Tequila and Mezcal: What about Agave?
This article was written by UC Davis ARE PhD student Laura Alcocer Quinones. It is the first in a series of excellent articles written by students in my ARE 231 class this fall.
Agave has transformed Mexico into an international destination for Tequila and Mezcal tastings, much like California became a wine destination. From Oaxaca to Jalisco, the opportunities to tour agave plantations and taste spirits are abundant. Tequila and Mezcal have become a staple in liquor cabinets across the globe.
Agave is the main input in the production process, making it a key element for industry growth. However, rapid demand increases and climate change pose significant challenges for agave production.
Agave is produced in areas with mild winters, consistent rainy seasons, and plenty of sunshine. Agave is typically planted at the beginning of the rainy season and takes 6 to 8 years to mature. It is harvested by Jimadores, specialized workers with generational knowledge of its cultivation cycle. The hearts are roasted in ovens and their essence distilled to obtain the final product. It takes approximately 11 pounds of agave to make a bottle of tequila and the average blue agave plant weighs around 110 pounds.
The main difference between Tequila and Mezcal lies in the type of agave used for its production. Tequila is made from blue agave while Mezcal can be produced with any varietal. All Tequila is Mezcal but not all Mezcal is Tequila. About 85% of agave production is blue agave. Most agave is used to make spirits, but some is used for manufacturing fibers.
In 2020, Mexico exported more Tequila and Mezcal than ever before. Some of this increase may have been due to the COVID-19 pandemic since lockdowns may have led to an increase in drinking behavior. However, it’s difficult to disentangle if the sharp increase in supply is temporary or permanent. Preliminary data for 2021 show lower exports, but the last quarter of the year typically contributes largely to the final figure, so we just have to wait.
Tequila production has risen steadily over the years and saw a burst of growth over the last five years when it increased by more than 50%. In contrast, agave production has decreased in recent years; it is down 20% from its peak in 2014. Tequila production can lag agave production because some tequilas are aged several years (if it’s not silver, or blanco, then it has been aged). However, to maintain tequila production growth, agave production will need to increase again. Early data for 2021 suggests an increase in agave production.
Production of agave for Tequila and Mezcal is regulated by law. Like Champagne in France, it is limited to specified regions. Counties that have permission to produce these products are known to have "Denominación de Origen". For Tequila, these counties lie in the states of Jalisco, Guanajuato, Nayarit, Michoacán, and Tamaulipas. Production for Mezcal is stipulated in a similar way with certain counties in 9 states. As of 2020, the industry operates with 163 certified producers that produce 1758 brands of this spirit.
The patterns of production for agave have shifted over the years. Over 21 years, agave went from being harvested and produced solely in Jalisco to an additional 8 states. Area harvested, and consequently production, remains largely concentrated in areas adjacent to Jalisco in western Mexico with a few outliers such as Baja California Norte and Veracruz. This is not surprising given the climate and consistent sunshine in those regions throughout the year.
The threat of climate change to agave supply should not be underestimated. Extreme weather shocks will continue to shift supply patterns across the country. Unpredictable rainfall paired with an increase in the number and severity of tropical storms and hurricanes could be detrimental to agave production.
However, Mexico’s agricultural potential is rich with productive land that could prove beneficial for agave in the long run. We may observe a geographic shift in the medium to long run as agave supply adapts to climate change. This change may create pressure for lawmakers to allow for flexibility in the Denominación de Origen of these spirits. Otherwise, we might find ourselves in a world with a limited supply of tequila and, let's face it, nobody wants that.
You can replicate the figures in this article using this R code.