Latest Mexican worm takes a new turn

Mexican worm takes a new turn
Submitted by Tequila.net     September 10, 2006    
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Mexican worm takes a new turn
Mezcal industry's quick work saves traditional reward at bottle's bottom

By JEREMY SCHWARTZ
COX NEWS SERVICE

MEXICO CITY -- The world nearly lost a peculiar piece of Mexico's cultural tradition this week after the government, without regard to drinkers anywhere, targeted the lowly worm at the bottom of the mezcal bottle for extinction.

It seems that the worm was almost a victim of Mexico's labyrinthine bureaucracy, which sought to remove it with a set of new laws governing the production of mezcal -- a liquor similar to tequila -- that are set to go into effect tomorrow.

The effort to remove the worm came amid concerns of the worm's high fat content.

If you make it to the bottom of a bottle of mezcal, a fatty worm is the least of your problems. But officials say they were worried that fat globules alter the chemical composition of mezcal, made from the blue agave cactus, the same raw material used to make tequila.

After learning of the anti-worm legislation, mezcal producers swung into action, lobbying and producing studies that show that the worm poses no health risks. The government reversed course, saving not just the worm, but in all likelihood the mezcal industry.

"It would have been devastating," said New York-born Douglas French, who exports Oaxacan mezcal, with a scorpion instead of a worm, to the United States. "It's an old beverage for Mexico, but it's new for the world and its trademark is the worm."

French estimates that sales, especially for mezcal exported abroad, would have plunged without the worm, perhaps as much as 70 percent.

The worm's history is steeped in folklore and also a little bit of controversy.

While some trace the worm's lineage to Aztec times, others say the worm is nothing more than a modern marketing gimmick. The Del Maguey Single Village Mezcal company claims that a young entrepreneur named Jacobo Lozano Paez stumbled onto the idea when a worm hiding inside an agave plant mistakenly got included in a batch of mezcal in 1950.

Regardless of its origins, the worm has been imbued with all sorts of powers: Some believe it can cause hallucinations; in Japan, drinkers believe the worms to be aphrodisiacs and demand multiple worms in their bottles. For Mexicans and tourists alike, eating the worm can be a rite of passage.

Two kinds of worms, actually butterfly larvae, live in the leaves of the agave plant and are also commonly eaten as food in Oaxaca. The mezcal itself is made from the sugar-rich heart of the agave plant, which is baked in a rock oven, helping give mezcal a smoky flavor.

Beyond the worm crisis, mezcal producers are eagerly awaiting the new rules, which will create stricter production standards for mezcal, much as the government does with tequila. Producers hope the certification process, which includes government regulation and approval, leads to the same explosion in popularity that tequila has experienced.

Connoisseurs say there is even more potential for mezcal. Tequila (which never includes a worm) is made from just one variety of the agave plant -- agave tequilana Weber -- which flourishes in the state of Jalisco. Mezcal can be made from any of a dozen agave varieties.

"It's like grapes for wine, every grape has a different flavor," French said. "There's a whole rainbow of flavors and people can start zeroing in on the one they prefer."

High-grade mezcal is already catching some of tequila's wave and acceptance as a serious, high-quality drink.

But for now, producers say exports depend on the worm. And for now, the worm is safe, patiently waiting at the bottom of the bottle.

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