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Mezcal, the Trendy Spirit Has an Ugly Secret

PUEBLA — Mezcal, Mexico’s traditional agave spirit, has enraptured palates across the country and abroad. But as demand soars, a more bitter note emerges: the amount of waste its production generates and the risks that poses for the very environment that sustains it.

Like tequila, mezcal is a distilled beverage produced from agave, a plant native to the arid and semiarid zones of the Americas. Both mezcal and tequila are produced by cooking and fermenting the piña, the heart of the agave, and distilling its juice. The byproducts of these processes are highly polluting, resistant to decomposition, and potentially toxic for aquatic life if dumped in rivers without treatment.

Some farmers and researchers are coming up with solutions to reuse all this waste. Besides protecting the environment, they hope to create jobs along the mezcal value chain. And while the tequila industry grew exponentially in the past decades with little consideration for the environment, most mezcal “palenques,” as mezcal factories are known, are still small, family-run businesses