With an ever-growing market for Tequila and mezcal of Mexico comes an inevitable conundrum: how do we keep agave spirits sustainable? We ask the brands and businesses investing in the future of the agave category how they’re working to keep Tequila in business
The rumours are true: Tequila is booming. According to The Drinks Report, data from the Consejo Regulador del Tequila (CRT) – the body which protects the spirit’s Denomination of Origin – revealed 2020 as a record year for the agave spirit, with 374 million litres of liquid being produced, 286 million of which were exported to over 120 countries. The current export value of Tequila is estimated at US$2 billion.
1.7 million litres of that was shipped to the UK in the same year. Yes, the original party spirit is starting to be taken more seriously. Tequilas once not available to the UK market are starting to spring up and bars and their tenders, as well as shoppers, have more choice than ever. But with a surge in demand come some very real, domino-effect issues for agave growers.
One is that typical blue weber agaves take as long as seven years before they reach full maturity – that’s enough time for demand to change and leave jimadors (farmers and harvesters of agave plants) out of pocket. Another is that in order to meet demand, some agaves aren’t reaching full maturity and in turn aren’t being pollinated. “Big companies don’t wait for plants to mature, so they don’t flower and the genetic pool of agave is disappearing – we’re losing diversity because of that situation” explains Eduardo Gomez, founder of TequilaFest and director of MexGrocer UK. And by losing diversity, this leaves agaves more susceptible to plague and disease.
“It is a very difficult and complex topic,” explains Gomez. “Many brands are talking about it: some of them are actually doing something, some aren’t.”
One brand that is working for change is Mijenta Tequila. Made in the highlands of Jalisco and launched into the UK this year, Mijenta (inspired by the phrase ‘me gente ‘which means ‘my people’ in Spanish) works hard to take care of the land, buying agaves from a non-pesticide farm, and ultimately working hard to look after its people. The co-founders are former Bacardi CEO Mike Dolan, Juan Coronado and Elise Som, who studied sustainability at Harvard. “The current situation, I would say, is one to be watched,” says Som of the agave market. “In the lands of Jalisco we have to be careful to maintaining biodiversity… asking how can we possibly conserve that biodiversity in this area. It’s so important for the region to keep the soil healthy. We are concerned about regenerative farming – that’s my job right now, I’ve been busy with figuring out how to make everything work.”
Another brand putting sustainability at the heart of its business is Tiempo Tequila which launched at the end of this year. The small London-based operation has taken advantage of its youth and begun cementing a sustainable ethos right from the get go. “Sustainability is the preservation of everything we do and love, and when you make this as a small company there are things you have control of and you don’t,” explains co-founder James Hughston. “We could control the distillery that we used. We chose them as they have contracts with their farmers with price guarantees, and for us it’s really important that the population of farmers continues to grow. As a small company it is something that is a future target, how can we help sustainable farming. We don’t own agave fields but we can ensure we work with best practice in place. The organic side of agave growing is steeped in mystery. Demand will drive the quality of product, so it is quite a complicated web, but we’ve stuck firm.”
Dedication to sustainability doesn’t stop at agave either. “We really do go the extra mile,” says Som of the work Mijenta does to stay green. “Our agave is older, so our agave is more expensive. The leaves are dried in the factory around us and we create labels and papers, our labels and packaging is completely 100% recycled paper and our bottles are stock bottles.” They’re also working with a charity, Whales of Guerrero, that works to protect Mexico’s whales and in turn its ocean. “Everyone is planting trees but we’re helping the ocean as there is a lot to be done. To help preserve one whale is the equivalent of planting thousands of trees.
Tiempo has clever ways of utilising its bottles and raising funds for sustainable endeavours. “We made our bottle to be able to be cut in half and become a candle. We sell them and the profits go into our kitty for the agave fields, bats, deforestation, elements like that where we’ve seen positive uptake.”
It’s not just the brands doing the work. Numerous projects are working to help maintain Mexico’s agave industry, including the Bat Friendly Tequila Interchange Project – a project Gomez finds particularly interesting. It’s aim? “To promote and incorporate bat friendly practices in the agave management and spirit production derived from these plants allow 5% of the agave population to flower to ensure there is food for the nectar feeding bats of the Leptonycteris genre, and in consequence we have pollination.” In layman’s terms, the Leptonycteris bat is the most important animal in the agave pollination process. By carrying pollen from one agave to another, the genetic pool of agave grows – and in turn, so does its population.
Its board is made up of members from the world of Tequila (David Suro, Carlos Camarena and Joaquin Meza) as well as botanists and professors and Bat Friendly brands include the likes of Tequila Tapatio, Tequila Ocho and mezcal brand Don Mateo de la Sierra.
So, what does the future hold? For Som, there are some integral changes that need to happen both within and outside of the industry. “If nothing is done, we risk having poor soil, unbalanced soil. A lot of people are understanding that the region could be in danger if we keep planting agave and not regenerating the land… We should come all together as brands to work together.”
For Hughston, regulation change might be the answer. “The premise of the CRT was to preserve Tequila but this can also have adverse effects. In terms of regulations it is difficult, brands are looking to the regulations to loosen the belt.”
For Gomez, while discussion of this issue is very new for the industry, like climate change, it may be too late. “We knew about these issues and people are only just starting to do something… Mexico cannot run out of Tequila.” Amen to that.