Sombra Founder on Sustainable Alcohol Distilling: “It was a question of blending the old and the new”

From by Jared Kaufman
Sombra Founder on Sustainable Alcohol Distilling: “It was a question of blending the old and the new”

Certified Master Sommelier Richard Betts is promoting more sustainable practices in traditional mezcal production through environmentally friendly distilling at Sombra Mezcal. Mezcal, an increasingly popular spirit distilled from agave, has been made in much the same way for hundreds of years, and it is not regulated by an accrediting body in designated regions of Mexico. After growing concerned about wasteful techniques he observed across the mezcal industry, Betts created Sombra, a distillery dedicated to solving mezcal’s modern environmental challenges.

Betts completed construction on Sombra’s new facility in early 2017 in the village of Santiago Matatian, about an hour’s drive from the city of Oaxaca. There, the system of cleaner mezcal production begins with organic agave, which is smoked using sustainably sourced firewood and fermented with wild yeast in rainwater harvest from the distillery roof. Solar Panels and clean-burning fuels power in the facility, and the copper stills are insulated for greater energy efficiency during distillation.

Mezcal production yields two noxious substances that distillers must dispose of: liquid vinasa and solid bagazo, or spent agave fibers. Typically, distilleries dump these acidic and oxygen-starved waste products into local waterways, but Betts either composts them or turns them into adobe bricks, which he then donates to the local community or uses onsite.

This year, as part of its sustainability efforts, Sombra announced a partnership with the environmental organization 1% for the Planet, through which the distillery will donate one percent of its sales each year to environmental nonprofit organizations. About 1,200 businesses and thousands of nonprofits across the world are partnered with 1% for the Planet, and those members have donated more than US$150 million to various environmental causes since 2002.

Food Tank spoke with Betts to learn more about how he honors the traditional aspects of mezcal production while maintaining his commitment to the environment.

Food Tank (FT): In a Medium post in March, you wrote about Sombra needing to dissect and evaluate tradition. How have you managed to balance the authenticity of your mezcal with producing it in a new, sustainable way?

Richard Betts (RB): I have a background in environmental studies, so when the opportunity arose to build my own distillery, I had to first and foremost be authentic to myself. I worked with different producers throughout the region for about a decade, allowing me to observe and learn. Agave spirits have been crafted in one form or another for centuries. You have to respect that deep, practical knowledge and tradition—if your mezcal is not authentic, it’s not mezcal.

But that said, we are in an industrial age, with massive icebergs breaking off Antarctica. As a globally aware citizen, and a business owner, you can’t ignore the larger picture. Food and culture are always in flux, always evolving. So really it was a question of blending the old and the new.

A great example is the tahona, the big millstone that crushes the agave. You can see some beautiful old ones scattered across the palenques of Oaxaca. Traditionally, the tahona is powered by animal labor, but that’s a hard and monotonous life for a horse or donkey. So instead we power ours with solar panels.

How we fire our stills is important, as well. Traditionally, wood is used as a heat source, but it adds nothing to the flavor at that point, so we use a very precise gas flame instead. It’s more efficient, it gives us more control, and there’s the added benefit of protecting our team from unnecessary smoke.

The nice thing is these changes do not sacrifice tradition for the sake of modernity. My approach is more about careful improvement. We kept all the good parts of the process that make mezcal taste great, while getting rid of the wasteful parts that serve no purpose. And it seems to be working, as Sombra has won a few big awards.

FT: What have you learned from crafting a more sustainable company mission that you might tell other leaders, who are worried they’d be sacrificing tradition by adopting more ethical business practices?

RB: Everyone needs to carve his or her own path on this, but I would say three things. First, when you take the time to evaluate your business from the perspective of ethics and sustainability, it forces you to have a mindful eye for detail, and that generates a lot of positive spillover throughout your process. You’ll likely see where you can improve and where you can reduce costs. Second, treating people and the planet better is just a happier and less stressful way to operate! Food and drink unite and enliven us, and mezcal is an especially exuberant spirit. That should be your guide. Third, it’s really not a question of sacrifice. Everything we’ve done that’s made our process cleaner has also contributed to making the mezcal better.

FT: You’re using some clever ways to reuse and recycle components of the mezcal production process, including turning potentially toxic byproducts into adobe bricks. What inspired these ideas, and how did you go about making them happen?

RB: It comes back to my environmental roots. Once you see the world through that lens, there are a lot of changes you want to make, to be more circular and efficient, to close the loop. Basically it’s a question of, ‘How can I make treasure out of this trash?’ In addition to composting waste products, we are also experimenting with converting them into biofuel, which could then be used to heat the stills, further tightening the loop and reducing emissions.

And then there’s the question of, ‘How do I not make trash in the first place?’ So even for something as simple as our bottling, we have used recycled and handblown glass. Because each piece is gorgeous and solid and unique, customers are more likely to treasure and reuse them. Put a flower in it, serve water with it, make kombucha in it!

FT: How have you seen Sombra’s impact on the mezcal industry as a whole?

RB: We’ve noticed that now many brands and distilleries are talking about sustainability, which is great. Of course, we can’t take major credit for all that chatter—it’s part of the global environmental zeitgeist. But we aspire to be thoughtful leaders on the topic, and hopefully others will follow suit. We are just one producer among many, and together we can have a significant impact.

I should note that the governing body that regulates mezcal has taken an interest in our work and its potential for cleaning up production across the sector. We’re not sure what will come of it, but it’s an encouraging sign.

FT: The problems you identified in the mezcal production process are likely not unique to mezcal. What else can the alcohol industry as a whole do to become more environmentally friendly?

RB: You’re right, distillation is by its nature the separation of a small volume from a much larger one, which means large quantities of byproduct are a given. I would say focus on energy, water, and waste. Go renewable. Respect and replenish your water source. Eliminate waste or be innovative with it. Plus, be open to collaborating with the global community of brewers and distillers. Keep your secret recipe secret, but let’s share good ideas over a good drink.

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