Mexican plant-off: Agave genetics

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Location: Mexico
Our burgeoning love affair with all things agave is creating supply pressures that could put tequila and mezcal’s very existence at risk. Clinton Cawood discovers an industry wrestling with some very big decisions

When you’re in that honeymoon phase, it’s hard to identify the destructive behaviour that’s sowing the seeds of later discontent and maybe even a messy break-up.

In the whirlwind romance we’ve collectively enjoyed with agave spirits in recent years, we’ve had some great times, and grown together. But it’s time to address some harsh truths to ensure that we can continue to enjoy each other’s company for a long time to come. It really is a relationship worth saving.
The rapidly rising popularity of both tequila and mezcal is undoubtedly something to celebrate. Exports of tequila continue to rise, and the variety of mezcal that has become available in the last decade
is staggering, too.

But all of this has placed undue pressure on a traditional product that’s not necessarily accustomed to all of this attention. Farming practices have detrimentally affected the genetic diversity of the Blue Weber agave used to produce tequila, and other factors are driving its prices ever upward. Mezcal, meanwhile, is also feeling the pressure of increased demand – not only on wild agave, but on other natural resources too.

Blue (Weber) genes
The big problem is that the methods used to propagate tequila’s Blue Weber agave have resulted in a decline in genetic diversity, thus putting it at risk.

The industry relies on the plant’s asexual means of reproduction, using its shoots (hijuelos). This effectively creates a clone of the parent plant, and the resulting monoculture is highly vulnerable to disease or infestation.

As founder of Ocho Tequila and the tequila ambassador to Europe, Tomas Estes, puts it: ‘It is thought that if a plague starts, the blue agave could be wiped out due to its lack of resistance.’ He goes on to draw a parallel with phylloxera, which all but wiped out vineyards across Europe in the late 19th century.
In contrast, when agave reproduces sexually, reaching maturity and producing a shoot (quiote) to spread its seed, this promotes genetic diversity, providing it with protection against pests and disease.

This isn’t a very attractive proposition for the tequila industry, though, as the growth of the quiote uses up the agave’s sugars, making it unsuitable for spirit production – not to mention that the plant subsequently dies. The industry is nevertheless increasingly recognising the importance
of allowing a proportion of plants to flower. And conservation efforts for a local bat are helping too.

These long-nosed bats ‘are believed to be at risk of extinction due to the dearth of quiotes in blue agave growing country’, says Estes, as the bats are responsible for pollinating the agave plants. A few producers are involved with The Bat Friendly Tequila and Mezcal Programme, to help conserve both species.

As Gabriela Moncada, Speciality Brands’ agave ambassador, explains: ‘While some biologists are doing it for the bats, others that are crazy-passionate about agave, like Carlos Camarena [who makes Tapatio, El Tesoro and more]and Emilio Vieyra [Derrumbes Michoacan and Mezcal don Mateo], are doing it for the sake of agave’s natural sustainability.’

The issue of genetic diversity hasn’t passed the big players by either. ‘Patrón has been working with the Centro Nacional de Recursos Genéticos to understand how the genetic profile of a blue agave plant changes from the previous generation based on the way it was reproduced,’ says the company’s director of strategic planning and public affairs, Francisco Soltero.

Olmeca master distiller Jesús Hernández also sees some long-term concerns. ‘The possible solution may be that some institutions like universities can maintain a number of agave fields, leaving the quiote to bloom and reproduce via pollination,’ he says.

But maybe there’s another solution. Tequila can only be produced from a specific cultivar of Agave Tequilana – Blue Weber, or Weber Azul – but this wasn’t always so. And it’s a restriction that is increasingly coming under scrutiny.

‘At some point, and more for identity reasons, but also for productivity – because Blue Weber is high in yield and has a short life cycle relative to some other agave plants – the tequila industry thought it a great idea to select this specific cultivar,’ begins agave expert and founder of the Montelobos mezcal brand, Iván Saldaña. ‘Other closely-related varieties should start to be integrated, in my personal opinion.’

Sophie Decobecq, founder of Calle 23 Tequila, agrees. ‘My wish would be to apply these studies of the current great agave specialists who have demonstrated the need to allow another source of agave,’ she says. ‘It is certainly more than time to allow Mother Nature to act.’

Price problems
Of immediate concern for producers is the current sky-high price of agave. In part, it’s the same old story. Take a product made from an agricultural product with a minimum six-year life cycle, and the result is a fluctuating cycle of scarcity and surplus, and a sine wave of pricing.

‘The last couple of years have been challenging to say the least,’ sighs Dushan Zaric, co-founder of The 86 Co, which includes Cabeza Tequila. ‘We don’t know if pricing will ever come back to sustainable levels.’ Zaric lays the blame, at least in part,at the door of the tequila industry’s big players. ‘Big producers are buying agave ahead of time, distilling large quantities, and keeping it in tanks to release when they need to. This keeps the prices of their products low, but meanwhile artisanal producers are forced to buy from crop to crop,’ he says.

High prices don’t just affect the price of a bottle. There’s a direct impact, again, on the plants themselves. ‘While driving in the lowlands and highlands you see trucks with harvested agave that are still not fully mature,’ says Decobecq. ‘Those plants in the trucks would have been the mature plants in one or two years’ time. Which makes one wonder: what will we find in a year or two from now?’
Hernández at Olmeca is optimistic.

‘The supply of ripe agave is a bit low, but this should only be temporary. There has been a good number of new fields planted in the last few years that should resolve the temporary shortage,’ he says.
There’s yet another, relatively new pressure causing problems with supply, and driving up prices – the meteoric rise in the popularity of agave syrup. ‘Part of the shortage that the tequila industry is experiencing is due precisely to the unplanned amount of agave that syrup producers are consuming,’ says Patron’s Soltero. ‘The agave syrup industry is consuming about 15% of the agave used for producing tequila,’ he adds.

Jon Anders Fjeldsrud, agave expert and brand champion at Amathus Drinks, doesn’t mince words. ‘It’s becoming a beast, and the agaves they are using are not necessarily blue agave, even if it says that on the bottles. The problem is they come in with their crews, with no commitment to replant, and sometimes buying at very low cost because they are buying big volume,’ he says.

‘Right now we are really suffering a lot, because this wasn’t a planned situation,’ adds Saldaña. ‘All of a sudden we have a new source of demand that values blue agave in a different manner. Suddenly you’re interfering with the traditional prices of agave.’

Return to the source
Mezcal, with its ability to draw on a vast number of agave varieties, doesn’t face the same challenges that tequila does, but it’s no less in crisis. On a very basic level, its woes are a direct result of the recent spike in demand for this once local spirit. Mezcal’s regulatory body, the Consejo Regulador del Mezcal, reports that between 2011 and 2016 the number of exported brands rose by 157%.

‘Demand is affecting mezcal dramatically,’ says Thom Bullock, founder of UK importer Spirit Bear Mezcal and author of upcoming book, The Mezcal Experience. ‘These changes are so manifold that we’re in a period of daily discovery where everyone is having, to some extent, to relearn their ancestral work and craft.’

A complication with mezcal is the use of wild agave. ‘Sometimes people harvest rare agaves that won’t necessarily give much sugar, but they use them just to create a special-edition liquid. In reality they kill the species,’ says Moncada. ‘As with animals, these agaves need to be defended.’

Agave in crisis
‘Some agave species are gone,’ says Fjeldsrud. ‘Wild agaves taste better when they are wild, and since they are popular and grown wild, they are not replanted.’

Saldaña believes that replanting is crucial, particularly the cultivation of species beyond mezcal’s most-used variety, Espadin. ‘If we don’t do that, we impoverish enormously what mezcal is. Mezcal is about diversity of cultures, of varieties, and locations,’ he says.

As if the mezcal industry needed anything else to worry about, Saldaña mentions. ‘A challenge not many people talk about is wood. You need 7-12kg of hard wood to roast the agaves – per litre. Look at a back bar and imagine they’re stocking all this wood.’

Like agave, trees take time to grow, so it’s important to plan, and ensure wood is sourced responsibly. Fortunately, oak trees and certain agaves like Tobala, an under-threat variety, thrive together. ‘We have to start establishing tree plantations together with agave,’ says Saldaña.

With all of this to consider in Mexico, what can we do here in the UK, as the fourth-largest importer of mezcal (although admittedly only receiving 5% of total exports)?

‘You can make a big difference by buying mezcals that are small-batch, and not the cheap 40% abv blends – supporting the old system and not the damaging industry-led new departure,’ believes Bullock.
For both tequila and mezcal, it can only help to support brands that have agave’s best interests at heart, raising these questions with suppliers, and knowing whether the brands on your back bar are part of the problem or the solution. Communication, as always, is key.


Beyond Mexico
While it’s the undisputed home of agave spirits, Mexico isn’t the only place where agave grows. And where there’s agave, someone’s going to distil it.

Experiments have been conducted by producers such as California’s St George Spirits, both with imported raw material and with locally-grown agave. And there have been a few forays from South African producers too, where agave has grown, some say, for over a century.

The latest in this experiment is La Leona, a range of 100% agave spirits that are produced from South African-grown Agave Americano. The agave is sourced  from the Karoo, and distilled outside Johannesburg.

La Leona’s founder, Sarah Kennan, is aware of the potential pressures on the supply of agave. ‘As soon as demand increases there will have to be a push to manage the fields correctly so demand does not exceed supply,’ she says. ‘It’s prone to the same pressures as Mexico, as there is less agave in the Karoo, but my goal is to create an industry around the plant so that the fields can be managed and maintained correctly.’


Sparked your interest? Check out more on agave here.

About Author

Clinton Cawood

Clinton has been writing about drinks since landing in the UK in 2006 from his native South Africa. He's partial to all things agave, and is dependent on good coffee. He's still not a morning person. Follow him on @clintc.

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