activity is extinguished in the adobe making and drying process.*
We began by making a few bricks via compression, doing different trials on bagazo fiber length and total composition. Our first bricks sat in the rain and sun for weeks — we even drove over them a few times to prove the concept (one way or the other.) Eventually we were convinced they could work, and this dovetailed with an introduction to Alejandro Montes of COAA who was also working on adobe initiatives via both brick making and rammed earth techniques.
We resolved to combine our efforts and to neutralize as much of the agave waste as possible, all the while producing a valuable building material to donate for use in communities throughout Oaxaca.
You may also be aware of the fact that Oaxaca and Southern Mexico are amongst the most geologically active places on earth, and there have recently been two extremely large earth quakes destroying many homes. The destruction is often most intensely seen in rural areas that lack robust support and recovery initiatives. Many dozens of people have lost homes and do not have the means to rebuild.
As responsible community members we see this as a call to action and an opportunity to put our brick and rammed earth production to good use.
Since January Alejandro and his team have rallied a group of volunteers from as far away as Russia, France and Australia, as well as all over Mexico to build bricks at Sombra and begin construction on the first home in the native Mixe community of Ayutla, Oaxaca. Thus far we’ve produced many thousands of bricks and have nearly completed the first adobe rammed earth technique home made entirely from local dirt, vinaza, and bagazo. The home, pictured below, has utilized 12,000 liters of vinaza and four cubic meters (= 1,900 kilograms) of bagazo along with on-site dirt. It’s also worth noting that by utilizing the vinaza we have also saved 12,000 liters of water in the production of the home. The roof is to go on shortly and this first home will likely be completed by April.
The next step is to rebuild a second home in the Mixe region, this time solely from the adobe bricks. The aim here is to gain an understanding of which method (rammed earth or adobe bricks) proves the most useful and time efficient. Ultimately we want to arrive at the best path forward from the point of view of both materials and construction. With this, we’ll share the knowledge that will enable other producers and communities to utilize their own wastes to create building materials from what would ordinarily have been a detriment to their environment.
Beyond the Mixe communities, the town in which Sombra Mezcal produces and calls home, Santiago Matatlán, has seen big changes. The town bills itself as the world capital of mezcal and is home to 120 producers. The town has paid keen attention to our progress and recently convened to learn about our sustainability initiatives. At the end of our presentation, 108 of the group of 120 producers voted positively to embrace our sustainability practices as a community and to work towards becoming the first zero emissions mezcal community. This is huge.
There is also the larger community of mezcal producers across Oaxaca and beyond. I could not be more pleased to share that our efforts and clean production initiatives have been embraced by many of our peers. Producers including Del Maguey, Los Danzantes, Ilegal, Los Javis, Jose Cuervo, and Amores have come to the Sombra palenque to learn and share, and have committed to making their own production more sustainable. I cannot imagine a better result. To build community is something special and to do so around shared goals of making our planet a better place is indeed a lofty ambition to realize. I am thankful to my peers for joining our efforts and look forward to finding a meaningful path forward.
I’ve always believed it is incumbent upon us to give back where we can, and I could not be more excited to have found the place where I want to commit my efforts to making our ever-smaller planet a better place. Whatever my future may hold, I know that Oaxaca, Mexico and her people hold a special place in my heart and I’m committed to working with Alejandro and all of the other wonderful people who have brought this project to life to create a brighter day.
Thanks for reading.
*Preliminary results from our work show the vinaza neutralization in the brick production process although further tests are ongoing.