Expired: Agave

Expired: Agave

Tequila lovers extend far and wide — which is kind of shocking, considering how few people wake up from a Patron-induced blackout feeling like those eight fire shots they did last night were a swell idea. Still, this “gift from the gods” is gaining in popularity, and as a result, tequila production is on the rise. You’d think prices would increase and those responsible would profit, especially since a single plant is responsible for at least 51 percent of tequila’s recipe: blue agave.

Unfortunately for some, the production growth has not yielded larger profits. This main ingredient is temperamental. Grown mostly in Mexico’s state of Jalisco, the plant takes seven to twelve years to mature. The heart (or piña) of the plant is rich in sugar. At its peak, the plant is cut, cooked, fermented, distilled, and aged in barrels, resulting in the beloved liquor.

Most of us understand the basics of supply and demand; with blue agave and its tedious tending, the concept of producing enough product to meet an increasing consumption faces a unique challenge. Environmental effects, the risk of wildfire, disease, herbicides, malnourishment, climate and the overall complex care of the plant make the cultivation very difficult for the economy. It’s important to consider the population’s desire for say, a margarita, not only when the crop is harvested, but also at the time it’s planted.

Agave struggles date back to the early 20th century, but the real vicious cycle started in the late 90s, when the plant suffered a blight of fungus and disease. Coupled with a wet climate, most blue agave crops became useless. Due to the resulting shortage, prices rose 300 percent in 2000, to a high of $70 per plant. Tequila producers started using alternatives, or the cheaper mezcal plant with cane sugar, to stretch supply. Agave farmers started planting left and right and companies like Sauza and Jose Cuervo began investing in the plant themselves, thinking the value would stay the same when their plants were ready. The National Chamber of the Tequila Industry stated that four times the required amount was planted at that time.

Now, the plant is ripe and ready for harvest but prices are plummeting. While some farmers have started turning to more domestic crops, such as corn and beans, others just can’t afford to keep up with the crop anymore, and have left the agave unattended, making it more prone to disease.

Some tequila companies are taking advantage of this excess supply. In 2011 alone, 70 new tequila products made their way onto liquor shelves. Celebrities like George Clooney and Justin Timberlake are even launching their own brands.

This roller coaster ride of shortages and oversupply for farmers has made this line of work very unstable. There is still fear that cheap sale rates will persist as other costs, such as those for wages and production, continue to rise. Of course, there’s hope for the newly planted agave, should tequila’s prices stabilize and popularity continue to grow. But the opposite is always an unfortunate, but very real, possibility: more and more farmers may choose stability over tradition, and age-old tequila recipes will become nothing more than relics of Mexico’s colorful culinary past.

So, despite the nearly unavoidable, raging hangover, grab your limes, your salt, your ice, and your sombreros, and enjoy a shot (or ten!) while you still can.

Photo by Scanna.