California Has a New Sort out Mezcal and Tequila. How Sacramento-Area Farmers Are Major It

By Benjy Egel
From The Sacramento Bee

Sacramento—On newest a brisk March morning in Woodland’s rolling hills, Raul “Reppo” Chavez was already coated in sweat.

Chavez and his cousin Antonio had spent the ultimate half-hour hacking away at their agave vegetation—monstrous pineapple-looking beasts whose spiky leaves are all which may be seen above the soil.

The jimadors, as a result of the farmers of the distinctive succulent are often called, had been harvesting agave that they planted six to eight years previously. After a stormy weekend, they will roast the 100-pound agave hearts (usually known as piñas) for five to seven days in an 8-feet-deep pit coated with pumice and volcanic rocks from spherical Mount Lassen.

Antonio Chavez makes use of a coa to slice off the leaves of the agave “piña” bulb in Woodland remaining month. (Paul Kitagaki Jr./The Sacramento Bee/TNS)


Agave bulbs are placed in a fire pit
Agave bulbs weighting over 100 kilos are positioned in a fire pit remaining month to be roasted for a variety of days. (Paul Kitagaki Jr./The Sacramento Bee/TNS)
Agave hearts are placed in an 8-feet-deep fire pit lined with lava rocks
Agave hearts weighting over 100 kilos each are positioned in an 8-feet-deep hearth pit lined with lava rocks remaining month, the place they will be roasted for five to seven days on a farm in Woodland. (Paul Kitagaki Jr./The Sacramento Bee/TNS)

That’s the place the burgeoning “Mezcalifornia” movement begins. It ends in small-batch agave spirits produced by craft distilleries all by means of the state.

Nonetheless don’t title it title it tequila or mezcal. That distinction is restricted solely to agave spirits produced in positive elements of Mexico.

Regardless of the title, it’s nonetheless a extremely space of curiosity, craft drink. Agave grows slowly and doesn’t however have streamlined manufacturing within the USA. The following liquors are scarce and expensive.

However additional growers are planting agave—and tequila and mezcal are among the many many United States’ hottest drinks. When requested regarding the demand for California-grown agave, farmer and agave advocate Craig Reynolds replied, “I imagine it’s infinite.”

Craig Reynolds loads agave piña onto a trailer
Craig Reynolds lots of agave piña onto a trailer remaining month in Woodland. The jimadors, as a result of the farmers of the distinctive succulent are often called, will harvest three tons of agave for roasting to later be distilled into agave spirits. (Paul Kitagaki Jr./The Sacramento Bee/TNS)

“The craft distillers in California would buy up every mature agave 10 cases what I’m producing, 100 cases. They’re able to promote their agave spirits at a premium,” Reynolds talked about. “And it’s solely a matter of it scaling up. We have now now an prolonged resolution to go to ever come close to saturating {the marketplace} for agave spirits, for my part.”

How Agave Movement Acquired Started

Agave vegetation develop all through California, from midtown Sacramento sidewalk plots to filth patches bordering freeways. Nonetheless most aren’t Blue Weber agave (agave tequilana), the kind largely used for distilling tequila and mezcal.

That’s what Reynolds and Chavez develop on neighboring hillsides owned by brothers Joe and Tom Muller in Woodland. The Chavez cousins grew to grow to be acquainted with the enterprise whereas rising up throughout the Mexican state of Jalisco the place tequila is made, in a 6,000-person metropolis often called Tonaya.

A field of agave grows
A space of agave grows between almond timber on Joe and Mary Muller’s farm in Woodland remaining month. It takes spherical six to eight years for the vegetation to have the ability to be harvested. (Paul Kitagaki Jr./The Sacramento Bee/TNS)
Agave plants
Agave vegetation develop on Joe and Mary Muller’s farm in Woodland remaining month. It takes about six to eight years for the vegetation to be mature adequate to be harvested for agave spirits. (Paul Kitagaki Jr./The Sacramento Bee/TNS)

“Tonaya is just a bit metropolis, nevertheless it’s purchased a lot, a complete lot of acres of agave. So we started to work just a bit bit over there. Not an extreme quantity of—additional over proper right here, when (Reynolds) received right here and commenced to plant that (plot),” Reppo Chavez talked about.

Reynolds began rising agave in Colima, Mexico in 2006 that will later be used to make Dos Volcanes tequila, which was purchased to spice up money for a nonprofit often called Enterprise Amigo.

Reynolds used his journey days to research cross-check the agave and moonlighted as a Dos Volcanes importer to the U.S. whereas he was working full time as then-state Sen. Lois Wolk’s chief of employees. After retiring, he planted his first stateside agave in 2014.

He started with 500 vegetation and ended up with a movement. St. George Spirits grasp distiller Lance Winters, who depends in Alameda, made the first batch of spirits in 2019. Others received right here calling, every for processed agave and seedlings to start out out their very personal plots.

Reynolds primarily based the California Agave Council in April 2020 to unite growers and set necessities all through the board. One such principle, signed into state laws in September: any bottle marketed as California agave spirits should be 100% comprised of agave. Standard tequila requires solely 51 p.c agave juice, with the rest coming from corn or cane sugar and coloring brokers.

Though Reynolds pioneered industrial agave manufacturing in California, he’s quick to tell apart between himself and “precise farmers” such as a result of the Chavez cousins, who harvest his vegetation along with their very personal.

That harvesting is troublesome work. As quickly because the Chavez cousins reduce the agaves’ quiotes (flowering stalks that shoot from the center and level out the plant has completely matured) they’ve about eight months to extract the piñas.

The jimadors use two types of coas (poles with sharp, spherical heads) to hack off the spiky leaves and root out the piñas, which they then pull out of the filth by hand. All that time spent rising, and that’s it for the agave, which could possibly be harvested precisely as quickly as.

They then load the piñas proper right into a truck for roasting, which could take one different week as quickly because the subterranean oven is constructed. The agave leaves are then tilled once more into the soil the place beans, clover and mustard develop as cowl crops.

As quickly as roasted, the piñas are shredded and pressed to extract their sugary juices. Liquor makers then ferment and distill that liquid, proof all of it the best way down to 1 factor spherical 40-45 p.c ABV and bottle it in the marketplace. Each 750-milliliter bottle requires about 11 kilos of agave.

Drink Up!

When Venus Spirits began importing Mexican agave juice to make spirits in 2014, the Santa Cruz distillery was one in every of three throughout the U.S. to take motion, founder and distiller Sean Venus talked about.

A pair hundred distillers do the equivalent now, Venus talked about, nevertheless not many get their agave from California. Venus Spirits is probably going one of many fortunate few. It launched 450 bottles of El Ladrón Yolo, its first California-grown sort out tequila, in 2021, using Reynolds’ agave.

California Agave Council Director Craig Reynolds stands by to locally-grown agave spirits
California Agave Council Director Craig Reynolds stands by to locally-grown agave spirits remaining month comprised of distilled agave vegetation harvested at Joe Mueller’s farm in Woodland. (Paul Kitagaki Jr./The Sacramento Bee/TNS)

The first El Ladrón Yolo bottles had been purchased solely throughout the distillery’s tasting room, though the next batch will in all probability be barely greater and distributed by way of completely different retailers. Venus Spirits nonetheless makes Mexican agave spirits, nevertheless they’re not the equivalent.

“It’s pretty a bit completely completely different. We get additional of the vegetal notes from California agave. It’s a lot much less sweet, nevertheless additional minerally, so it’s purchased additional of an actual character and style than Mexican agave spirits,” Venus talked about. “It’s a really fascinating issue. We’re roasting over almond wood, and just a bit little little bit of that smoke character will get into the agave and comes by way of throughout the spirits.”

Sean Venus
Sean Venus is a distiller from Venus Spirits of Santa Cruz that has ordered three tons of agave from Joe and Muller’s farm in Woodland. (Paul Kitagaki Jr./The Sacramento Bee/TNS)

California filth costs higher than Jalisco land, and the traditional cooking methodology Reynolds makes use of is time-intensive.

These elements drive the worth of the following beverage up: a bottle of El Ladrón Yolo sells for $90, whereas Venus Spirits’ liquors comprised of Mexican agave go for $42-$68.

However demand is extreme. People are anticipated to spend higher than $13.3 billion on agave spirits tequila and mezcal this yr, overtaking vodka and whiskey as a result of the nation’s most-bought spirit, primarily based on beverage evaluation company IWSR.

Venus and Reynolds rely on prices to fall as California’s agave enterprise grows and turns into additional setting pleasant. If additional California farmers develop agave, Venus Spirits will buy it.

Throughout the meantime, Venus has planted only a few seedlings throughout the distillery and is exploring greater plots outdoor of Santa Cruz. “All the kind of farm-to-bottle issue is a course of that’s truly fascinating and unseen by (many) completely different distillers,” Venus talked about. “I imagine it’s one factor truly distinctive that’s going down correct now, and we’re merely excited to be part of it.”

Correct Crop, Correct Place?

California’s pure rising circumstances—extreme heat, fertile soil and a Mediterranean native climate—make the state applicable for agave along with many various crops. The California Agave Council now comprises farmers from counties as disparate as Lake, San Luis Obispo and Imperial.

Nonetheless the Central Valley is the realm to look at, because of this crop takes little useful water. That has farmers like Stuart Woolf ripping out their almond timber in favor of agave vegetation.

Woolf’s family has farmed throughout the Westlands Water District as a result of the late Forties. The family in the intervening time grows nuts, cotton, alliums, winegrapes, grains and additional on 20,000 acres spherical Huron in Fresno County. However with new state authorized tips such as a result of the Sustainable Groundwater Administration Act (SGMA) proscribing the amount of water farmers can pump, Woolf estimates he’ll lastly fallow 40 p.c of his land.

Woolf plans to lease among the many space to industrial picture voltaic firms, nevertheless wishes to keep up farming the crops he can. He began rising 4,000 agave vegetation in a check out plot in 2019. Whereas none is mature however, they’re thriving so far, he talked about.

“Is that this one factor akin to when California first started shifting into the winegrape enterprise, and we’d have naysayers in all places on the planet saying ‘good luck with that?’” Woolf puzzled. “As soon as I drive spherical my neighborhood, there are agaves in all places, merely in gardens or off the freeway. We have now now vegetation in the marketplace in farm nation the place nobody is irrigating them they normally look like thriving.”

They’re doing so properly, in actuality, that Woolf will plant 160 acres of agave this yr and he plans to do the equivalent in subsequent years—roughly 200,000 vegetation per yr. His 5 children had little curiosity in carrying on the family’s farming legacy, however when he suggested them about his agave plans over dinner, all of them wanted in.

Woolf is doing all this planting with hopes that one other particular person will assemble a industrial plant to cut, heat and extract juice from that many piñas, because of none at current exists in California. If no one does by the purpose they’re capable of be harvested, he nonetheless has a plan.

“I’m going to plant all these items and if I can’t get somebody to take them off my arms, I’m going to course of them myself,” Woolf talked about. “It actually is a chicken-and-the-egg kind of issue, and I could be getting in a lot deeper if I had been to do that. Nonetheless I don’t know, I’m kind of intrigued by all the idea.”

Totally different individuals are getting involved on the evaluation entrance, because of Woolf’s funding. He and his partner Lisa donated $100,000 remaining yr for UC Davis researchers to analysis agave’s viability in California, with a consider determining rising locations, plant attributes and future funding sources.

Agave can survive with little to no water all through dry years, nevertheless frost could possibly be killer and is additional seemingly in California than Mexico. If water is on the market, Woolf is having a look at using drip irrigation for faster-growing, sugarier vegetation pretty than the dry farming normally accomplished in Mexico.

Agave spirits are rooted in Mexico, and mezcal significantly carries no small amount of mysticism and cultural lore. Nonetheless California can’t and isn’t making tequila or mezcal. It’s making its private spirit.

“We’re merely one different part of the family,” Reynolds talked about. “We’re not attempting to take Mexican traditions. We’re California distillers doing their very personal issue, finding out alongside one of the simplest ways.”

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