Whereas researching her doctoral thesis on denominations of origin in France, the US and Mexico, Sarah Bowen found there was a lot she and different Individuals don’t know concerning the tales and figures behind the historical past of tequila. Now an affiliate professor of sociology at North Carolina State College, Bowen chronicled her findings within the critically acclaimed ebook, “Divided Spirits: Tequila, Mezcal, and the Politics of Manufacturing.” Bowen’s present tutorial endeavors proceed to concentrate on the relationships between meals consumption/manufacturing and socioeconomic inequalities. On this Voices in Meals story, as instructed to Joanna O’Leary, Bowen speaks concerning the intersection of tequila, Latinx historical past, ladies and employees rights within the meals business.
On what most Individuals don’t learn about tequila
I feel so much individuals don’t understand that tequila is a mezcal. Mezcal was traditionally a generic time period for a distilled agave spirit, like “beer” or “wine.” Mezcals have been produced all through Mexico, utilizing a wide range of forms of agave and particular strategies, for a whole lot of years. Tequila was initially simply “mezcal de Tequila,” the mezcal from the world across the metropolis of Tequila, however over time, its identify was shortened to only tequila.
“What’s problematic about [tequila’s success story] is that the advantages related to this success haven’t trickled all the way down to the communities, farmers and employees who make tequila.”
The rationale tequila is so well-known will not be as a result of it’s the oldest or finest mezcal, however as a result of within the late 1800s, mezcal producers in Tequila expanded and industrialized extra efficiently than producers in different areas. They have been among the many first to start out crushing agave with a tahona (a stone wheel), as an alternative of by hand, and to cook dinner the agave in masonry ovens and distill with column stills. And mezcal producers from Tequila have been additionally the primary to guard their identify. Since 1974, tequila has been protected by a “denomination of origin,” which implies that solely producers within the Mexican state of Jalisco (the house of Tequila) and elements of 4 different states have the precise to make use of the time period “tequila.”
On the roles of girls within the tequila and mezcal business
Girls have at all times been concerned in tequila and mezcal manufacturing, however sadly most of the “heroes” of the story are males. Numerous the names on the tequila bottles and within the entrance of individuals’s minds are males’s: Jose Cuervo, Cenobio Sauza. And also you have a look at the individuals on the boards of the organizations that regulate and outline the business ― the Tequila Regulatory Council and the Nationwide Chamber of the Tequila Business ― that’s a number of males, too. I used to be attending many conferences and workshops and conferences the place there have been solely a handful of girls. So there are largely males on the literal and figurative tables. Girls are a central a part of these industries, however they’ve traditionally been much less seen, however I feel that is altering. Among the strongest voices calling for change are ladies’s ― individuals like Graciela Ángeles of Mezcal Actual Minero, for instance. However there undoubtedly must be additional change in that route.
On the obstacles to tequila getting the respect it deserves as a spirit
Starting within the mid-1990s, the business made a significant effort to rebrand and redefine tequila: from a lowbrow, hangover-inducing liquor into a high quality spirit, one thing clean and complex, loved by people who find themselves in flip prepared to pay larger costs. And tequila has been a fantastic success story; manufacturing volumes have greater than tripled for the reason that mid-1990s, and tremendous premium tequilas are the fastest-growing phase.
However what’s problematic about this “high quality flip” in tequila is that the advantages related to this success haven’t trickled all the way down to the communities, farmers and employees who make tequila. Tequila high quality has been outlined in such a approach, particularly on the age of the tequila, the barrels it was aged in, and generally the flavors which might be added, that permits the distilleries to regulate it, whereas ignoring the issues that make tequila distinctive, like its connection to a specific place and the important practices which might be consultant of that place.
On the people hidden within the tequila labor chain
Positively the farmers and farmworkers. Though tequila can solely be made in a single area and with one kind of agave ― Agave tequilana Weber, or blue agave ― the area the place the agave is grown is large and contains a complete state and elements of 4 different states in Mexico. Over time, the tequila corporations have lowered what little energy the farmers have by contracting manufacturing and sourcing their agave from throughout the area to allow them to play them off of one another.
“In case you go on a tequila distillery tour, there’ll usually be a jimador, wearing a pristine white uniform and sandals, to display how the agave is harvested. … However these romantic photographs disguise the low wages, deplorable working situations and continual well being issues they undergo from.”
Agave farming can be sophisticated as a result of the plant takes six to eight years to mature after being planted, and the tequila business has struggled with cycles of surplus and lack for many years. If a discipline of agave matures throughout a interval of scarcity, a farmer may develop into wealthy in a single day, however there have been additionally lengthy durations of surplus, when farmers have been letting their agave rot within the fields as a result of the costs have been so low.
The jimadores, the individuals who harvest the agave within the fields, are much more susceptible and fewer seen inside the provide chain. In case you go on a tequila distillery tour, there’ll usually be a jimador, wearing a pristine white uniform and sandals, to display how the agave is harvested. The excursions emphasize how the jimadores have conventional data that permits them to pick solely the very best agave hearts, however these romantic photographs disguise the low wages, deplorable working situations and continual well being issues they undergo from. They’re a part of the picture however not represented within the energy construction, and make virtually nothing. And since the work is so backbreaking, jimadors can not work for very lengthy and sometimes undergo from main, costly well being issues. They aren’t protected.
On what’s subsequent for the tequila business
After I first was doing interviews for my ebook 10 or extra years in the past, lots of people have been centered on making mezcal the “subsequent” tequila, and scaling up as rapidly as doable. That has modified. Many individuals now advocate that the mezcal business must protect the hyperlinks to explicit communities and the precise manufacturing practices that make mezcal distinctive.
I feel the dialog is beginning to change within the tequila business too. Virtually nobody talked about how the agave ― the place it was grown, or the precise farming practices ― influenced the style of tequila. However now, persons are speaking concerning the terroir of the agave ― the style of place ― and a few corporations supply estate-grown tequilas, the place the agave comes from a sure discipline. I don’t know if these modifications are translating to extra energy for the agave farmers, although.
On the tasks of writing concerning the historical past of tequila as a non-Latinx particular person
The principle argument of my ebook and of my work usually is that the laws that outline merchandise should be outlined by individuals within the communities that produce them, so that is actually the essential query.
To a point, I’m talking on to different Individuals in my ebook. The USA is the largest importer of mezcal and tequila, by far, and U.S. shoppers and bottlers are accountable for lots of what’s taking place in these industries ― generally good, however largely dangerous. So a part of what I’m making an attempt to do in my ebook is discuss to American shoppers, which incorporates each Latinx and non-Latinx individuals primarily based within the U.S., about how our buying selections and priorities have energy and the way now we have a duty to push for an business that’s each extra sustainable and extra equitable.
Particularly as an outsider who will not be Mexican or Latina, in writing my ebook I attempted arduous to listen to from as many individuals as doable and attempt to seize many voices: these of farmers, bottlers and small producers throughout Mexico. However I additionally wish to be clear that I don’t assume my ebook ― nor ought to different individuals assume that my ebook ― is telling the story of tequila. There are a number of nice histories of tequila in English, though to essentially know the story, you need to additionally learn books and articles written by Mexican students, in Spanish.
This interview has been edited for readability and size.