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Harvesting the agaves themselves is tricky business. Looks are deceiving for agaves. Two similar plants, beside one another in the same row, can end up with wildly different piņas once the leaves are all cut away. A mechanical harvester would have to be able to compensate for each different size, many times in a single row. And could a mechanical harvester recognize a bad or infected agave? Somewhere along the line before cooking, humans would have to sort the heads.
Updated May, 2011
South Africa: Tequila's New Competitor, Closes
Agaves - particularly the Mexican blue agave - were introduced into South Africa within the last century and a half. But how they got there is a tale equivalent to the origin of the margarita. One story claims it was Portuguese sailors who brought them in the mid-19th century. A second relates that agave plants were distributed throughout South Africa in the early 1900s for both erosion control and as a fodder crop in droughts. Thousands of plants were planted by many families in the Graaf-Reinet area. A third story says a young girl brought three imported agave plants from Grahamstown in 1938, and planted them on a farm outside Graaff-Reinet. Still another theory goes that the agave plant was introduced by a traveller riding from Grahamstown to Cape Town between 1820 and 1830.
Regardless of which tales is the truth, the agave in South Africa flourished in the Karoo, and now number in the millions. They were used to make an agave-based spirit (now called Agava) since 2003, in a venture that lasted until spring, 2008.
When the agave shortage hit Mexico
in the mid 1990s, causing havoc in the tequila
industry, local South African businessmen formed Reinet Distillers to produce
their own, home-grown version of tequila. However, while the owners struggled to
unlock Mexico’s tequila-making traditions, they experienced technical problems
in their factory. Reinet Distillers closed without making a single shot of
Because of the international denomination of origin, no one outside Mexico can make an agave spirit and call it tequila. That caused some initial upset when the company was forced to find another description: an agave spirit. However, it does make the claim to be a "100% blue agave" spirit and producers say it is identical to tequila aside from the name.
the final product, was triple distilled. Original reports said the gold - the equivalent of
reposado - was aged in a tank with oak staves for three months. Apparently it was
not aged in barrels. However, on SouthAfrica.info, a story said Agava Gold was
matured in oak barrels in Namibia. The barrels were soon going to be brought to the Graaff-Reinet factory to house the whole operation under one roof.
That distillery produced 1,200 litres a day, considerably less than its capacity of about 10,000 litres/day. The distillery also become a tourist destination in South Africa. About 480 hectares of agaves were under cultivation at the plant.
Most of the company's exports were sold as bulk shipments to the
United States, United Kingdom, Australia and France. McLachlan said he hoped to
increase production so he could send more than 60 000 litres a month to
importers. According to company reports, some was even sold to Mexico.
Agava's producers claimed their product is as good as, if not better than, tequila. Whether or not this is true, Agava and other agave spirits made outside Mexico - generally selling at a lower price point than premium tequilas - might confuse the consumer and challenge tequila makers in the marketplace for shelf space.
Another potential market for the South African agave is agave syrup, or nectar. This is fast becoming a hot item in both the health food industry and as a possible replacement for sugar in commercial food production. So far this market remains untapped by Mexican agave growers, except as a peripheral or cottage industry. But it was never realized as a market by the South African firm, either.
Tequila makers and the CRT were well aware of South Africa's pending move into the agave spirits market. Investors had begun sniffing around looking for additional financial support and markets well before production began. South Africans travelled to Jalisco to learn the trade from distillers there. A trade news story from 1997 reads:
Mexican tequila distillers facing South Africa competition The Mexican tequila industry, facing possible competition from South Africa, is pushing for a global recognition of tequila and mezcal as uniquely Mexican products.
The EU offered the designation earlier this year in exchange for a Mexican agreement to accept the same recognition for other European spirits (see SourceMex, 02/12/97). The EU designation in effect eliminated competition from "tequila vasco," a spirit distilled in Spain. The EU is the only major tequila-consuming region that has offered strong protection for Mexican tequila. According to the CRT, lack of protection elsewhere could allow countries such as South Africa to begin a "tequila war" with Mexico.
Meanwhile as the Mexicans wrung their hands, the South African company (originally called Tequila and Mezcal Distillers Ltd.) announced its plans to construct an agave distillery in the Graaff-Reinet district near the Cape of Good Hope. The plant was originally scheduled to begin production in the year 2000 with the capacity to manufacture 240,000 liters of alcohol per month. However, most of the production was intended as an industrial byproduct, with one-tenth of the output devoted to its pseudo-tequila.
Porfidio, a producer with a colourful history and not a few confrontations with Mexican authorities to its own name, had apparently changed from making tequila to making agave spirits, which some sources claimed were allegedly distilled from South African agaves.
South Africa itself may face competition in the agave spirits market in the next few years. Indian entrepreneurs may soon produce their own agave spirits, most likely to serve the national rather than export market (see notes on world culture).
Update, May 2008:
According to a story on Moneyweb, Agave went into bankruptcy in late February and closed its doors in early March, 2008, following the suicide of one of its directors. Twenty five employees at the distillery lost their jobs when the plant closed:
Agave Distillers, an unlisted company with a broad, longsuffering shareholder
base, has been placed under provisional liquidation by the Cape High Court. Over
the past few years, Agave shares have been sold to the public by brokers,
notably Capital Commitments.