Here's Why Tequila Is Feeling the Heat of Climate Change

Longer, hotter summers are making problems for the agave Mexico's signature spirit is made from.

(Photo: Patrick Escudero/Getty Images)

Jun 24, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Willy Blackmore is TakePart’s Food editor.

You may know it best as something that’s doled out in shot glasses, but there are far more things that go by the name “tequila” than the spirit. There’s the town of Tequila, which sits near the dormant Tequila Volcano in the Mexican state of Jalisco. Only there, within the legally defined boundaries of the appellation of origin for tequila, can Agave tequilanacommonly known as Weber blue agave—be grown and distilled into the spirit that’s named for the volcano, for the town, and for the plant.

The particulars of this confluence of tequilas—from the acidic volcanic soils to the dry, temperate climate of the region to the slightly sweet nectar that develops in the starchy heart that hides at the base of those tough, spiky leaves—are what make the booze we’re more intimately familiar with great. But the balance of weather and place allow the slow-growing agave plants to mature in a way that promises the best tequila is threatened by the hotter, longer summers that climate change is bringing to the deserts surrounding Tequila.

"We're noticing the summers are getting hotter and hotter every year, and the winters are getting colder," Carlos Camarena, a third-generation tequila distiller, told NPR for a story on the plant, region, and spirit. "So much hot [weather] is making the plant grow faster but not letting it get all the nutrients from the soil and develop the sugar content and the acidity to be as healthy."

Like the shifting climate that’s making historically cool wine grape–growing regions too hot for the varieties that have thrived there, like the drought conditions that are making it difficult to grow the malting barley your beer is made from, tequila made in Tequila from Agave tequilana could become a thing of the past.

It may seem like more hot weather would be a good thing for a plant that thrives in drought conditions and can be killed by too much rain or too much cold. But ecologies are delicate things, especially when you’re trying to achieve a predictable, high-quality product. Unlike most agricultural products that go into the booze we drink—grapes, barley, corn, potatoes—agave cannot be harvested annually. The plants can take up to 10 years to mature, sugars slowly building in the heart, or piña, which can weigh up to 300 pounds. The heat actually makes the plants grow faster—but they develop less sugar, which is converted to alcohol through fermentation and distillation, decreasing their quality.

Climate change isn’t the only manmade environmental problem that the $1.6 billion tequila industry is coping with—but the other long-standing issues could help provide solutions too.

The best tequila may be made from 100 percent blue agave, but the single-variety approach that’s required by law has made the region a massive monoculture. Not only is there little biodiversity in terms of variety—there are more than 200 agave species—but the genetics of the individual plants are often identical. Many of the fields are planted with the “pups” that sprout around the base of a mature Weber agave. This asexual form of reproduction makes large swaths of the agave grown in tequila susceptible to disease, as the plants aren’t able to change and adapt from generation to generation. Bacterial rot and other diseases have thrived in this narrow gene pool, necessitating the use of more ag chemicals.

So where’s the solution? Outside Tequila and the neighboring areas where tequila can be produced, in Oaxaca and Sonora and other Mexican states where agave-based alcohol is made with a host of varieties—including some that only grow in the wild. If blue agave becomes less desirable for distilling into top-shelf liquor, there’s Espadin agave growing in the deserts of Oaxaca and Silvestre agave dotting the sparse landscape of Sonora that make exceedingly good spirits (mescal and bacanora, respectively). Since they grow outside the highly managed, industrialized setting of a tequila farm, they’re going to be able to better adapt to conditions brought about by climate change.

As for the blue agave, the story isn’t all bad either. Even in the worst-case scenario, in which Agave tequilana becomes unsuitable for making tequila, it’s shown promise as the raw material for biofuel. When the distillate you’re making is meant to power automobiles, not margaritas, a change in sugar content isn’t going to throw off the whole game.