The fields of Mexico's Jalisco state are overflowing with agave.
The recent glut is part of the cycle of abundance and shortage that Mexico has endured since the early 20th century, and it is shaking up the industry on both sides of the border.
"There's been a problem since 1919, when we had the first shortage of inventories," says David Suro-Piñera, owner of Siembra Azul tequila and president of the Tequila Interchange Project, a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving traditional practices in the tequila industry. "The inventories happen in cycles. Periods of plenty and lack of inventories. This has happened forever. Always for different reasons."
The current abundance is a result of the last substantial agave shortage in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when the industry suffered through what Suro-Piñera called "the perfect storm" of disease and bad weather.
"What happens when you have this shortage of agave, is farmers get excited and plant lots of agave without being able to control and manage inventories," Suro-Piñera said. The blue weber agave, the only variety that by law can be used in tequila production, takes seven to 12 years to fully mature, so the crop that was planted during the shortage is now ripe for harvest.
Because so many plants are ready for tequila production, the price of agave has plummeted, leaving many farmers unable to afford to continue production. Some farmers are leaving their fields to rot while others are uprooting their fields to plant more profitable crops, and agave are once again falling prey to disease.
Also, because it's never been cheaper to produce tequila, a flood of businesses have seized the opportunity to produce new brands during the past decade. In 2011 alone, 70 new tequila products hit the American market, according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States. Major liquor brands are adding new tequilas to their portfolios, and celebrities such as George Clooney, Justin Timberlake and Texas' own Kinky Friedman are dabbling in the industry.
Texas is the third-largest market for tequila in America, and with so many new brands surfacing on liquor store shelves, navigating the glut can be dizzying, especially once you start to explore the complicated process of turning agave into Texas' favorite spirit.
Made in Mexico
To truly understand Mexico's native spirit, you have to look beyond the flashy bottles and glitzy marketing campaigns to understand what makes tequila different than most liquors on the market: A distinct sense of place.
Much like cognac or Champagne, the soil, climate, altitude and access to water where the agaves grow imparts the bulk of tequila's complex flavor, or terroir. By law, tequila must be composed of at least 51 percent blue weber agave and sourced from the Mexican state of Jalisco and limited parts of four other states, known as the Appellation of Origin Tequila.
Tequila Ocho sources agave from eight ranches across the Arandas region of Jalisco to produce small batches of single-estate tequila that, though processed using identical production methods, taste different depending on which ranch provided the agave. "People have characterized tequila from the valley as masculine," says founder Tomas Estes. "It's forward, earthy and herbaceous, as compared to highland tequila, which is talked about as being more feminine, rounder, sweeter, fruitier."
The quality and flavor also are influenced by the way tequila is processed. Production is largely regulated by Mexico's Tequila Regulatory Commission, El Consejo Regulador del Tequila (CRT). The basic production process is this: Once harvested, the hearts of the agave, or piñas, are cooked and shredded or mashed to extract sugars, which are then fermented into alcohol. The fermented alcohol is distilled twice, then rested for a period of time (yielding blanco, reposado, añejo or extra añejo, depending on the time spent aging in a barrel) and bottled. Again, much like cognac, the regulations on production not only define the spirit category, but also provide a basic level of understanding about what that final liquid should taste like.
Some companies follow tradition to a T, striving to create the most authentic tequila possible, while others are implementing new technologies to increase efficiency, sometimes at the risk of altering flavor, which is forcing veterans in the industry to adapt and evolve to keep up with demand.
Three unregulated aspects of production are causing the most uproar within the tequila industry: how the agave is cooked, how the sugar is extracted and how many times the liquid is distilled.
Companies typically use either the centuries-old technique of cooking the agave via steam in a traditional masonry oven, which takes up to 48 hours, or speeding things up by employing a stainless steel steaming system known as an autoclave, which uses pressurized steam to reduce the production time to about 12 hours.
Although purists argue that masonry ovens are the best way to amplify natural agave flavor during the cooking process, Richard Sorensen, CEO of Dulce Vida tequila, whose business offices are based in Austin, says the autoclave process certainly affects the flavor of the tequila, but not so much that the final product becomes undesirable, because no chemicals are used in the process.
After the agave is cooked with one of the two oven systems, it is shredded to extract sugars and juices, which are then used for fermentation.
Diffuser technology turns the process on its head by shredding the agave raw and injecting pressurized water and oftentimes chemicals into the piñas in order to extract the starches that will then go into an autoclave to be cooked into fermentable sugar, the Tequila Interchange Project's Suro-Piñera says. The process takes a mere couple of hours.
He takes issue with this approach. "With the diffusers, it's like cooking in a microwave versus cooking over a low flame or lower temperature," he says. "What is going to happen with the oven is that the food will maintain flavors, but if you cook it in a microwave you're pretty much going to eliminate all the flavors."
The Herradura distillery started using diffuser technology during the agave shortage in the early 2000s "as an extra step to help extract 3 percent extra juice and sugars out of the agave fiber," or bagasse, says Ruben Aceves, global brand ambassador for the distillery. He pointed to the fact that the spirit continues to win "numerous accolades in national and international spirits competitions" as proof that quality is not compromised.
Sauza also uses diffuser technology. "Sauza Tequila is the only tequila that cooks its agave juice after it has been removed from the plant fibers, rather than cooking it while still inside the piña, in order to let the fresh agave flavor lead instead of burying it in the spirit," says Vanessa Jenkins, senior director of tequilas at parent company Beam Global. "Thus, the crisp essence of the blue agave plant is captured in every bottle and produces a fresher agave taste."
By tradition and law, tequila must be distilled at least twice, but some brands distill three or five times and market the results as more "smooth" or "pure." Tequila experts argue that the extra distillations dilute the bold, natural flavors of agave that should be present.
Bill Norris, beverage director for the Alamo Drafthouse, visited Mexico last year with the Tequila Interchange Project, and while he witnessed many issues affecting the industry, excessive distillation is a practice that particularly irks him.
"When you are running something through a column still three to six times, every time it's distilled you are losing more of that agave flavor that should be coming through in the finished product," he says. "Those flavors — the sharp vegetal, minty earthy flavors — are part of what makes tequila unique. It's perfectly legal to do it the way they are, but if you're making agave vodka and calling it tequila, I don't want to drink that."
Norris said there is a misconception among consumers that the number of distillations is proportional to quality. In his view, the quality of the final product comes largely from the master distiller's ability to select the best parts of the liquid during the distillation process. "If the distiller is doing his or her job right, the number of distillations doesn't mean (expletive)."
Ambhar Tequila, whose business operations are based in Austin, is distilled five times, a process that Chief Operating Officer Edward Bradfield stands behind. "We are the only company that distills our tequila five times. Many people will tell you that increasing the number of distillations will result in less agave flavor. But the secret is not in the number of distillations but the way you distill. And our distillation techniques are based on a recipe and method of tequila making that is hundreds of years old."
A handful of brands are taking extra steps to both preserve the natural flavor of the agave and to make production environmentally friendly and sustainable. Both Dulce Vida and Republic Tequila, two brands with business operations based in Austin, were among the early wave of organic tequilas released to market in 2009. Sorensen of Dulce Vida says the choice to be organic came about because "one of our mantras is purity. We want to produce as pure of a product as we possibly can."
Ken Mackenzie, chief operating officer and co-founder of Republic Tequila, says the decision was twofold. Being certified organic "is costly and it is unconventional, and it's not the norm in Mexico, but we feel it's a really fantastic way to A) stand out and B) have a higher-quality final product."
In order to be certified organic, both the agave fields and the distillery itself must meet certain regulations. No herbicides, pesticides, chemicals, accelerants or fertilizers not certified organic can be used in the fields, and no chemicals, cleaning agents or foreign undisclosed water sources can be used in the production facilities.
Though the distilleries claim the green production methods maintain the flavor of natural agave in the final product, others remain skeptical. "It's a big plus to have tequilas that came from agaves that are grown organically," Suro-Piñera says. "But it's not necessarily guaranteed that you will have the finest or most crafty tequila that you can possibly buy."
So how does all this — agave abundance, manufacturing methods and debate within the industry — translate to the tequila consumer faced with hundreds of often stylish bottles on the shelf?
To start, look for 100 percent agave tequilas. Bottles not marked with 100 percent agave are known as mixto tequila. By law 51 percent of what is inside the final bottle must be agave distillate, but the other 49 percent can be any form of distilled spirit, from distilled sugar cane to wheat and grain-based alcohol.
"It's the local versus the national corporate entities, in my mind," said Bob Wolter, brand ambassador for T1 tequila and blogger at tequilatracker.com. "There's always going to be the people who do it right, and it's going to cost a little bit more because they're doing it right. Ultimately it's going to come down to your own palate. If they all taste the same and I like them all equally, I am going to buy the brand whose practices I respect more."
Contact Emma Janzen at firstname.lastname@example.org or 445-1772