If it seems like tequila has been rising in popularity among spirits drinkers, it’s because it has. According to a 2018 U.S. market report, the global market for Tequila is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate of about 4.1% over the next 10 years.
This boom, however, has created an agave shortage that is threatening the integrity of the product, the welfare of the agave laborers and the ecology of the agave plant.
“In traditional tequila production, you take mature agave, cook it in brick ovens, mash it up to separate the sugars, and then ferment and distill it,” said David Suro, president of Siembra Spirits, an agave spirits company based in Jalisco, Mexico.
Cooking is such an important part of tequila making that mescal – the category of spirits to which tequila belongs, the same way bourbon and scotch are types of whiskey – is derived from the Nahuatl word “mexcalli,” which means “oven-cooked agave.”
However, in response to the demand for tequila, distillers have begun using a new piece of equipment called a diffuser, which eliminates the need to cook ripe agave.
“Diffusers shred uncooked agave, and load onto a conveyor belt toward an autoclave,” Suro said. “On the way, the shredded agave is blasted with highly pressurized water and sulfuric acid, which separates the starches into a pulpy liquid. That liquid is then heated for two hours in the autoclave, and then is fermented and distilled.”
Diffuser tequilas are not manufactured with quality in mind, said Matt Lanning, an agave spirits teacher and consultant. Distillers use diffusers “because they’re cutting every corner everywhere,” he said.
Diffusers extract close to the same amount of fermentable sugar from a 3- to 4-year-old plant as traditional methods would extract from a mature plant that is 7 to 9 years old. And the machines finish extraction in a matter of hours, not days. Tequila producers have trouble keeping up with demand because agave takes several years to accumulate adequate sugar content for distillation in the plant’s piña, or head. Diffusers – because of their efficacy at extracting sugar – allow companies to use immature agave plants.
“They are selling unripe agave at much lower prices, and when so many plants are cut early, that leaves no mature agave for the quality producers,” Lanning said. “The farmers make less money and there is far less mature agave left 6 to 7 years later for traditional producers to use.”
The production of tequila, like other spirits, is well regulated. Tequila is held to a standard – the Norma Oficial Mexicana – which is regulated by the Mexican government.
“The NOM used to insist on ‘cabezas maduras’ – mature agave – in tequila production. Eventually, the biggest companies, who have massive, self-regulating influence over the NOMs, decided that this was too big an obstacle, and those two words suddenly disappeared from the tequila standards,” Suro said. “It allowed them to legally use very young agave in their diffusers, which is devastating ecologically, labor-wise and for the entire tequila category.”
Diffusers strip their product of any agave flavor, Lanning said.
Suro agrees. The agave flavor, “is the entire joy of agave spirits,” he said.
“We’ve been making drinks from agave for thousands of years because it’s delicious,” Suro said. “This process steals that and basically creates a neutral spirit, which tequila is certainly not. At the end, you (must) add artificial flavors in attempt to replace what’s been taken out with the acids. It’s the furthest thing you could imagine from traditional tequila production.”
Brian Rossi, owner of Adelitas Cocina y Cantina and Palenque Mezcaleria in Denver, said the NOM allows for use of 1% per volume of additives in tequila. These additives can include jarabe (a sugar-based syrup), glycerin and fragrances such as caramel or oak extract.
In addition to the integrity of the tequila, diffusers pose a threat to jimadores, the agave laborers who already work in bad conditions because of a long history of classism in Mexico, Suro said.
r“This trade requires caring for the agaves, the skill of identifying ripe agave and the physically demanding process of cutting and loading these agaves for transport to become tequila.” He said. “Typically, jimadores work seasonally and for multiple farms, which means that they are not eligible for full-time benefits or retirement plans.”
Jimadores work daily and without protections against shortages, which can put them without income for months at a time, Suro said.
“When they can get work, they are paid by weight. Mature agave weighs significantly more than young agave, so a jimador (must) harvest more than double the agave to make the same wage – which is still remarkably low. The reduction in weight does not come close to making up for the increase in agaves harvested” he said.
Harvesting immature agave plants is also devastating ecologically. As they grow, the plants produce a long, fruit-producing shoot called the quiote, Lanning said. The agave plant “puts all of its sugar and energy into producing the quiote, and then the plant dies.”
“What a responsible producer does is they sacrifice 5% to 10% of their crop ... to let those go to seed,” Lanning said. “These old mezcaleros in Oaxaca will tell me that they’ll get one good plant out of about 10,000 seeds. ... For each one of those quiote that go up, they’re only going to get two or three plants from seed.”
One ecological problem caused by this, said Dave Woodruff, general manager of Durango’s El Moro Spirits and Tavern and an agave spirit enthusiast, is that bats feed on the nectar of the flowers to pollinate the agave plants.
“When they’re cutting that bloom stock off to keep all the sugars in the piña ... the bats have really taken a hit,” he said.
Woodruff, who stocks a range of craft tequila in his bar, said, “I love knowing the backstory ... because it makes the product that much better in my eyes.”
For example, he enjoys talking about Tequila Ocho’s bat project. Woodruff estimates that 5% of the distillery’s crop goes to flower to leave “something for the bats” which makes a huge difference.
Elias Pfeiffer, a bartender for El Moro, said he has visited craft mezcal distilleries in Oaxaca, and it is important that consumers be more conscious about where their tequila comes from. Small farmers, who have been making tequila for generations, “really care about their craft,” he said, and customers can take pride in supporting them over massive operations.