Did you know that, depending on species, it can take an agave (maguey) plant anywhere from eight to 40 years to be fully ripe for harvest? Or how about the best way to plant and rotate crops to balance space, nutrient, seasonal, and pollination needs? Knowing the specific lifespans and requirements for sustainably and ethically sourcing and producing mezcal can be daunting for the untrained eye, but for magueyeros (agave farmers) throughout Mexico, this is part of their life’s work and they have the process down to a science. With increased interest in agave spirits, their expertise is more important now than ever, but so are the risks and threats to their businesses and livelihoods.
In order to meet increasing consumer demand for agave spirits, brand owners have taken to offering new options, but even with these alternatives, the allure of the core products—tequila and mezcal—isn’t dwindling anytime soon. Between 2023-2030, agave-based spirits are projected to register a CAGR of 6.6% across the globe with the mezcal industry alone being on track to reach $2.1 Billion USD by 2030. That’s going to require a lot of maguey.
Lessons from the Past
Asis Cortés, a key figure within the industry who works to preserve the spirit of the beverage, reflects on the impact of the mezcal boom on this core ingredient.
“The market of mezcal has this pink veil… we have this problem with theft, bold-face theft of maguey to several farmers, including my dad and uncles, where the implicit law gets lost, all as a consequence of the growing demand: producers commit to unsustainable demands because that maguey that they would need to make it happen, it just doesn’t exist or it’s not theirs, creating a whole new problem: you want to plant maguey? Well now you need land for that, so the cutting of trees becomes an added problem where now we’re changing ecosystems and the biodiversity that we were so proud of starts to fall little by little with monocultures. Again and again, the small producer is the one who gets affected the most, the small producer who has a bigger and longer connection to the drink is the one who’s getting attacked the most.”
If history were to repeat itself as it did with the tequila boom in the late ‘90s and early 2000s, left unchecked this growth will directly lead to agave shortages, environmental disruptions, higher production costs, and other more. Upstream, before the impact reaches crates, shelves, bars, and restaurants, magueyeros and mezcaleros (mezcal producers) like Asis’ family will feel them first.
The Power of Information
Our CEO and co-founder, Rob Weir, had the pleasure of speaking with Anna Bruce of Mezcalistas about the Maguey Exchange’s work in supporting the environmental preservation of regions where mezcal originates. Anna’s deep dive takes a look at the role of farmers in the maguey-agave spirits production chain and shines a light on how independent resources like MGx are strengthening the links between magueyero, producer, and consumer.
“What triggered me to create the Maguey Exchange,” Rob shared, “was seeing how commercialization, the pressure of growth, and asymmetry of power dynamics were contributing to a situation that did not benefit the agaveros, producers, or the communities from which they come, simply because everyone lacked the economic, operational, and environmental information to make better decisions. I saw firsthand how magueyeros and producers were forced into a “crabs in a barrel” scenario where, due to limited information, they were making choices that decreased opportunities for everyone.”
This information deficit—directly tied to the laundry list of variables that impacts each batch (e.g., weather conditions, market demand, and agricultural practices) and a decentralized industry—is one of the biggest hurdles to adequately preparing for the mezcal boom and fully benefiting from it. Through technology, transparency, data collection, and reporting, the Maguey Exchange is changing that.
The Promise of MGx
Maguey Exchange's platform empowers magueyeros and mezcaleros to take the knowledge they already have and scale it to extend their products beyond their homes and communities. It enables importers to make informed decisions for sourcing and purchasing mezcal from producers already in their network and those they would not have been connected with otherwise. And it provides consumers with metrics to help their own personal buying decisions as they look to explore this robust world. In short, with the ripple effects of the tequila boom serving as a cautionary tale, MGx drives capacity-building to meet increasing demand without harming communities, the environment, and the industry.
Now that the spirits industry is seeing the earning potential of mezcal and other agave spirits, we all share a responsibility for maintaining the very essence that makes it intriguing. This requires intentional use of the natural resources that go into its production and empowering the people behind it, from seed to bottle.
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