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One last shot – it’s time to save tequila

Jane Ryan | 28/01/2016

Whether it's pool-side Margaritas, midday Palomas, 5pm Mexican Firing Squads or 2am regret-filled shots - if you enjoy tequila you're going to need a lesson in sustainable farming.

In the mid-nineteenth century France’s wine and brandy industry was all but destroyed. Vineyards across the country lay in ruins as vine after vine was devastated by an aphid – plant lice – known as Phylloxera. After 15 continual years of this destruction (which crippled the French economy, losing people their jobs and entire businesses) a solution was finally found in cross-breeding the susceptible European vines with resilient American varieties. Today nearly all French wine comes from vines grafted onto American roots.

That was over 150 years ago. Today a similar crisis is unfolding in Mexico, one which could go on to change the face of tequila. But it’s not vines we’re worried about this time, it’s the Tequilana Weber blue agave which makes, you guessed it, tequila.

Tequila is made exclusively from the blue agave plant, which grows in neat rows across the countryside. It’s an impossibly beautiful site, the burnt orange soil, the greeny-blue plants and that huge, bright, Mexican sky. Today there are almost 350 million blue agave plants growing in Jalisco, Nayarit, Guanajuato, Michoacan and Tamaulipas. They take a good six to eight years to mature and when they do they produce a hard sugary core (called a piña) which is dug up, fermented and then distilled into the perfect base for a Margarita.

Quad biking through the agave fields, orange dust and mud splattering in every direction, while the sun beats down, is one of the best things to do in Mexico. Cancún eat your heart out.

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In a world left unto itself the plant would reproduce sexually. Which isn’t anywhere near as erotic as it sounds. Once that vital piña has matured the plant would then shoot up a tall stemmed flower known as a quiote from which grows short tubular flowers. The quiote drains all the nutrients and sugar from the piña, which makes tequila production impossible, so each day across Mexico agaves will have their quiotes cut off to ensure we can ferment and distil the core.

To replant, growers propagate the agave using little shoots called pups which appear at its base. The pups are genetically identical to the mother plant and after years of cultivating the blue agave there is no genetic diversity left at all. Tequila expert and Tequila Ocho owner Tomas Estes estimates there is a grand total of two clones perpetually doing the rounds.

“The fact that blue agave is only from two clones has its strengths. It’s a great plant to make an agave spirit as it’s very high in levels of tasty sugar. The bad part is it’s susceptible to diseases or pestilence. The fear is this strain of plant would be wiped out from one disease, just as Phylloxera devastated the brandy production in the 1800s. That’s how it is being thought of. I hope it won’t happen but I’m an incurable optimist,” says Tomas.

Better book that quad biking trip soon then.

Except it’s not all doom and gloom. The blue agave is just one of 200 varieties of agave plant. Which means just as with the vines, cross-breeding could save tequila’s fate. Step forward Carlos Camarena, a third generation tequilero and the Master Distiller of Tequila Ocho – Tomas’s single estate tequila. He is also among the most respected tequila producers in Mexico and has started a project to make tequila more sustainable. It’s a project which will take 80 to 100 years to complete, long after Carlos, you and I are all long gone. That’s sustainable farming for you.

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Photo credit: Chotto Matte

His first step has been to allow five to ten percent of his agaves to put up their quiote. This doesn’t actually help the agaves whatsoever as there is no genetic diversity anyway – it’s like agricultural incest. But it does help the diminishing bat population who used to pollinate the agaves before we all started demanding more shots with our verdita. Carlos’s second step was to start a nursery of other agave species and attempt to breed them together and create a future mate for the blue agave, introducing genetic diversity back into its production.

Hopes are currently pinned on the espadin, which some consider the mother of the blue agave. It has similar qualities for making a distillate and takes eight years to mature.

“At the moment the rules are that tequila can’t be a blend. Hopefully the official board will be practical enough to change the rules at need. If we lose a lot of the blue agave we could theoretically blend survivors with the espadin in the transitional period. As with Phylloxera new world vines were brought in from America,” says Tomas.

Extreme cultivation of the blue agave over years and years has also weakened the plant. Growing in rows, being weeded and sprayed with chemicals means a lot of the plants lose their ability to convey their terriors through flavour. Tequila, as a spirit, expresses the nuances of its land and raw product better than any other spirit on the planet but our constant fussing over the plant means we’re losing some of the beautiful flavours.

“There is such a thing as semi-cultivation where the plants are not kept in rows or weeded and pruned, and the seeds are put in randomly. But this is much less commercially-viable,” says Tomas.

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Photo credit: Ocho Tequila

If this was tequila’s only sustainability problem then this story would be much simpler. A bit of science, some grafting and cross-breeding and we’d be ready for the plague. Back to your Palomas. But of course it’s not that cut and dry. That six to eight years which each agave plant takes to mature manages to throws the whole industry on its head every ten years or so. The results can be agaves rotting in the fields to thieves stealing the piñas in the dead of the night for outlandish bounties.

Phil Bayly, tequila expert and Sydney’s AgaveLove organiser, tells the tale well.

“Before the year 2000 three things happened all at once. Firstly a virus hit some areas of blue agave production, secondly it snowed in the highlands of Jalisco killing juvenile plants and slowed down the maturation of the surviving plants. Lastly there was a staggering growth in demand for 100% agave tequila. The price was driven up to 20 pesos per kilo. Agave was being stolen out of the fields at night.”

Suddenly blue agave looked like an appetising cash cow. Everyone and their grandmother started planting, with the aim to strike it rich in eight years. Fast forward through those eight years and there is blue agave everywhere. The price swung from 20 pesos to below 1 pesos for a kilo. It was so cheap that growers would make a loss if they even bothered to harvest the plant. They were all left to rot in the fields and for the first time the populous of Mexico saw what quoites looked like. After that no one wanted to plant agave, and the cycle starts all over again.

The only real way to regulate it would be in an EU-style where farmers are paid to destroy their products, thus keeping them in business. Yet the subsides create a false market which is equally ludicrous. A question that is yet to be solved.

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Photo credit: Ace Hotel

So what can we all do? Both Phil and Tomas are unanimous that it has to come down to education. Phil even runs a festival called AgaveLove which debuted in Sydney, bringing growers and experts to speak on the many spirits agave produces. He’ll be taking AgaveLove on the road next year to promote better knowledge outside of Australia’s biggest city.

“I think we as consumers have an important role in all this. Being conscious and mindful is the first part. Getting the word out and sending the right messages are important. What is your producer doing for sustainability?” says Tomas.

As ever asking consumers to be mindful of their brands before they go out drinking is no easy task. But then if people can care about which field in Scotland their Angus steak comes from perhaps we can stretch the idea of sustainability a tiny bit further.  Power to the tequila drinkers who ask what they’re pouring down their throats.

P.S. Wondering where mezcal comes in to this? Stay tuned.

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