Like many Texans, I am a big fan of tequila. Whether in cocktails or sipped neat, the complexity of this noble spirit embodies the flavors of the Southwest. However, there are a number of factors that have made the production of high-quality tequila problematic in the last couple of decades.
Part of this problem lies in the nature of the agave plant itself. The agave plant takes from six to ten years or more to reach maturity. This means that tequila producers must gauge how much agave they need years in advance. Plant too few agave plants and there is a shortage. However, plant too much and there is a glut of agave on the market. Too much agave, and it can cost more to harvest the plant than can be recouped by making tequila. This is especially problematic for small producers.
Another issue caused by the mass planting of agave is one that is seen in other mass-produced crops: the problem of large-scale monoculture. Since real tequila can by law only be produced from 100% blue agave, entire agave plantations are often planted with clones of the same plant. This leaves them dangerously susceptible to disease and infestation.
Also problematic part of the equation is economic. Traditionally, agave is harvested by highly skilled workers known as jimadors. This is a tradition passed down from generation to generation. Economic factors have caused many of these jimadors to migrate north looking for more profitable endeavors. Their traditions are slowly being lost. This may be the saddest problem of all.
So, what can we a consumers do to combat these issues? This is definitely a thorny question. Above all, insist on pure agave tequila and avoid mixto tequilas that can be produced from other agricultural products. It’s up to all of us to preserve this classic spirit for the generations to come!