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Spare Change

with John des Rosiers

Why Agave Farming Matters More than We Credit It For 

I have had days of conversations with friends that are winemakers and grape growers and we always speak to the importance of their vineyards—the care and approaches they take, which clones are used, drip irrigation, etc. 

I have made my feelings known about agave and the need to treat it more like a vineyard than what is traditionally done. I wanted to explain why I feel so strongly and why most tequila misses the mark on showing terroir and the amazing history and evolution of the plants.

8 years. Normally almost. 

For arguments sake it’s usually 6-8 years. 

For 1 plant to be harvested.

Grapes are harvested for wine every year. Bison grass for vodka, every year. Grains for most other spirits, every year. Most everything in the world, every year. 

Farmers in Jalisco and the other allowed states get 1 harvest every 6-8 years. Think about the time and effort and patience it takes to grow a plant for a single harvest nearly once a decade. The opportunity for terroir expression and flavor development is incredible and we are just now beginning to scratch the surface on what is possible. 

First on the age: those who espouse a specific timeframe or explain that “their agave” is always 7 years old are full of shit. It’s an agricultural plant that has a wide range of climate/microclimate, varying degrees of rain (especially over 6-8 years), and every other tiny difference that creates the timeframe for when a plant is ready. Agave is ready when it’s ready. 

If grown and harvested properly, that moment is just before the agave in the farm is ready to begin its reproduction cycle. There is a brief window of perfect maximum ripeness when plants should be removed from the farm. Here is what we look for and test with our lab to ensure any farm (from multiple plants throughout that farm) meets our standards:

  • Generally a minimum of 6 years of age, but usually closer to 8
  • 40-42 degrees brix (as an overall measure of the plants’ sugars)
  • 25-27 ARTs (this describes the sugars that can be converted to alcohol)

These numbers above are the actual measurements we see in our agave, and for any nerds out there who may question the validity of these measurements. It’s true and we check them throughout the entire farming and production process.

What this means is that we are truly harvesting the most amazing agave anywhere in Mexico. It’s truly special.

When a section of a farm is deemed ready, we have our team of jimadores start working early in the morning, like 4am early. It is incredible to watch them work, true masters and artists of their craft in a tradition dating back hundreds of years. They will work until about 10 am in order to harvest while it’s still cool, which is best for the workers as well as the plants.

In the stone ovens by lunchtime…

One of the issues facing agave now is the lack of genetic diversity. When agave reproduces, there are 2 ways it accomplishes this. The most common is by creating “pups” through cloning itself.  A small offshoot plant will grow at the bottom of the agave, and when it’s the right size, it will be cut off and replanted. This is a perfect genetic match for the mother plant. 

While this seems like an easy way to grow more, it creates a crop that is more susceptible to disease. With that in mind, there is an incredible amount of work we are putting into development of new sub-varieties of agave along with our partners Ruvalferti. When natural mutation happen in the farms, Ruval will harvest those plants and start a new section of the farm with them, with the specific purpose to grow full fields of this new version of Blue Agave. 

We have 12 such varieties growing now, and when they are ripe we will harvest them and experiment with our various yeasts to see the results. 

This is the beginning of true clonal selection mated to specific yeasts to achieve different complexities in tequila in a way that no one has done before. Over time these new versions will introduce greater diversity and new flavors.

This is an amazing time for agave and tequila, not only for its popularity, but for a chance to truly understand all the possible facets of what the plants and terroir can produce—with new chances to experiment and finally bring agave to its true potential. 

Tequila is not one thing. Cambio will spend the next decade showing everyone how and why.

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