How The Tequila Industry Lost Its Way With The Blue Weber Agave
by Greg Rutkowski
Where Are The Blue Weber Agave Seeds?
Here is something that completely blew my mind. While searching for blue weber agave seeds to plant at my distillery, I discovered something very chilling: There weren't any.
One would think that, living in the state of Jalisco, seeds from the agave tequiliana would be in abundance. But I was dead wrong.
After talking to many semilleros, agave seed harvesters and vendors, I have discovered that the monoculture of growing blue weber agave for tequila production is a lot worse than I have ever seen reported, and this scared the shit out of me.
Monoculture and Tequila Production
Tequila was originally produced from a variety of different types of local agaves according to an essay written by Don Lazaro Perez in 1887. These types were known by their colloquial names such as; chino, azul, siguin, chato, mano larga, zipilote, and pata de mula. Some of these names we still know today. However, due to the ease of cultivation and superior genetics, the blue weber agave quickly became the preferred agave used to make tequila in the early 1900's.
Due to Porfirio Diaz's grand plan to industrialize Mexico, tequila producers started making the spirit on an unprecedented, industrialized scale.
With the installation of trains through Mexico, it has never been easier to transport and export the spirit, causing a huge surge in demand. This opened up the doors of opportunity and allowed the tequila industry to become what it is today.
The Need For More Blue Weber Agave
Over the years, the need for more and more blue weber agave has left farmers, producers, and the CRT (Consejo Regulador del Tequila) scrambling to figure out solutions.
- The limits as to where the blue weber agave can be grown according to the Denomination of Origin keep getting redrawn to fit the needs of the bigger producers.
- Percentages of blue weber agave used to make the bottom class of tequila keep getting lowered (now down to 51%).
- More and more farmers are utilizing every square inch of land available.
- Prices for agave are soaring north of 30 pesos per kilo at the time of this writing.
- Producers are sending trucks to Oaxaca in hopes of securing a load of espadin (agave angustifolia), used to make mezcal.
- Producers are harvesting agaves younger and younger.
The list goes on...
Tequila producers have abused advances in technology and taken many shortcuts to satisfy the United States' ever growing thirst. As such, the U.S. now represents more than 70% of the consumption of tequila.
From a capitalist perspective, you really cannot blame businesses for doing what they did. Changes often do not come unless completely necessary. Especially when they were supported by the government. Both parties did what they had to do to preserve their market positions at all costs.
However, from a consumer, social-economic, and environmental perspective, these malpractices have left everyone in a vulnerable position. And I fear that people in or close to the industry will be caught with their pants down.
Tequila Booms, Busts, and Blights
As the price of agave for tequila soars, people who otherwise have no business planting agave have started planting agave in order to capitalize on the market.
And as Sarah Bowen mentioned in her book Divided Spirits: Tequila, Mezcal, and the Politics of Production, the collateral damage is that five to seven years later many people will go broke due to the glut of agaves.
We see this scenario play out time and time again.
To me, this is not nearly as scary as the position that agave farmers will be in when a disease hits the agave population, as it did in the 1980s and 1990s.
But what is so different this time?
The population of blue weber agaves has never been more at risk.
Play the Cellos for the Hijuelos
I would like to give an example of how bad the situation is in Jalisco, and the root of the problem boils down to education.
Time and time again, I would ask agaveros (agave farmers) for seeds, and they would respond in the affirmative, meaning that they have blue weber agave seeds available. And time and time again, they would send me photos of hijuelos, suggesting that this was the seed of the agave.
When I asked, "where are the seeds," along with a photo of agave seeds, the response was that they simply do not exist.
Agaves can reproduce in three different ways: agave seeds, agave bulbils, and agave hijuelos.
Agave seeds and bulbils come from the quiote stalk after the agave has fully matured. When this happens, the agave plant can be pollinated by bats and hummingbirds as well as cross-pollinated with other agaves to create offspring, ultimately leading to a better plant in terms of its survival.
On the other hand, the hijuelo is a clone of the agave plant that shoots out from the bottom side of the agave when the mother is nearing maturity. Not all agaves can produce hijuelos (like tobala), but the main agaves used to produce tequila and mezcal typically produce hijuelos.
When does using hijuelos become unsustainable?
I think it is best to look at the opposite side of the equation to answer this question. And we need not look any further than Oaxaca.
For example, most Oaxacan farmers are letting a portion (around 5%) of their agave population reach maturity. This allows for the spreading / harvesting of seeds and pollination to occur. This also creates ample opportunity for cross-pollination, which helps the strength and longevity of the agave as nearby agaves reproduce with each other.
Now if we circle back and look at the case of blue weber agave used to make tequila, we will find that no pollination or cross-pollination is occurring because farmers keep using hijuelos to replenish their fields, leaving the agave population at risk for ever-evolving diseases.
To put it another way, the tequila you are drinking could be from plant genetics that are hundreds of years old. Meaning that no advancement in genetics has happened since then. I touched on this topic on the Agave Bros Podcast.
Also on the podcast Maestros Del Mezcal; Episode Eight, agave genetics specialist Dr. Jorge Nieto Sotelo talks about the legalities within the Denomination of Origin. Stating that only one type of clone of the blue weber agave is allowed to be used. Implying that any genetic diversity may make the distillate fall outside of the rules.
This situation does not worry me as much as the rules are always changing according to the industries needs. The Dr. also mentioned that this is a very terrible situation that leaves this particular species at risk should another fungus, disease, or anything of the sort come in the next 50, 100, or 200 years.
It is interesting to point out that the very rules that the CRT has made to protect the industry, may ultimately lead to its demise.
Two Reasons Why Growing Blue Weber Agave From Seed Is Important
There are two particular reasons why growing agave from seed is so important for the agave spirits industry.
- The Wild - Planting agave from seed is as close to wild conditions as you can get without being wild. Distilling spirits from wild agave is believed to have a superior taste than that of farmed agave, so it makes sense (for the sake of flavor) to get as close to wild conditions as possible.
- Survival - You cannot have agave seeds without the agave quiote. Letting a percentage of the agave population grow a quiote for the purpose of reproducing naturally and also harvesting seeds allows for a more enduring species. The genes of the agave cannot advance and protect the species if only hijuelos are used. This is the single biggest threat to the tequila industry.
Say Thank You To Oaxaca For Potentially Saving Tequila
We found seeds!
Alas, after much searching and talking with both semilleros and agave experts, we have landed in Oaxaca.
Because of Oaxaca's sustainable practices, agave seeds are, in fact, available. However, it is no understatement when I say that they are in extremely small supply.
A few other states have availability as well, but their supply is also extremely small.
Offering of Solutions
I would be remiss to sit here and talk about these problems without offering at least one good solution. And I can only hope some open-minded agavero or an entrepreneur with land will get to read this. I come to the table with three solutions:
- Consumers / Industry Influencers - Spread the word about the importance of planting from seeds.
- Farmers - Start letting a small percentage of your agave population reach full maturity. Allow nature to take its course; and when it is time, harvest and plant the seeds. Or at the very least, sell the seeds to someone willing to start from scratch.
- Brands - Start educating farmers and asking them to start using agaves planted from seed.
- Government - Offer credits to farmers who plant agaves from seeds and offer other incentives like providing seeds.
- Mezcal For Life has started a seed donation program where we donate 4 bags of seed for every one bag of seed purchased.
- Help sponsor S.A.C.R.E.D., a 501(c) (3) non-profit organization that helps improve the quality of life in mezcal-producing regions of Mexico. They support several greenhouses in the state of Jalisco but they need your support too!
I would like to leave you with a quote that has had a profound effect on me.
In the book "The Mezcal Rush: Explorations in Agave Country" by Granville Greene, he talks a little about the relationship between humans and domestic plants.
"We often think of domestication as something humans do to plants or animals. However, another view could be that domestication is what plants and animals did to us for their survival."
Other Great Resources On Agave Seeds
Maestros del Mezcal Podcast - Episode 8 - Agave Genetics - Dr. Jorge Nieto Sotelo
Agave Road Trip Podcast- What’s the big deal about bats and agave?
Greg Rutkowski, President of Mezcal For Life
Greg is a certified Agave Spirits Advisor and Mezcal Sommelier through the Agave Spirits Institute. He contributes to a number of agave spirits projects inside Mexico including Raicilla tours and also his agave spirits distillery in Puerto Vallarta, Jalisco.