Sure, tequila is delicious. But we all pay the price for it.
First of all, just forget about anything you may have tried out of a plastic bottle with a sombrero hat for a top. That travesty is what happens when you push a semi-industrialized production system to its limits. It may have taken some people a while to realize it, but tequila has always been for grown-ups.
Mezcals are a class of distilled spirits of the roasted hearts of Agave plants, produced in Mexico, which is both the biodiversity center and origin of agriculture for agaves. Mezcals use many species of agave, and within those species many varieties, often blending species and varieties to produce the preferred flavor and aroma. Tequila is technically a subset of mezcals, where only a single variety is used, Agave tequiliana Weber var blue, though it’s been given its own Appellation of Origin, making it legally distinct. The ever increasing demand for tequila during the 20th and 21st centuries has pushed the production system all out of whack, with potentially devastating consequences.
Here’s the rub – agaves aren’t annuals, like corn or wheat. It takes 8 – 10 years for a single agave to produce a heart useable for mezcal. Consequentially, the economy around agave production experiences a harmful 8 – 10 year cycle of surplus and shortfall. The intense industrial pressure for a single variety means that in many places only blue agave is planted, and the diverse spectrum of useful agaves are neglected. This has all the problems of monoculture (which warrants more discussion, but it’s related to cloning), including easy disease and pest susceptibility, and overworking the land. This in turn requires extensive fertilization and heavy pesticide use, resulting in irremediable soil and biodiversity loss. What remains is an entire economy balanced precariously on a single variety of plant, which is now unable to respond to new pests, diseases, or climate change.
But wait! Industrial monoculture isn’t the only way. In fact, as described in Zizumbo-Villarreal et al., traditional agave farmers already had this figured out. Agave was traditionally grown as part of the milpa, or multi-crop system of the region. In the milpa, corn, beans, squashes, chilies, fruit trees, and even edible or useful weedy plants (like tomatoes, tomatillos, and amaranth) are grown together. Agaves are the ultimate multi-use plant, and their use makes the milpa possible. When planted as fence rows, their bulk and sharp spines keep herbivores (like cattle) away from crop plants. It’s a fence you never have to build or mend! Plus you can get useful fibers and tasty tasty mezcal from it. Agaves can also be very effective, depending on where they are planted, at optimizing soil and water retention.
The diversity of the milpa planting techniques go further than that. Many varieties of agave are cultivated, and in fact several different species of agave, all of which have different times to maturity. Additionally, wild individuals are occasionally incorporated. All together this results in a huge amount of genetic diversity sustained within a single farm using this planting system, more diversity than that found in a set of several wild populations combined! That kind of diversity means that a farmer will almost always have agave ready to harvest, and always have other crops to rely on. They will also be buffered against pests and disease that would wipeout a pure blue agave farmer.
Industrial monocultures are a new problem with old solution. The value of crop genetic resources is only now being fully appreciated. Maybe think about that this Cinco de Mayo.
Zizumbo-Villarreal, D., Vargas-Ponce, O., Rosales-Adame, J., & Colunga-GarcíaMarín, P. (2012). Sustainability of the traditional management of Agave genetic resources in the elaboration of mezcal and tequila spirits in western Mexico Genetic Resources and Crop Evolution DOI: 10.1007/s10722-012-9812-z