California-Grown Agave Is Making Tequila Sustainable
According to Mexico’s National Committee for Agave Production, there won’t be enough agave to meet the needs of tequila producers in the next few years. See how one California producer is trying to cultivate home-grown plants in a sustainable approach.
Photo courtesy of Daniel Robles
If your brutal hangover from last Saturday's rager hasn't convinced you, here's another good reason to sip and not shoot your tequila: our long-term supply of agave—the plant used to make spirits like mezcal and tequila—could be endangered.
There are approximately 200 types of agave in the world, most of which are native to Mexico, and roughly 40 that are made into liquor. In pre-Columbian times, the Aztecs boozed it up with pulque, a viscous, fermented, mildly alcoholic drink made from agave sap. Early Mexican societies developed the distillation of agave into various forms of hard alcohol that continue to inebriate people today, such as your friends tequila and mezcal.
But according to Mexico's National Committee for Agave Production, there won't be enough agave to meet the needs of tequila producers in the next few years. And to make matters more complicated, concerns are growing within the industry over disappearing wild agave—a result of pillaging.
The basic challenge that unites all agave spirits—from a Don Julio Real to that crinkled plastic bottle of fiery liquid my step dad drank in the Chiapas jungle—is that you have to kill the agave plant to make the spirit, and it takes a hell of a long time to grow another one.
In order to understand all sides of the issue, it's important to differentiate the differences between tequila and mezcal. And nope, their differences has nothing to do with hallucinogenic worms.
Celebrated by the pistol-spinning heroes of the Mexican revolution and the fist-pumping spring breakers of Cancun, tequila has emerged as the most industrialized agave spirit. While its reach is wide—just like Cognac and Champagne are tied to specific geographic regions—tequila can only be legally made in certain areas of Mexico (mainly near the town of Tequila in the state of Jalisco) with Blue Weber, a unique agave species.
Mezcal is produced in rural areas all over Mexico, but officially regulated to eight states and about 30 types of agave. Tequila uses steamed agave and mezcal is roasted in underground pits, thus its smoky flavor.
Agave is a succulent with thick, fleshy leaves and spiny edges that spider out. It can take anywhere from five to 30 years for a plant to reach maturity, at which point a farmer will hack away the leaves to get to the sugar source, an oversized pineapple-looking heart known as the piña.
Every year we use 300 million plants, which means we need to plant 35 million each year so we don't have too much or too little. But it's not being regulated.
Because of this lengthy growing process, agave cultivation goes through vicious cycles of surplus and scarcity. When prices are high, farmers over-plant, creating a surplus years later that causes prices to go down. Not being able to sell their crops for a good price—or not at all—means farmers don't have the capital to plant a new crop or maintain their farms and prevent against pest and disease infestations. Years later, another shortage hits.
But recently, the shortages in tequila-producing areas have ramped up, probably due to the fact that production tripled from 1995 to 2008. "Every year we use 300 million plants, which means we need to plant 35 million each year so we don't have too much or too little. But it's not being regulated," said Raúl García Quirarte, president of the National Committee for Agave Production in Tequila, over a quick phone call to his office in Guadalajara, Mexico.
In the early 2000s, a bad shortage sent agave prices soaring and put many small distilleries out of business. This is when a lot of the big tequila players started renting land and growing the agave themselves—instead of relying on the small-scale farmers that have been cultivating agave for generations.
Quirarte said the number of independent agave farmers has gone from 15,000 to 6,000 in just five years. With no government plan to regulate a stable agave price or mandate contracts between big companies and farmers, that number is bound to keep shrinking.
"The biggest tequila companies are now 80 to 90 percent self-sufficient and some grow all of their own agave," said Sarah Bowen, an associate professor of sociology at North Carolina State University, who's been researching the topic for over a decade.
Bowen said that in general, the industry has shifted from traditional farming methods to more chemical-intensive processes, which negatively impact the environment. Today, crops are more vulnerable to disease because farmers are practicing monoculture (repeatedly planting the same crop at the same time, which creates identical weaknesses).
The effects are stumbling into mezcal territory and making a mess.
Agave hustlers, dubbed "agave coyotes," have been caught purchasing truckloads of agave from other states to bring back to Jalisco for tequila production (often under the guise of it being for agave syrup), according to the mezcal producers interviewed for this story.
The industry has shifted from traditional farming methods to more chemical-intensive processes, which negatively impact the environment.
"The last time there was a scarcity in Jalisco, there were about ten months of hardcore taking of piñas from Oaxaca," said Judah Emanuel Kuper, co-founder of Mezcal Vago. Kuper's father-in-law and other village producers make Vago's mezcal in southern Oaxaca. "So we got to this point where we had no agave here and now people are overharvesting for mezcal."
The industry is facing other challenges, too, as producers and brands are grappling with how to avoid the "tequilazation" of mezcal. Most mezcaleros don't have the resources to certify or distribute their products, making them easy targets for a gold rush of new brands buying up mezcal without offering long-term partnerships or investments in mezcal-producing villages.
"The issue is not how to make mezcal sustainable, it's how to keep mezcal sustainable," said Kuper.
The disappearance of wild agave is setting off alarm bells.
"There's a lot of pressure on all species of wild agaves. The demand for mezcal has increased, and with it, there's been a huge harvest without replanting," said Abel Alcántara, president of Maestros de Mezcal, an organization dedicated to advocating for mezcal producers across Mexico.
Most mezcal that we see is made with one agave species, the espadín, but wild agave mezcals are part of what exhibit the spirit's traditional roots and flavors. He listed eight wild species that are at risk of extinction.
Alcántara's group represents one of the many efforts to reforest wild agave. From recruiting celebrities like Rick Bayless for reforestation projects in Oaxaca to growing ten infant varieties in a lab in the Yucatan—brands like Wahaka Mezcal, Los Danzantes, Pierde Almas, and Mezcal Vago are taking the lead.
Several industry veterans in Oaxaca have banded together under the name Encuentro Agave to start what could be a complicated process of creating a certification for brands using sustainable practices.
Juan Méndez's family business, Uasïsï Mezcal, is limiting production of their wild agave batches in Michoacán, where companies are gearing up to enter the US market. "We can produce up to 700 bottles of this line, and that's a self-imposed limit so we don't exploit the agave," he said.
Luckily, one California producer is trying to cultivate home-grown plants in a sustainable approach. At St. George Spirits in Alameda, California, master distiller, former US Navy nuclear engineer, and known mad scientist of American craft spirits Lance Winters is pouring a glass of what could be the first spirit made with north-of-the-border-grown agave.
The sugar can be used for candies and syrup, the fibers can be fed to cows, the outer leaves can be used to make rope. [Agaves] take four to five years to grow, but requires very little water and there's no waste.
Earlier this year, he teamed up with Mark Carlston, CEO and President of Crotalo Tequila, who's been growing blue weber agave in Southern California. The duo harvested 3,000 plants, dug an underground oven, powered up a specially purchased mill, and distilled two batches.
For now, Winters' sweet-and-smoky agave experiment is another one of his creative expressions and won't be hitting the market any time soon.
But Carlston has big plans for California's future with the drought-tolerant plant. He just bought an additional 40 acres in the central valley and is in conversations with farmers to plant blue weber in six different regions of California, scoping out which conditions are most favorable.
"The sugar can be used for candies and syrup, the fibers can be fed to cows, the outer leaves can be used to make rope," he said. "It takes four to five years to grow, but requires very little water and there's no waste."
He's also steadfast on distilling a heavy proof agave spirit that he hopes can compete with high-octane bourbons.
But can a gringo-distilled agave spirit compete with a drink so culturally—and legally—tied to Mexico?
"No," he said.
"Tequila will always be tequila, and mezcal will always be mezcal. But with all the people in craft spirits here that know what they're doing, I think we'll have something with our own twist and flavors. It's just the natural progression of making a spirit."