Older agave alcohols made in Mexico have been used in the United States for decades, including tequila. Recently, however, this popularity has been increasing. Tequila was reportedly the fastest growing category of spirits last year among those quarantined in the United States.
The global tequila market is expected to reach $6.36 billion by the end of 2025. Scottish distillers import barrels of tequila to mature whisky. According to the Consejo Regulador del Mezcal, the global supply of mezcal increased by 26% in 2019.
But what does the global thirst for top-quality agave spirits, backed by celebrity endorsements and consolidation deals, mean for Mexican farmers and the country’s agricultural system?
“Guardians of Earth.”
Carlos Camarena is a third-generation master distiller at the La Altenia distillery, which produces tequilas such as El Tesoro, Tapatio and Tequila Ocho. Since childhood, when he worked in the fields, he has experienced the ups and downs of agave culture. He then studied agriculture and is now an agronomist.
Camarena has a deep respect for the land he inherited from his ancestors. His family has been growing agave and producing tequila since the late 19th century, and Camarena is proud of a tradition that holds the land and its people sacred.
Distiller Carlos Camarena fears agave market volatility will hit small farmers hardest / Getty
After harvesting the agave in the field, La Altenia plants corn and beans for at least three years. This crop rotation adds fertilizer and compost to the soil and restores its fertility before farmers plant the agave. The company’s bat-friendly project ensures that the agave is ripe for harvest. That way there is enough nectar for the bats to eat and cross-pollination ensures plant diversity.
“I am a gardener or a defender of the earth,” says Camarena. “We try to be very careful with the land, because we want the land to stay productive for the next generation. Everyone needs to know what tequila they are getting into their body, what practices and techniques they are using to make sure it is a good product and not just the product of a marketing campaign.
His regular practice means that there is no shortcut to winning quickly. Unfortunately, this is the exception today, not the rule,” says Camarena.
With the growing demand for agave alcohol, he said, big business is counting on farmers to boost production by any means necessary. Farmers are forced to grow only agave, which means no crop rotation. The soil begins to deteriorate and crowd out genetic diversity. This attracts pests that can destroy the agave. This can lead to dependence on chemical fertilizers and pesticides,” says Camarena, “which has devastating consequences for water quality and for the people who live in these communities.
The blue agave takes 8 to 10 years to mature. But the biggest players want to get their hands on the agave from the age of two to meet demand. It breaks down the earth and produces the kind of tequila you swore you’d drink after a night of drinking and a debilitating hangover.
“Land is land. It is a taste of place, literally.” – Maria Sarita Gaitan, author and associate professor.
Right now,” says Camarena, “there is a shortage of agave, which is driving up the price. Enthusiastic farmers have turned their entire harvest into agave. But in four or five years, he says, agave will be on the market, and the price will collapse.
“Many farmers can’t find a market for their agave,” says Camarena. “The agave will rot in the fields, and it will cost them more to try to harvest it. They will have to let it die in the fields.
This volatility tends to hit small farmers hardest, while big brands and wealthier farmers can weather the crisis.
Roots and boundaries
Mexican distilleries have been exporting tequila to the United States since the 1800s. In 1974, Mexico developed a designation of origin (DO) for tequila. It was intended to be similar to the European Geographical Indication (GI), a label that identifies certain products with different origins, histories and cultures.
However, some academics suggest that the DOE and other Mexican regulatory agencies are protecting multinationals from alcohol. They neglect the producers, the farmers, the communities and the traditional customs that make up the spirit of the country.
“Land is land. It’s a taste of the place, literally,” says Marie Sarita Gaitan, author of ¡Tequila! Distilling the Spirit of Mexico and assistant professor of sociology and gender studies at the University of Utah. “But it’s also about people. It’s about what people do. It’s about how people live. It’s about what people bring to the table. Knowledge. Intergenerational know-how. It’s about families”.
As in many other industries, there is a long history of gender inequality in the tequila trade, says Gaitan, but the role of women in mezcal, pulque and other agave distillates is nuanced. In indigenous cultures, she says, women were recognized as consumers.
“Does this mean equality? I’m not sure, she says, but was there a confession? Yes, of course.
As tequila has become Mexico’s national drink, it has become closely associated with a narrow, Eurocentric view of the country’s masculinity, which has likely led to mezcal and its producers being overshadowed until recently, Gaitan says.
“In this new renaissance around the conversation about the appearance of mezcal, it’s a matter of diversity,” she says, “and from the perspective of diversity, indigenous production and the role of women in it are valued.
In 2012, Mr. Gaitan collaborated with researcher Ana G. Valenzuela-Sapata to write an article exploring how women have been involved in the production of agave spirits for centuries, but their role has been neglected or underestimated.
“Part of this has to do with the fact that alcohol is generally male, both in Mexico and in the rest of the world, basically,” Gaitan says.
Mexican distilleries have been exporting tequila to the US since the 1800s.
Racial hierarchies also exist in Mexico. The wealthy owners of haciendas of European origin, mostly Spanish, in the state of Jalisco were able to do business first by bottling and exporting their agave products. But all over Mexico, people of all kinds, including mestizos and indigenous peoples, have been distilling agave for centuries, Gaitan says.
“What’s happened as a result of this standardization [of tequila] and what the Mexican elite thinks is important and what they want is for Mexico to be represented in a way that is not indigenous,” Gaitan says. “And if it is indigenous, it is only certain segments of the indigenous population. ”
International demand for tequila changed in the 1960s, as did Mexican production. To meet demand, tequila manufacturers were given permission to use sugar not produced in the blue agave plant. The result was a branch of tequila called “mixto.” This cheap mixto spirit flooded the American market in the second half of the 20th century. It’s probably what your parents used to make margaritas at barbecues.
The sustained growth in demand in the U.S. has never been associated with premium tequila, Gaitan says, but that doesn’t mean traditional farmers aren’t producing premium agave alcohol.
“We are witnessing a process in which many traditions that have existed for centuries outside the market, in barter economies or in very limited regional markets, are suddenly becoming global commodities.” – Clayton Schech, The Agave Experience.
However, other market forces were at play. According to Gaitan, one cannot tell the story of agave culture without understanding what the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) did to Mexico.
After NAFTA was introduced, most small farms went bankrupt because the pact eliminated almost all trade barriers. Mexican farmers had to compete directly with large U.S. agribusinesses. Meanwhile, U.S. farmers were exporting subsidized crops, mainly corn, to Mexico. This lowered prices for local producers. Unemployment and poverty shook Mexican farmers, many of whom could no longer earn enough to feed themselves and their families.
In the five years since NAFTA took effect, about half a million Mexicans have emigrated to the United States each year. According to a study by Philip Martin, professor emeritus of agricultural and resource economics at the University of California, Davis, this has contributed to a 75% increase in the Mexican labor force in the United States.
“When people emigrate from Jalisco, they are often people who work in the countryside,” says Gaitan. “Remember that local knowledge about pests, mud and rainfall…. All these people are coming to the United States after NAFTA.”
The big companies say, “Now we have this land and we grow our agave on our own terms. Now we need labor”. And what did they do? They go to their next source of work, which is in Chiapas, where they have indigenous people, or in Oaxaca.”
The industry has become a “big machine” that puts profit and production above workers’ rights, she says.
In the early 2000s, the premium tequila boom began in the United States and Canada. And in the last decade, mezcal has also become popular abroad. Mezcal is made from local agave, mainly from Oaxaca, home to a significant number of indigenous peoples.
According to Gaitan, the boom has led large multinationals, which now have a stake in mezcal, to buy land from indigenous owners.
“What does it mean to turn native land where people harvested and divided, grew corn, harvested onions, tomatoes, wheat, and then turned it all into agave? – She says, “Think of the consequences. Number one, on the soil. But also on people’s diets. When you grow up as a child and you see agave everywhere, agave is so important. It changes everything”.
As the international market for agave grows, members of the tequila community are pushing for fair treatment of Mexico’s agricultural heritage and those who support it.
“We are witnessing a process where many traditions that have existed for centuries outside the market, in a barter economy or in very limited regional markets, are suddenly becoming a global commodity,” says Clayton Schech, founder and tour director of Experience Agave, a tequila-based travel company.
“The best way to support Mexico from the United States is through fair trade and an immigration policy that allows people to work on both sides of the border and earn a decent wage.
Frequently asked questions
What are the benefits of drinking tequila?
Tequila to lose weight? 6 amazing health benefits you had no idea about
What is the healthiest brand of tequila?
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What does tequila do to your brain?
Although tequila is often considered a party drink, it relaxes people by calming the nerves, which is why it is said to help fight insomnia. However, it is important not to become addicted to just one substance to get a kink.
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