Tequila seems to carry the weight of a serious night out, or at least one that as Kesha says is “a night you won’t remember but a night you won’t forget”. Mind you I have had the chance to taste some lovely, sippable tequilas in my time that are a great aperitif or post-dinner drink. But for all its infamy, the production of the blue agave plant and the distillation of tequila is one steeped with tradition, history and economic curiosities. And perhaps more worryingly, the blue agave plant responsible for tequila is in danger of disease and severe supply shortages, putting at risk your late night shot and Sunday morning hangover.

Background

Agave tequilana or blue agave (agave azul in Spanish) is the species purely responsible for tequila. More specifically the cultivar of blue agave is Weber azul, which is slightly larger and greyer than the normal blue agave plant. While over 200 species of agave exist and 40 form the base ingredients of various alcohols, only spirits produced from at least 51 per cent blue agave alcohol from plants grown in the Mexican state of Jalisco (where the town Tequila is located) can be legally called tequila. Cheaper tequilas are topped up with 49 per cent sugar cane spirit compared to the more expensive 100 per cent varieties, which require almost double the agave.

In pre-Columbian times, Aztecs fermented many of the other types of agave to produce viscous, fermented, mildly alcoholic drinks including pulque. This led to early Mexican societies developing the distillation of agave drinks into much stronger and harder spirits such as tequila and mescal that we all know and love today.

Fun fact #1 Spirits made from blue agave can only be called tequila if they are produced from at least 51 per cent blue agave alcohol grown in the Jalisco state. During severe shortages, agave hustlers, are said to bring blue agave piñas into Jalisco state to produce tequila, according to some growers interviewed in this story.

 Production

The blue agave plant is a large desert succulent, native to the Tequila region, grown in orchards called potreros (pastures). Interestingly 95 per cent of the 340 million agave plants are grown from shoots from a mother plant (essentially cloning), meaning that genetic diversity in the blue agave species is about as abundant as your inhibitions after a few tequila shots, and declining further still. This has unfortunately opened the crop up to diseases and pests previously managed through the plant’s own defences. Larger animals are warded off by the sharp, pointed leaves.

Fun fact #2 Around 95 per cent of the 340 million agave plants are grown from shoots known as hijuelos or “little children”

Blue agave plants are incredibly waterwise, relying solely on wet season rainfall for water. Studies on irrigated agave found that the sugar content was actually lower than the non-irrigated varieties. The plants also prefer poor soils and high altitudes growing well on the steep slopes of ancient volcanoes above 1500 m in elevation.

One of the other major issues with growing agave is that it takes between 6-10 years for a plant to mature, with the majority harvested almost 8-10 years after planting. So in my 24 years of being alive, they’ve harvested the same potrero only three times. In some rice growing regions in southeast Asia farmers might have had 72 harvests in the same period. For another quick comparison to Australian tree crops, your average avocado plantation sees the first crop within 4-5 years (similar to many other tree crops) whilst truffles begin growing in commercial quantities after around 7 years after planting.

Agave is ready for harvest once the piña (the central bulb) has reached a sugar content of approximately 24 per cent and is large enough to produce sufficient quantities of juice. Harvest usually occurs in the dry season when sugar content is much higher than the water logged wet season. All the leaves are then removed and a sharp stake driven through the base of the plant to cut off the roots and allow the whole piña to be taken away from processing.

Fun fact #3 blue agave takes 8-10 years to mature to a harvest-ready state (24 per cent sugar) after which all the leaves are cut off and the large piña is uprooted and sold.

Farmers in Australia are now giving agave a go, establishing an agave growing region in the Atherton Tablelands in Queensland. MSF Sugar are hoping to grow the agave for its juice (for tequila), biomass (using the leaves for energy) and as an alternative to the widely grown sugarcane.

Distilling

Once harvested, the piña is roasted to covert the starches contained within into sugars. The roasted piña is then crushed to extract all the sugary liquid called aquamiel (water honey) which is then fermented and distilled into alcohol.

Fun fact #4 there has been a recent upwards trend in the consumption of 100 per cent agave tequila, compared to the lower grade 51 per cent mixes. As a result blue agave prices are beginning to rise and industry analysts are predicting a shortage.

Economic and small-farm challenges

Owing to the long lead time before an agave plant is ready for harvest, supply tends to cycle through intense peaks and troughs in availability and price. When blue agave is scarce and prices high, farmers tend to overharvest poor quality immature plants and over plant new shoots resulting in severe oversupply further down the track and consequently very low prices. Then when prices are exceedingly low, farmers don’t have the capital to reinvest in another crop, nor maintain farms and fields resulting in severe shortages years later.

Large tequila companies overcome this problem by planting their own blue agave crops. For example Herradura and many of the other largest tequila companies have 80-90 per cent of their crop grown and maintained for their own purposes. While this technique maintains consistency for own consumption, the number of small farmers (defined as fewer than 250,000 plants) has dropped from 16,000 to just 5,000 in only the last five years.

Small scale farmers are arguing that farmers would be more motivated to plant if they were able to secure contracts with larger distillers, and consequently sure up their market. Some growers suggest that only a third of the agave supplied is actually under contract.

Fun fact #5 Mexico exports almost 200 million litres of tequila every year. Now that’s a helluva lot of hangovers (on average about 26mL of tequila per person currently alive on the planet).

Front page image source: Ian Chadwick