DRINK – The Agave Crisis

15 May 2001

Tequila is without a doubt the most famous Mexican drink. Available all over the world, it can be enjoyed as an aperitif either straight, with salt and lemon, or in the famous ‘Margaritas’.

Tequila is made from Blue Agave, a succulent that grows mainly in the arid lands of the state of Jalisco. There are over 130 species of agave in Mexico. Some are used to make other drinks like mezcal and pulque, but only ‘Agave Tequilana Weber Azul’ is used in tequila production. When the ‘mother plant’ is about five years old, it starts developing between seven and 15 sprouts, called hijos (children), but it takes eight to ten years for the plant to mature. Agaves reach their peak when they weigh about 70 kilos (154 lbs). At this point the lower part or heart of the plant, which resembles a huge pine cone and is called a piña, is cut off and its sprouts are planted in the adjoining furrows.

Agaves were considered sacred plants long before the Spaniards arrived in Mexico. The juice of the agave was given to the priests and warriors and to those who were about to be sacrificed to the gods. Years later the piña was cooked in order to ferment its juice. It was after the Spanish conquest that the juice began to be distilled using European methods, and it was given the name of tequila wine.

For centuries, tequila was a cheap drink that was consumed by the lower classes, and this reputation was emphasized in Mexican movies and songs. It wasn’t until the 1980s that tequila began to acquire its present popularity, becoming a more sophisticated drink. ‘This is the typical case of a good product being more appreciated abroad than at home’, Mr. Rafael Higuera, Public Relations Director for Tequila Cuervo, Mexico’s oldest and largest tequila producer, told me. ‘As tequila became more and more popular in the United States, affluent Mexicans started to appreciate it and enjoy it in elegant restaurants and to serve it at home. Around the same time, tequila crossed the oceans and became popular all over the world. Today Tequila Cuervo alone exports 6 million liters a year and the demand is growing.’

As tequila sales multiplied, many small producers started to spring up, trying to take advantage of this tequila boom. At one point there were over 100 independent producers. The agave growers wanted to benefit from this situation and raised their prices. As a result of the high demand for their product, the growers became too impatient to wait for the plants to mature, and they started selling plants that were less than five years old and weighed between 20 and 30 kilos. ‘The large tequila producers refused to buy these piñas, but they were able to sell them to the new producers’, Mr. Higuera told me. ‘They were too greedy to realize that they were creating a problem for the future, since these plants were less than half the size of the mature plants and too young to have hijos.’

At the present time, Tequila Cuervo has no problems with the supply of agave because it owns 35% of the 100 million registered blue agave plants. Using the latest technology, they supervise the growth and maturity of the plants via satellite. They are very careful about waiting eight to ten years until the plant has reached its peak and about replanting the sprouts when removing the ‘mother plant’. They have no problem meeting the demand for their products both in Mexico and abroad for the next 2 or 3 years, but they cannot expand as planned.

Mr. Higuera told me that this crisis has affected mainly the small producers that appeared with the tequila boom, and many have gone out of business. There will definitely be a shortage of the inexpensive tequila, which is 51% agave, in the next three years. Cuervo will be producing only the premium quality 100% agave. This tequila is aged in French white oak casks from two to three months and up to three years, depending on the brand. Thanks to the existence of the Consejo Regulador del Tequila (Tequila Regulatory Board), the labels must clearly indicate the percentage of agave. Tequila was given a DOG (Guaranteed Denomination of Origin) in 1976, which means that it must be produced in a limited geographical area in order to bear the name of Tequila.

Since the crisis was caused by poor planning, steps have been taken to prevent something similar from happening in the future. Among other things, the area of blue agave culture has been extended to include Jalisco and some towns in five neighboring states that grow the same kind of blue agave, thus increasing the amount of future crops.

Mari Angeles Gallardo is a f&w writer for the El Paso Times and the Mexican magazine Paula.

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