How To Expand Micro Batch Production
In this post I will discuss the difficulty of expanding production of an inherently artisanal product, the solutions which are currently being employed by some larger brands, and the method which we favour at Pensador.
When trying to offer a brief explanation of the differences between mezcal and tequila, people often resort to stock phrases. That “all tequilas are mezcals, but not all mezcals are tequilas”. Or that “Mezcal is tequila’s smoky cousin”. I prefer to refer to the historical contexts of the spirits – that both are members of the same family of Mexican agave spirits, but that modern day tequila represents a process of expansion and commercialisation, while mezcal represents the traditional, rural, small-scale, style of production. While imperfect, I think this distinction gets to the heart of the difference between the two categories. Tequila’s focus on efficiency and consistency explains its clean smooth profile and affordable price point, while mezcal’s artisanal production explains it character and singularity. For this reason, while it is entirely within the legal definition of mezcal, I’m unconvinced by attempts to make mezcal using the same processes as tequila (Zignum anyone?), and feel confident in stating that: Mezcal is an inherently artisanal product.
This statement presents us with a problem: if mezcal is inherently artisanal and small scale, how can popular brands expand their capacity to supply their customers while remaining a true to the category? As global sales of mezcal are on the rise, and the big players are getting involved, this is a problem faced by more and more brands. There are 3 solutions currently being employed.
- The Big Blend
This approach is similar to that used by brands of blended whisky, or the big cognac houses. A brand buys mezcal from two or more producers, and employs a master blender to incorporate the different liquids, along with a minimum of additives, to create a house style which is consistent and plentiful. As demand increases the brand can bring more and more producers onto the roster. They also retain a powerful position on price setting as no single producer is essential to their model.
- The Mega Palenque
This method involves working with a single producer to expand the size of their Palenque, but without changing the mechanics of their production. No single part of the process – the roast, the crush, the fermentation, or the distillation – is expanded in scale, but rather increased in number. Where a regular palenque might have one roasting pit, one tahona, and a couple of fermentation tinas and alembics, a mega Palenque will have dozens of each, all running simultaneously, manned by an army of palenqueros. This means the mezcalero in chief can keep an eye on the entire process, while the capacity far exceeds that of a regular palenque.
- The Collective
Similar to The Big Blend this method involves working with several small producers, but rather than blending their mezcals each batch is bottled separately. This means that two bottles of Espadín from the same brand may have been made by different producers, and present slightly different characteristics, but as long as these producers are sufficiently similar in their approach the batches will share a “house style”. This means customers can expect the same quality and feel, while any differences can be celebrated as a part of the variety and inconsistency which is inherent to true artisanal production. For this method to be effective and rewarding batch information including the name of the producer should be readily available to any consumer.
None of these methods are flawless, but we’ve settled on The Collective as the best approach.
The Big Blend makes good business sense – it requires little investment and conveys purchasing power – but it is not a feature of mezcal culture: there’s no tradition of blending batches from different producers. Individual producers tend to be resistant to the idea, they’re proud of their recipes and don’t want to see their nuances lost in the mix. There’s also something unsavoury about the homogenisation of such a varied and diverse category.
The Mega Palenque has a lot going for it. In particular the ability to produce an aritisanal spirit on a mass market scale which is still defined by a single person and place. But it also puts a dangerous strain on the local environment. There are problems of sustainability and waste management, and then there’s the issue of small-town politics – the power dynamic in rural Oaxacan towns can be hard to understand as an outsider, but vastly increasing the fortunes of an individual member of the community is almost certain to upset the balance. For this reason, it can be difficult to find a producer who is willing to engage in the idea.
The Collective model avoids these local issues by spreading both the burden and the gains across several producers. It’s also true to the culture of traditional mezcal production, unlike the Big Blend. Issues arise regarding brand identity – if expressions vary in profile and production, then what is it that unites them? To answer this question, you need a sufficiently robust brand concept. With Pensador, our mezcals are united by their shared terroir: our range presents different producers and different production styles, but with a likeness in profile due to this regional element. This is the flavour of Miahuatlán - the core of our band identity.
There are currently three families in our Miahuatlán Collective. We look forward to expanding the collective as our sales continue to increase.