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Friday, 12 January, 2001, 22:10 GMT
Tequila's time of crisis
Tequila graphic
By Peter Greste in Tequila, Mexico

In the town of Tequila - the place that gives the Blue Agave cactus juice its name - the true connoisseurs have grown up surrounded by fields of Agave.

Each of them depends on the tequila industry for their livelihood. But they all know the industry is facing a crisis.

"I think it's the most serious that we have had in the whole history of tequila production," says Agave agronomist Carlos Camarena.

The problem? There simply isn't enough Agave to go round.

Marketing success

Early in the 1990s the distillers sent marketing men abroad to lift the reputation of tequila from the gut-rot party slammer to a sipping drink, equivalent in stature to fine cognac or single malt whisky.

It will take eight to 10 years for that Agave to mature, so we will have enough raw material to work with

Agave agronomist Carlos Camarena
But they have been too successful, it seems, raising exports almost 10% a year. The Agave growers, who produce the cactus whose juice is distilled into Tequila, simply cannot keep up.

"It's only this year that everybody is beginning to plant enough Agave again. So it will take eight to 10 years for that Agave to mature, so we will have enough raw material to work with," says Mr Camarena.

Workers still use old-fashioned machetes and spade-like tools to cut the spines off the Agave plants as they harvest them. It is a labour intensive business but it is also hugely profitable.

Cactus millionaires

The Agave shortage is now so critical that the price has gone from around eight cents a kilo just over a year ago to $1.50 now.

That has made millionaires out of some growers and they are having to hire private security firms to guard the fields by night. But farmers like Jorge Rosco say the price is now too high.

"Too many people are planting now, and we'll be back in the situation we were in before, when farmers were ploughing up the Agave fields," he says.

But the shortage has also had a critical impact on the finished product. Small distilleries simply have not been able to get enough raw material to produce tequila, and they have gone broke.

Tequila police

Other less scrupulous firms have been spiking their liquor with cheaper, rougher forms of Agave, or even cane alcohol.

The admixture helps cut costs, but damages the hard-won reputation of tequila. Now, the industry has set up a special board to police the finished product.

Once the crisis is over, we will be able to continue with this wonderful job that we have done with tequila

Tequila producer Araceli Ramos
Araceli Ramos from Jose Cuervo, one of Mexico's biggest tequila producers welcomes the move.

"Their job is to make sure that all the tequila that we produce is a product that is absolutely 100% real, and that all the tequileros are protecting this very much, because once the crisis is over, we will be able to continue with this wonderful job that we have done with tequila," she says.

'Crisis means opportunity'

According to agronomist Carlos Camarena, co-ordination is the solution to the crisis.

"The Chinese people used to say that crisis time means opportunity time. So at this moment we have the opportunity to finally plan and work together with the agricultural part of this business," he says.

A popular Mexican song says the country is now "lapping up" tequila - but producers have to find some way of overcoming the Agave shortage and fast.

Otherwise, the tequila industry will find itself being priced out of the market it craves and revert the backyard hooch it used to be.

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