Something I learned today (part 2 )
Well, by now, its actually been about a week and a half… but as promised, here’s the conclusion to the Tequila Seminar that took place at Anvil on 7/10. In the first post, we covered the nuts and bolts of the actual tasting and talked a little bit about things like terroir and different styles of production. In this post, I’m going to recap the information shared by panelists, David Suro (Siembra Azul Tequila), Tomas Estes (Tequila Ocho), Ron Cooper (Del Maguey) and Bobby Heugel (Anvil, T.I.P.) regarding the Tequila Interchange Project (T.I.P.). For those of you that aren’t aware, there is battle being waged south of the border involving agave based spirits. Large transnational corporations are backing legislation in Mexico that would make it nearly impossible and in some cases, illegal for many Mexican families to continue to survive, doing what they have been for thousands of years- growing agave, harvesting it and making distilled spirits and other beverages from it. Why would they do such a thing? Money. Lots of big, evil corporate money. The companies that make the ubiquitous gold paper labeled mixto tequilas are actually threatened by a group of small independent farmers and distillers, but more of that in a bit.
The first thing to understand is where Agave comes from, the Earth. It comes from the Earth, takes an average of eight years to mature (the only agricultural element in spirits that isn’t on a yearly growth cycle) and during that time the plants are tended, nurtured and harvest by local Mexican farmers known as jimadors. The training for a jimador begins shortly after birth and most of these men continue at the trade until death. In order for an agave farmer to break even on his expenses, he needs to sell his agave for 3 pesos per kilogram. Additionally, it takes on average, 7 kilograms of raw agave to produce 1 liter of 100% agave tequila.
During the shortage of 2002 the price jumped to 16pesos at which point brands were forced to double and triple their prices. We saw tequilas reach into the $60, $70 even $100 range for the first time. Now, fast forward to 2011 and we see a record low due to over farming of the crop, a reaction to the mentioned shortage, and agave was back down to .35pesos per kilo (well below the break even number for farmers) yet the high prices for bottles of the early millennium remained in tact. These super low prices are very attractive for the big companies who can pay bargain basement for their raw materials and continue to charge super premium prices for their packaged goods. And the fluctuation continues, in the past six months, agave prices have spiked once again, a 90% increase, to 3.5 pesos per kilo (with current currency conversion that is just 2 American cents above the break even number for farmers, 2 pennies!)
So you may be wondering… Why does this happen? Well a large part of the problem is the lack of biodiversity, which lowers the plants natural defense mechanism against things like the bug the pecudo. This lack of biodiversity is a side effect of the fact that the tequila industry has grown more rapidly than the natural process is able to handle. Remember it takes an agave plant 8 – 10 years to mature. In an attempt to keep up with production demands, some farmers have begun cloning the plants, which in turn, after generations, weakens the species (think about inbred humans) creating monocultures and forces the farmers to use more and more pesticides. According to David Suro, one of the reasons we frequently see such low prices for the agave is “because these agaves are sick, they are plants that have been infected and attacked by insects like the pecudo… the plants that develop and grow by themselves develop defense mechanisms, enzymes that the insects don’t like.” All of this translates into an unfortunate reality, that sick plants are often used in the production of industrialized tequila.
Its not just the plants that are affected, it’s the people too. As the prices of agave fluctuate wildly and often dip to levels below what a farmer can feed his family on, and with zero incentives to remain in the trade, many are forced to migrate north to America. When this happens, hundreds of years of shared knowledge and a life time of training is permanently removed from the agave fields. The jimadors with their highly specialized training and knowledge are irreplaceable. “There is no way you can put an ad in the paper and hire a jimador. The jimador is a highly specialized profession and complicated job. Only people that have been working agave fields since they were literally babies are capable to perform.” This then causes a wave of domestic migration of workers from places like Chiapas (Mexico’s poorest state) who cant afford to pay the coyotes to bring them to America. They take jobs in Jalisco replacing displaced jimadors, only without the skills necessary to perform safely. The tool used to trim the leaves off of the pinas, the coa, is like a giant heavy razor blade on a stick and with one wrong slip, it will slice through a foot “like butter.”
If that weren’t enough for the agave industry to deal with, they now have a new foe, NOM 186. (Read about it in detail here) Described as “nonsense legislation, an interesting case of bullying,” the scenario is not unlike the fight between craft brewers and the industrial beer manufacturers who are threatened by these creative individuals with minute market shares. When Heugel and Suro confronted the Chamber of Commerce of Tequila, asking “what research (sic) you come up with this regulations which are pretty much putting in danger this thousands of years of tradition of agave distilled spirits?” The answer: A market survey which states that the niche of artisanal products is growing and that the companies who account for 75% of the industry feel that it is unfair. The solution: impose regulations that make it impossible and illegal to do what they have been doing for thousands of years.
In the words of Bobby Heugel:
“An estimated 20 thousand families work in tequila, not only large producers, but also people who make stuff consumed locally, and essentially these laws are going to make their livelihood illegal.”
“The decisions that you make in your bar have far reaching consequences beyond just what you like to drink, or what people want to consume, and those issues, they’re important.”
“ The whiskey that you choose to stock isn’t going to have the ramification of putting a family out of business.”
Okay, ready for some good news? If you’ve read this far, I’m sure you are. During an awareness campaign that took place last year, by the Tequila Interchange Project, which collected close to four thousand signatures, and lobbied directly to the Mexican Government, the group was able to effectively kill the most dangerous and evil part of NOM 186. The proposed legislation attempted to monopolize the use solely of Blue Weber Agave and only have it allowed to be produced in appellations of origin. In other words, of the dozens of varietals of agave that are used in agave based spirits productions, only one would be allowed, and of all the various places that currently produce these spirits, it would have been illegal outside of these appellations of origin. So why is this bad? Well it all goes back to biodiversity. If only one species out of dozens is allowed to be farmed, that species is weakened, because it gradually loses its natural defense mechanisms and the ability to adapt to new threats. “If we kill all the other varieties we kill all the chances of the blue agaves survival, lack of biodiversity.” Regarding the appellations, Suro had this to say: “appellations of origin make absolutely no sense from a historical perspective,” because the people of Mexico have been producing agave based spirits all over the land for thousands of years.
While the minor victory is excellent news and great to hear, Suro insists that it is “important to support and continue fighting.” The revised version of NOM 186 is “not as evil,” but the big money lobbyists will continue to push forward with new initiatives. For example, the lobby is apparently working on a new proposal which would brand the word agave solely for use in tequila, mezcal and baccanora. “Its like ketchup regulating tomatoes so that tomatoes can only be used to make ketchup.” Additionally, the industrial tequila industry apparently wants to kill the NOM altogether, because “it is not evil enough,” so that they can draft new, more restrictive proposals. At the end of the day, the T.I.P. has been able to buy some time for the little guys, but are in need of continued support to help pay for things like expensive lawyers who navigate confusing legislation, that even top university professors in Mexico have a hard time understanding.
For more information or to help with the fight visit: http://www.tequilainterchangeproject.org/
I leave you with a spiritual tidbit from Mr. Ron Cooper::
“I find agave spirits to have a stimulating quality, some call it liquid speed. I’ve had many agave based beverages that were able to transform me in one sip put me in a whole other state, a state of mindfulness that is totally different…” “the producer of Tobala before harvesting, makes offerings to the Gods and Goddesses asking permission or the harvest to be successful producing his under 1000 bottles per year of this wild mountain agave based spirit, and the Minero producer (who) uses an ancient Chinese clay still with bamboo tubing says that by the will of God and the will of the agave, I can make good mezcal. When something is industrially produced, it leaves little room for the will of God and the will of agave, so these people are working with the spiritual essence.”
“Every plant has its own consciousness and when we consume plants we consume that consciousness, so when we drink agave based spirits we consume the cosmic energy that that plant soaked up for 6 – 25 years.”
If you would like a copy of the audio file from the seminar, just leave a comment, with contact info and I’ll get it to you.
Photos and post by Alex Gregg.