Nov 142016
 

The production of (genuine) tequila is tightly regulated because tequila has denomination of origin status. This status (sometimes called appellation of origin) sets specific standards for producers in terms of how a product is grown or produced, processed and presented. Equally importantly, it defines the geographic indication, the specific places or regions where the product has to be made. Other items having denomination of origin status include champagne, asiago cheese and Melton Mowbray pork pies.

Geographic indications are “indications which identify a good as originating in the territory of a Member, or a region or locality in that territory, where a given quality, reputation or other characteristic of the good is essentially attributable to its geographic origin.” (World Trade Organization)

Mexico’s denomination of origin area for genuine tequila includes includes 180 municipalities in five states, a total area of about 11 million hectares (27 million acres).

Tequila producing areas of Jalisco and neighboring states.

Tequila producing areas of Jalisco and neighboring states. Credit: Tony Burton; all rights reserved. Click to enlarge

The main area (see map above) is the state of Jalisco (all 124 municipalities), with extensions into three neighboring states:

  • Nayarit (8 municipalities): Ahuacatlán, Amatlán de Cañas, Ixtlán del Río, Jala, Xalisco, San Pedro Lagunillas, Santa María del Oro and Tepic.
  • Guanajuato (7 municipalities): Abasolo, Cd. Manuel Doblado, Cuerámaro, Huanimaro, Pénjamo, Purísima del Rincón and Romita.
  • Michoacán (30 municipalities): Briseñas de Matamoros, Chavinda, Chilchota, Churintzio, Cotija, Ecuandureo, Jacona, Jiquilpan, Maravatío, Marcos Castellanos, Nuevo Parangaricutiro, Numarán, Pajacuarán, Peribán, La Piedad, Régules, Los Reyes, Sahuayo, Tancítaro, Tangamandapio, Tangancicuaro, Tanhuato, Tinguindín, Tocumbo, Venustiano Carranza, Villa Mar, Vista Hermosa, Yurécuaro, Zamora, and Zináparo.
Tequila growing area in Tamaulipas.

Tequila growing area in Tamaulipas. Credit: Tony Burton; all rights reserved. Click to enlarge.

About 80% of all blue agave is grown in Jalisco, and almost all tequila distilleries are located in the state.

The municipality of Maravatío in the eastern section of Michoacán is a tequila outlier, some distance away from the main producing area centered on Jalisco.

The other major outlier is a group of 11 municipalities in the northern border state of Tamaulipas (see second map) where 11 municipalities (Aldama, Altamira, Antiguo Morelos, Gómez Farías, González, Llera, Mante, Nuevo Morelos, Ocampo, Tula and Xicotencatl) are included in the denomination of origin for tequila.

The first denomination of origin for tequila was registered with the World Intellectual Property Organization in 1978. Since that time every trade agreement signed by Mexico has contained a clause to ensure that tequila’s special status is fully protected by the other signatories. Mexico has signed free trade agreements with more countries than any other country in the world.

For example, the relevant NAFTA clause states that:

“Canada and the United States shall recognize Tequila and Mezcal as distinctive products of Mexico. Accordingly, Canada and the United States shall not permit the sale of any product as Tequila or Mezcal, unless it has been manufactured in Mexico in accordance with the laws and regulations of Mexico governing the manufacture of Tequila and Mezcal.”

In 1996, Mexico succeeded in getting the World Trade Organization to recognize tequila, and also mezcal, as denomination of origin products.

The following year, Mexico signed an agreement with the European Union whereby Mexico recognized 175 European spirits, including champagne, cognac, grappa and scotch, as having denomination of origin protection, in exchange for E.U. protection for tequila and mezcal. At that time, Mexico’s Tequila Regulatory Council (CRT) estimated that some 3.5 million liters of “pseudo-tequilas” were sold annually in Europe under such names as “Blue Tarantula” in Italy and “Hot Tequila” in Finland (In search of the blue agave: Tequla’s denomination of origin).

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Oct 272012
 

Beautifully illustrated with 32 color plates, the 81-page book A Drink Named Tequila traces the history and mystery of tequila (the liquor) from its ancient roots to today. The text, by one of Jalisco’s foremost historians, José María Muria, provides many fascinating insights into Mexico’s national drink.

For example, did you know what the agave (maguey) plant, from which tequila is derived, represented in the ancient Nahuatl culture? “In the Nahuatl culture, the maguey was a divine creation that represented Mayáhuel, a goddess who had four hundred breasts to feed her four hundred children.”

For a long time, the production of liquor of any kind was completely prohibited in New Spain:

“With the intention of favoring the importation and sale of produce from the major Iberian peninsular landowners, the Spanish Crown had prohibited the production of liquor in America, and brutally persecuted those who disobeyed. This, as well as to ensure – at least, so they said – that the Indians and mestizos would consume less, was why mescal was born and raised clandestinely. In turn, this explains why it took so long to leave clear proof of its existence and why today we know so little of its teething stages and first, tottering steps.”

Many of the early tequila brands were given feminine names:

“It became common for distilleries to be baptized with a feminine variant of the surname of their owner; Martinez: “La Martineña”; Guarro: “La Guarreña; Gallardo: “La Gallardeña”; Flores: “La Floreña”; Quintanar: “La Quintaneña”, etcetera. It also became common to link the brand name with some positive quality, as in the case of … “La Perseverancia” (“The Perseverance”), or…  “La Constancia” (“The Certainty”).”

Of interest to historians looking at the migration of rural businessmen from the site of their wealth in the countryside toward the cities, Muria writes that,

“Of all the great rural businessmen, the tequila producers were the last to move their places of residence from the countryside. As the twentieth century began, it is well known that practically all the hacienda owners had relegated their ancestral residences to the role of summer homes or for occasional visits, given that now their greatest desire was to figure prominently in the loftiest circles of society in Mexico’s provincial capitals, the capital of the Republic, or even in Paris or some other flashy European city.”

The book does have a handful of minor flaws. For example, Muria writes that the cocktail known as a margarita is made from “a combination of tequila with a dash of lime juice, mint and salt”. Perhaps he wrote this phrase after tasting one too many tequilas, since for a genuine margarita, his “mint” would need to be replaced by a shot of orange-flavored liqueur such as cointreau or Gran Marnier.

Despite such minor details, A Drink Named Tequila (Editorial Agara, 1996) remains a fascinating and well-illustrated read.

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The geography of tequila: trends and issues

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Sep 152012
 

The production and export of tequila has been one of Mexico’s major agro-industrial success stories of recent times. In this post, we look at some of the related trends and issues.

Rapid rise in production

For the period 2009-2011, Mexico produced about 250 million liters of tequila a year. Of this total, 60% was “100% agave tequila“, where all the sugars are directly derived from the Agave tequilana weber azul, and the remaining 40% was “mixed tequila” (tequila mixto) where at least 51% of the sugars are from Agave tequilana weber azul, but the remaining sugars come from other non-agave sources.

Tequila production, 1995-2011. Data: Tequila Regulatory Council.

Tequila production, 1995-2011. Data: Tequila Regulatory Council.

This is a dramatic increase compared to the period 2001-2003, when the average production was about 140 million liters a year. During that period, 100% agave tequila contributed only about 20% of the total. The relative importance of 100% agave tequila has clearly increased very rapidly in the past decade.

Agave supply: from shortage to glut

While there is a clear upward trend in total production, there are periods where production has fallen, most recently from 2008 to 2009, when production fell by 60 million liters. One of the possible reasons for a short-term blip in tequila production is if there is a shortage of agave. Agaves take about 10 years to mature, so there is a lengthy time lag between planting and the first harvest of newly planted areas.

As demand for tequila has risen, some of the major producers have experienced temporary shortfalls and been unable to source as much agave as they would have liked. One of the consequences was that independent agave producers entered the market, seeking to profit from such periods. Such independent producers could do well, provided they were able to predict agave shortages a decade in advance. During the 1990s, hillsides all over Jalisco were planted with agave, many for the first time, providing a significant boost to agave supply a decade later.

Not all independents came out of this on top. The supply of agave now exceeds demand. Many of the major tequila companies have increased their own acreage of agave, or have signed forward-looking contracts with major independent growers in other areas of the designation of origin zone. Many independent agave farmers are losing out; they planted agave a decade ago, but failed to forecast the current glut.

Tequila makers currently consume about 1 million metric tons of agave a year. The Agriculture Secretariat estimates that there are about 20,000 independent growers who have no contracts, and 223 million agave plants of diverse ages for which there is no current or short-term market. As many as 30 million agave plants were considered “very mature” in 2009 and a total loss in 2010. It is likely to be several years before the production of agave falls back to a level sustainable with demand.

Exports continue to rise

Tequila exports have risen very rapidly since 2001, with only minor anomalies along the way. Mexico currently exports about 160 million liters a year. Tequila exports have performed well despite the now lengthy economic woes being experienced by the major importing countries.

Foreign ownership

Mexico’s tequila makers have undergone a similar experience to the country’s major brewing companies, in that all but one of the major tequila firms are now owned by foreign corporations. A proposed deal in which the last of the big Mexican tequila companies, José Cuervo, would also have been taken over by British firm Diageo (which owns Baileys, Johnnie Walker, J&B, Smirnoff, Captain Morgan and Guinness) was called off in December 2012.

Environmental concern

The major environmental problem associated with tequila making is wastewater. For every liter of tequila, 10 liters of wastewater (vinazas) are produced. The vinazas are nitrogen-rich, and contain high concentrations of chemicals, including heavy metals and salt.

The National Chamber of the Tequila Industry recognizes that only about 60% of vinazas are disposed of properly. Most of the remaining 40% (about 2.5 billion liters in 2008) are thought to be pumped untreated into local streams and ponds, damaging the ecosystem and destroying stream life.

The Mexican government fines distilleries that do not have adequate treatment plants for the vinazas they produce, but in the past many companies have opted to pay the fines rather than solve the problem at source.

The vinazas problem was one of the reasons why UNESCO recently considered revoking the Tequila region’s World Heritage status, awarded in 2006. Another issue that made UNESCO unhappy was a recent decision to locate a landfill site in Amatitán in the center of the World Heritage zone. In the end, UNESCO officials agreed that progress was being made; the area kept its heritage status.

There is hope on the horizon. A new cost-effective option for tequila firms seeking to dispose of viñazas has been developed by a local corporation Tecnología Nacional de Aguas. Called Proshiemex, it uses the viñazas to produce methane-rich biogas which can contribute to heating the boilers of the tequila distilleries. The remaining sludge can be easily treated in accordance with all applicable environmental norms.

Source of data:

  • Tequila Regulatory Council Statistics

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Sep 012012
 

Tequila is made by distilling the juice of certain species of agave plants. Agaves are commonly called “century plants” in the USA, a name derived from the length of time they supposedly grow before producing a flowering stalk – actually, from eight to twenty years depending on the species, rather than the hundred suggested by their common name! Some species flower only once and die shortly afterwards, others can flower almost every year. Agaves are no relation botanically to cacti, even though they are often mistakenly associated with them. The ideal agave for tequila is the Agave tequilana Weber azul which has bluish-colored leaves.

Agave field in Jalisco

Agave field in Jalisco. Photo: Tony Burton

The tequila agaves are started from seed or from onion-size cuttings. When the plants are mature (about 10 years later), their branches are cut off, using a long-handled knife called a coa, leaving the cabeza (or “pineapple”), which is the part used for juice extraction. Cabezas (which weigh from 10 to 120 kilos) are cut in half, and then baked in stone furnaces or stainless steel autoclaves for one to three days to convert their starches into sugars.

From the ovens, the now golden-brown cabezas are shredded and placed in mills which extract the juices or mosto. The mixture is allowed to ferment for several days, then two distillations are performed to extract the almost colorless white or silver tequila. The spirit’s taste depends principally on the length of fermentation. Amber (reposado) tequila results from storage in ex-brandy or wine casks made of white oak for at least two months, while golden, aged (añejo) tequila is stored in casks for at least a year, and extra-aged (extra añejo) for at least three years.

Distillation: the Filipino Connection

Mexico’s indigenous Indians knew how to produce several different drinks from agave plants, but their techniques did not include distillation, and hence, strictly speaking, they did not produce tequila. Fermented agave juice or pulque may be the oldest alcoholic drink on the continent; it is referred to in an archival Olmec text which claims that it serves as a “delight for the gods and priests”. Pulque was fermented, but not distilled.

If the indigenous peoples didn’t have distilled agave drinks, then how, when and where did distillation of agave first occur? In 1897, Carl Lumholtz, the famous Norwegian ethnologist, who spent several years living with remote Indian tribes in Mexico, found that the Huichol Indians in eastern Nayarit distilled agave juice using simple stills, but with pots which seemed to be quite unlike anything Spanish or pre-Columbian in origin.

By 1944, Henry Bruman, a University of California geographer, had documented how Filipino seamen on the Manila Galleon had brought similar stills to western Mexico, for making coconut brandy, during the late sixteenth century.

Dr. Nyle Walton, of the University of Florida, expanded on Bruman’s work, showing how the Spanish authorities had sought to suppress Mexican liquor production because it threatened to compete with Spanish brandy. This suppression led to the establishment of illicit distilling in many remote areas including parts of Colima and Jalisco. Even today, the word “tuba”, which means “coconut wine” in the Filipino Tagalog language, is used in Jalisco for mezcal wine before it is distilled for tequila. This is probably because the first stills used for mezcal distillation were Filipino in origin.

“Appelacion Controlée”

Though colonial authorities tried to suppress illegal liquors, the industry of illicit distilling clearly thrived. One eighteenth century source lists more than 81 different mixtures, including some truly fearsome-sounding concoctions such as “cock’s eye”, “rabbit’s blood”, “bone-breaker” and “excommunication”! By the 1670s, the authorities saw the wisdom of taxing, rather than prohibiting, liquor production.

For centuries, distilled agave juice was known as mezcal or vino de mezcal “mezcal wine”). It is believed that the first foreigner to sample it was a Spanish medic, Gerónimo Hernández, in the year 1651. The original method for producing mezcal used clay ovens and pots.

By the end of the nineteenth century, as the railroads expanded, the reputation of Tequila spread further afield; this is when the vino de mezcal produced in Tequila became so popular that people began calling it simply “tequila”. When the Mexican Revolution began in 1910, it swept away a preference for everything European and brought nationally-made tequila to the fore. Tequila quickly became Mexico’s national drink. It gained prominence north of the border during the second world war, when the USA could no longer enjoy a guaranteed supply of European liquors.

To qualify as genuine tequila, the drink has to be made in the state of Jalisco or in certain specific areas of the states of Nayarit, Guanajuato, Michoacán and Tamaulipas. (We will take a closer look at this distribution in a future post).

The ideal growing conditions are found in semiarid areas where temperatures average about 20 degrees Centigrade, with little variation, and where rainfall averages 1000 mm/yr. In Jalisco, this means that areas at an elevation of about 1,500 meters above sea level are favored. Agaves prefer well-drained soils such as the permeable loams derived from the iron-rich volcanic rocks in Mexico’s Volcanic Axis.

Production of tequila has tripled within the last 15 years to about 250 million liters a year (2010). About 65% of this quantity is exported. Almost 80% of exports are to the USA, with most of the remainder destined for Canada and Europe.

Connoisseurs argue long and loud as to which is the better product, but all agree that the best of the best is made from 100% Agave tequilana Weber azul. I’m no connoisseur, but my personal favorite is Tequila Herradura, manufactured in Amatitán, a town between Tequila and Guadalajara. Anyone interested in the history of tequila will enjoy a visit to Herradura’s old hacienda “San José del Refugio” in Amatitán, where tequila has been made for well over a century. The factory is a working museum with mule-operated mills, and primitive distillation ovens, fueled by the bagasse of the maguey. The Great House is classic in style, with a wide entrance stairway and a first floor balustrade the full width of the building.

Visitors to the town of Tequila, with its National Tequila Museum, can  enter any one of several tequila factories to watch the processing and taste a sample. They can also admire one of the few public monuments to liquor anywhere in the world – a fountain which has water emerging from a stone bottle supported in an agave plant. “Tequila tourism” is growing in popularity. Special trains, such as “The Tequila Express” run on weekends from the nearby city of Guadalajara to Amatitán, and regular bus tours visit the growing areas and tequila distilleries. The town of Tequila holds an annual Tequila Fair during the first half of December to celebrate its famous beverage. Another good time to visit is on 24 July, National Tequila Day in the USA.

In 2006, UNESCO awarded World Heritage status to the agave landscape and old tequila-making facilities in Amatitán, Arenal and Tequila (Jalisco).

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