Photo by Mary Anne Andrei

Talking Tequila: Writer Ted Genoways wants the organic movement to make more margaritas.

In the September/October issue of Mother Jones, the author Ted Genoways tells the story of how Adolfo Murillo and his celebrated Alquimia tequila are pushing Mexico’s farmers to abandon industrial agriculture and reclaim their heritage. Genoways is writing a book about tequila, from the late ’60s, when Americans “discovered” it and forever changed how it is produced, through the skyrocketing demand spurred by NAFTA, and into the ’90s, when industry split between companies focused on volume and those that opted for quality. He orders his tequila, including Murillo’s, from Old Town Tequila in San Diego. FERN’s Kristina Johnson interviewed him in August.

What drew you to the story of organic tequila? I grew up with my dad’s stories of Mexico. He’s a biologist and some of his very earliest research was in Jalisco on the bats that are pollinators for agave and the rats that nest in the base of agave plants. But it was only in recent years that I realized there was an ongoing crisis in the tequila industry because of how dependent it is on this extremely difficult plant. Not only does the agave take seven to 10 years to mature, but also it’s very susceptible to fungal and bacterial infections and pests. There’s always been a boom and bust cycle in tequila production, but I got intrigued when I learned that these problems might be exacerbated when the crop is grown in an industrial monoculture. I wanted to know what would happen if growers were encouraged to follow organic methods.

When did you first try Adolfo Murillo’s Alquimia tequila? In 2013, I had the rare pleasure of trying Adolfo’s tequila for the first time with him in one of his fields. It’s hard not to get hooked on it when you try it that way. The thing that’s remarkable about his tequila and a lot of the tequilas from that region is how sweet they are. The soil composition there pushes agaves to take on a lot of sugar, so they don’t need the aggressive aging that some other brands of tequila do. But beyond loving the taste, I wanted to tell Adolfo’s story. He’s one of the few examples of someone from Jalisco, not outside, who is helping to lead the area’s organic movement.

Is Alquimia something that most readers could find in a liquor store near them? Nationwide it’s pretty rare right now. But just as the story was going to press, Whole Foods in California picked up the blanco reposado and añejo varieties, which I think will be huge for Alquimia. It will take them from a boutique brand to one that’s in a major chain and a major market. Alquimia is on the brink of some big success here. But the trick for all of these companies is to grow sustainably. I think Adolfo is really committed to that.

How does organic tequila do in Mexico? This is the interesting thing about tequila in Mexico. The large brands there are so dominant and have such a hold over the market that the premium producers have to release to an American market first, usually in California, Denver or Chicago. Once there is aficionado support for a brand then it does tend to catch on in some of the upscale places in Mexico City or Guadalajara, and emanate out from there.

You mention in the story that there’s a large and rising demand in China for organic products. Is there any organic market in Mexico apart from tequila? It’s growing. One of the things I really admire about Adolfo is that he doesn’t just want this to be organic agave; he wants the farmers involved to use the same organic methods on all their crops. So much of what’s happened in Mexico is an invasion of American agribusiness, which has pretty systematically knocked out any kind of local corn or bean production. But Alquimia’s success shows a way to put things back in the hands of the local people. Adolfo hires workers to farm by hand instead of spraying pesticides and herbicides on the fields. They’re protecting the water, so people are able to use the wells and surface streams in their villages. But organic production also provides more work. People have a reason to stay in their villages now. And once they stay, they can take the same methods they use on agave to grow corn or garbanzos, so their food doesn’t have to entirely be trucked in from outside.

How has the upsurge in organic tequila production affected Agua Negra, the town near Adolfo’s farm? It’s remarkable. Shops that were once boarded up are starting to come back. There are so many more people there now even than there were two years ago when my wife and I first visited. We spoke to David Fitzgerald, a sociologist who had been there 10 years ago, and he was blown away by the changes. Alquimia serves as a kind of model for how other towns in that region could use both cash crops and sustainable subsistence crops to keep their small communities alive.

How do conditions at a conventional agave farm compare to some of these smaller, organic operations? The conventional agave farms are beautifully well-kept, because, thanks to herbicides and pesticides, nothing is growing other than the agaves. You have to train your eye to recognize that that’s a really bad sign. It means there are chemicals running off into the ground. Those toxins are going to be there when the workers come in for the harvest. But I would say that even among the more conventional agave farmers, the ones who are independent anyway, there’s a move back toward traditional methods. They’ve seen that there isn’t such a benefit to using chemicals and that those methods are all expensive.

Are there any efforts to genetically modify agave? There has been talk about that. I heard from a couple people in Jalisco that Monsanto in particular had talked to some of the large companies about ways to make their plants grow faster. Tequila is big business. It’s something that we tend to associate with spring break and frat parties, but the reality is that for Mexico it’s the number two export. It matters a lot. In some ways the tequila industry is mirroring the rest of the food industry right now by splitting in half. There are brands like Cuervo and Sauza that are going hard toward industrial production, where everything is aimed at volume. And then there are premium brands that are heading in the other direction, by limiting their production to keep quality high and to appeal to people who are interested in an artisanal product that is connected to a tradition and a culture.

How much tequila do you think you’ve consumed reporting on this story? I think my current tequila bottle inventory is nearing a hundred bottles, but the real aficionados have collections in the thousands. I’m going to visit one in October that has 6,000 bottles. By that standard, I feel like I’ve been very conservative. And it’s all necessary research.

You can read Ted’s story, “Heart of Agave,” on Alquimia’s organic tequila here on our site or with our media partner, Mother Jones.