Future of Tequila

The reliance on one genetic strain of agave could jeopardize the supply of an increasingly popular liquor

Mix equal parts botany, science and Mexican agro-history, then add a jigger of marketing to describe the culture of tequila.

Most of us who sip a margarita or savor a fine shot of tequila don't wrap our brains around the complex question of where tequila comes from.

Mescal de tequila was the first mescal to be codified and recognized by its geographic origin (Tequila, in the state of Jalisco) and the only mescal known internationally by that name.

But after reading ¡Tequila!, vivid images of blue valleys and hard labor come to mind.

This book is a collaboration between Ana G. Valenzuela-Zapata and Gary Paul Nabhan. Valenzuela-Zapata, who is a female horticultural agave expert in the male-dominated tequila industry, swims upstream by fighting to change the reliance on one genetic strain of agave while butting heads with the Mexican government and short-term profiteers. For the past 25 years, Nabhan has done research on agave conservation. He is the director of the Center for Sustainable Environments at Northern Arizona University and co-founder of Native Seeds/SEARCH.

Tequila has come a long way--from a wild cowboy's cheap drink to artisan-like bottles filled with the finest, extra-aged mescal that sell for $2,000. Don Javier Cenobio Sauza gets the credit for making a cottage business into a commercial agro-industry; with his American-born wife, he brought tequila to the United States in the 1870s. Today, there are about 30 companies legitimately distilling Mexican tequila, which is packaged into more than 400 brands sold worldwide.

The authors quite ably take us into the agave fields, sweating side by side with the jimadores, whose ability to seek out the mature agaves, strip the leaves and remove the heavy heads (sometimes called pineapples) is passed down through generations. The word "jimadores" is derived from coa de jima, a tool with a sharp circular blade attached to a wooden handle. Their technique requires concentration, strength and grace--each movement is cleverly choreographed. In a field filled with busy jimadores, the roar of sounds resemble El Zorro's sword in stereo.

Tequila making is ancient techniques combined with modern technology. The harvested pineapples are pit-roasted, and their caramel heads mashed into a filtered, slurry concoction suitable for fermentation in masonry vats, now replaced by stainless steel autoclaves regulated by temperature gauges.

The object is to extract the sugary juices from the mescal plant, converting their complex carbohydrates into more easily digestible sugars that can be metabolized by yeasts to obtain a fermented alcoholic beverage.

Through fermentation, agave sugars are transformed into ethyl alcohol. Today, fermentation is completed in 20,000-liter stainless steel tanks in which mescal sugars, water and yeast are mixed in exact proportions based on each tequila company's recipe.

The fermented mescal is put in stainless steel boilers for distillation, where different boiling points of various compounds aid in the separation of gases, each of which condenses to add to the richness in flavor during the first run of distillation. The first "havoc-making" pass produces three wildly different strengths called the head, the heart and the tail. Together, they're called tequila ordinairio, with an average 38-40 proof. Only the heart goes through the second distillation, yielding 110-proof. The third and final distillation yields the highest quality tequila, known as tequila blanco.

While distilled alcohol consumption dropped by 22 percent, tequila consumption rose 31 percent during the same time. An entire generation of tequila connoisseurs grew along with the increasing popularity of salsa, now surpassing ketchup as America's most frequently consumed condiment.

As the demand for tequila rises, the supply becomes more and more vulnerable. Both authors worry about sustainability and the propensity of an agave monoculture susceptible to fungal plague. Recommended solutions of intercropping and cross-pollination of spatial agave mixtures have met less-than-eager ears perpetuating horticultural pause about future abundant production.

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