At Sombra, Data Over Dogma Makes a Modern Mezcal

Mezcal is following the rise of tequila, making it all the more important for the sector to get ahead of the curve in terms of sustainability.

There is a tension between the old ways and the pull of industrialization. Photos courtesy of Sombra Mezcal.


Editor’s note: We kicked off our first annual Food Loves Tech event last summer in Chelsea—here’s a recap. We’re bringing a taste of the food and farming future back this weekend, but just across the East River at Industry City
This story is part of an ongoing series about technology’s effects on our food supply.

0127-PartnerTip-350x70px-Style guide greensMezcal conjures a timeless magic: The spiny agaves are like a prehistoric herd grazing on Oaxacan hillsides. The flowering quiotes launch like satellite antennae to broadcast fertility. Tool and man merge when mezcaleros swing their machetes.

This connection to a time before modern technology is how people fall in love with mezcal, and the land and culture that sustain it. This love drives us in bringing Sombra Mezcal to life.

But mezcal isn’t all romance. There is a tension between the old ways and the pull of industrialization. The sector is exploding in popularity, putting pressure on small producers to scale up quickly, and few have a good strategy for handling the downsides. We have to be honest: Distillation produces a lot of waste along with the alcohol. The industry can no longer rely on local waterways to wash away its problems — in a crowded world there is no “away.”

What mezcal needs is a “green evolution” for responsible growth. We are convinced that this is the best way to benefit the local environment and economy, as well as do our part for the global climate. The future of mezcal hinges on the use of appropriate technology, knowing when to let go of the past and when to blend it with the new.

When we decided at Sombra to build our own distillery instead of sourcing from other great producers, we were forced to confront the question of how to make mezcal clean and modern without sacrificing the artisanal craft — how to respect tradition but also transcend it. We found our answer by evaluating three factors: environmental impact, sustainability and ethical business.

It helps to look at these problems with a guiding philosophy of data over dogma. This means evaluating qualitative and quantitative factors — because while distillation is certainly a science, making good mezcal will always be an art.

In designing Sombra’s new home, we took a critical look at all aspects of production and asked, How can we be authentic and excellent while also exceeding current environmental standards? This led us to implement green innovations everywhere we could.

Our wood for roasting agave now comes from certified sustainable sources. Our water mostly comes from the heavens, collected on the roof and stored underground. Solar panels power our mechanized millstone or tahona — gone is the horse turning mundane circles.

Technology is the great accelerator, but of course with food culture many good things take time. That’s why we use native yeast for fermentation. They may be slower but they allow for full flavor to be extracted from the ground agave. In a sense it’s slow-mo biotech.

Instead of wood fire, we use a specially designed propane gas system to heat the stills. It spares deforestation and protects our workers from unnecessary smoke, and it allows us to fine tune the fuel-air ratio by adding just the right amount of extra oxygen, ensuring an efficient burn. Couple that with insulation and you end up saving a lot of gas. This propane system also helps us to be precise and consistent in our distillation.

Some of our most innovative and future-looking projects deal with the distillery waste. What’s left over in the still is pretty noxious — acidic, stripped of oxygen — until you remediate it. Following the lead of the tequila industry, we aerate the solid and liquid byproducts so that they’ll gradually compost, and we donate the resultant fertilizer.

We are also prototyping recipes and methods for making adobe bricks from the leftover agave, and we have sent out our bricks for quality testing so that they can be certified for construction use by local building authorities.

We also like to keep an eye on research into anaerobic digestion of agave waste, both the liquid vinasa and solid bagazo. It turns out microorganisms love the stuff almost as much as we love our mezcal. They are happy to decompose it into hydrogen, methane and other byproducts. Ideally we will feed these fuels back into our heating system for distillation.

All these good ideas deserve to be shared like a good meal. For us, it’s about raising a glass and raising awareness. You can’t say what happens in Mexico stays in Mexico anymore when we live in a globally connected system.

That’s why we are happy to be working with Davos Brands, in the innovation hub of New York, giving us access to great forums like Food Loves Tech and the Food Tank summit on industry waste. Our environmental achievements led us to become a business member of 1% for the Planet (meaning we donate a portion of sales to protect the Earth), and this has brought us into the orbit of groups like Harlem Grown and 350.org.

We especially enjoy aligning with local venues like Charlie Bird restaurant, where Sombra is the well mezcal. As our friend Grant Reynolds says, “At Charlie Bird we take a similar approach to our spirit selection as we do every day with the food we source. There is no option on our dinner menu to have a lesser quality or unsustainable ingredient from the kitchen, so why should we have to compromise that ethos with our spirits at the bar.”

Like the open source software movement, we are very free about sharing our experience building a twenty-first century palenque, and we hope others will “copy and taste” the results. Everything we’ve done to make our mezcal better has also resulted in a better mezcal.

There’s no doubt that mezcal is following the rise of tequila, making it all the more important for the sector to get ahead of the curve in terms of sustainability and grow responsibly — for the people of Mexico, and for the planet. It’s our passion, and our mission.

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