Agave farmers ‘pushed into a corner’

13th April, 2016 by Richard Woodard

A growing number of Tequila distilleries are planting their own agave fields to have greater production control

Terroir taste

“There are so many variations on the final taste of the Tequila,” says Eisenberger. “Are the agaves from the Highlands (7,000ft-plus elevation) or Lowlands (4,000ft-plus elevation)? Highland agave grows larger and sweeter, lowland agave smaller and earthier. Brick ovens or autoclave ovens to cook the agave? Tahona or rolling mill to remove the sugars from the cooked agave? Fermentation: natural yeast with or without chemical accelerators [that speed up the sugar-to-alcohol conversion]? City water versus well water? Double- or triple-distilled? The list goes on.”

At a time when we’re told craft spirits are the defining trend of the age, this back-story is a potentially appealing one – especially to Tequila’s traditional audience in the United States and Mexico.

“People are becoming more and more interested in how spirits are made, and by whom – and that’s a very good thing,” says Dominic Alcocer, brand director, Tequilas, at Pernod Ricard. “It’s had a powerfully positive impact on both the Avion and Olmeca Altos brands.”

Avion, he continues, is “crafted inefficiently”, using a narrower cut of the distillate and extended filtration, while Altos (which partially uses the tahona process) was created by UK bartenders Dre Masso and the late Henry Besant as a cocktail-friendly, good-value, pure agave Tequila.

And there are early signs that the 100% agave trend is spreading beyond North America. “We do see this appreciation for expertly crafted spirits, especially Tequila, around the globe,” says Alcocer, name-checking South Africa, the UK, Australia and Turkey.

“The US has reached a level of knowledge and education on the category,” adds John Tichenor, global brand director at Brown-Forman-owned Casa Herradura. “They are learning to drink Tequila in new and interesting ways.

“In ROW markets, the super-premium Tequila segment is small; however, it is growing at +25%. In these smaller markets, it will take longer, depending on the market’s level of maturity and education in the Tequila category.”

Contradictory trends

As the category evolves, markets sometimes offer apparently contradictory trends. Dr Tina Ingwersen-Matthiesen, part of the management board of Sierra Tequila owner Borco, reports that Tequila sales in the German off-trade fell by nearly 7% between 2011 and 2014 (Nielsen figures), with on-trade sales also down.

But super-premium Tequilas have performed relatively well over the same timescale, and Dr Ingwersen-Matthiesen reports “growing interest” in the company’s 100% agave Sierra Antiguo as a pouring Tequila in high-end bars and restaurants – with sales up 70% in three years, and rising 50% in early 2015. “Development in our other key markets is not dissimilar,” she adds. “One hundred percent agave is a more-or-less global trend that is on the agenda in almost every conversation we have with existing or global partners.

“Apart from the US, where 100% de agave is a must-have, and the Asian markets, where the subject is becoming more and more relevant, we are also discussing 100% de agave with lots of central and eastern European markets.” Far from having to push these products into the markets, the markets themselves are now demanding them.

However, this positive news comes with a strong caveat: volumes remain small, growth is happening off of a small base, and premium-and-above Tequila remains just a promising niche everywhere apart from North America.

“We have to remember that the Tequila category in international markets outside the US is still in its infant stage,” says Anja Weise-O’Connor, senior marketing manager at Jose Cuervo International. “It represents less than 1% of the spirits market, and there is a strong need for education.

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