Margaritas with meaning: How José Cuervo is using tequila byproducts to create sustainable housing in Mexico

·8 min read
In Mexico, José Cuervo is doing more than just making tequila. The brand is also using byproducts from the tequila-making process to create sustainable homes. (Photos: Josie Maida)
In Mexico, José Cuervo is doing more than just making tequila. The brand is also using byproducts from the tequila-making process to create sustainable homes. (Photos: Josie Maida)

The next time you're about to order a round of tequila shots at happy hour, or you're deciding whether you'd like a sugar or salt rim on your José Cuervo margarita, there's a chance you could also be helping build sustainable housing for families in Mexico.

In Tequila, Mexico, the agave-derived libation known as tequila is more than a drink — it's the lifeblood of a colorful community. It all started in 1758, when Don José Antonio Cuervo y Valdés, better known as José Cuervo, immigrated to Tequila, a town in the state of Jalisco, from Spain. Cuervo began producing tequila, combining new technology from Spain with an ancient fermentation process of the blue agave plant.

How is tequila made?

"Our pre-hispanic people had the agave," explains Sonia Espinola de la Llave, master of tequila and director of heritage at José Cuervo. "Before they called it agave, they called it mezcal. Our native people stopped with the fermentation part of the process, so they had a special spirit beverage [called vino de mezcal.]"

"When the Spanish people came, they brought the system of distillation, and it's a union of the two cultures," shares Espínola de la Llave, who also serves as director of the Beckmann Foundation, an organization committed to developing sustainable projects and programs that contribute to raising the quality of life in the community of Tequila.

Eleven generations and 264 years later, there are 22 tequila distilleries in Tequila, three of which are owned and operated by José Cuervo.

Why is tequila made in Tequila?

But what makes Tequila, a town nestled alongside Tequila Volcano, the home of this popular spirit? Marco Antonio Sanchez Luna, an employee of José Cuervo, says the stratovolcano, a volcano built up of layers of lava and ash, last erupted over 30,000 years ago. Still, the fields of volcanic sandy soil throughout the town provide the perfect terrain for the growth of blue agave.

There must be at least 51% blue agave in a bottle of alcohol for it to be referred to as tequila, but the process of growing, harvesting and obtaining this liquid gold is no easy feat. According to Sanchez Luna, a single bottle of tequila can take around 20 years to craft from start to finish, and it all starts in the agave fields.

The fields of volcanic sandy soil throughout the town of Tequila provide the perfect terrain for the growth of blue agave. (Photo: Josie Maida)
The fields of volcanic sandy soil throughout the town of Tequila provide the perfect terrain for the growth of blue agave. (Photo: Josie Maida)

"Agave plants take from five to 10 years to mature, to get a good level of sugar to make a good tequila," Sanchez Luna says, adding that the longer the plant matures, the better the quality of the tequila made from it will be.

From agave to tequila

Farmers called jimadores tend to agave plants, ensuring each one grows properly. Domingo Rios is a jimador who says over 3,000 baby agave plants are planted daily in José Cuervo fields to keep up with global demand.

While it's incredibly labor-intensive work, Rios says he and his fellow jimadores enjoy sharing tequila with the world and carrying on an important tradition from their heritage. "I take pride in it — to be born in this region," he says. "My dad was also a man of the fields. I'm second-generation and have worked in the fields for over 40 years myself."

After years of work — and careful tending and cutting of the agave leaves with tools like machetes — the jimadores trim away all outer leaves, revealing the center of the agave, referred to as the "pineapple." This will be sent to the distillery, where a large healthy plant can be turned into about seven bottles of tequila.

In the tequila-making process, large ovens are used to cook down the
In the tequila-making process, large ovens are used to cook down the "pineapple" at the center of each agave plant. (Photo: Josie Maida)

But the process of distilling agave into tequila is a lengthy one: At Mundo Cuervo Fábrica La Rojeña, the first and oldest tequila distillery in Latin America, the process begins with rows and rows of industrial ovens where the agave will be cooked for nearly 40 hours using steam, a step Espinola de la Llave swears is worth the wait.

"We cook with steam — it's not the same when we cook in a pot or a pressure cooker," she says. "Other distilleries use a pressure cooker and the agave can be ready in eight hours, but here, it's longer because we want more aromas and more sweetness."

After being steamed for close to two days, the agave will cook for another eight hours before it's time for the next step of the process — sending the product off to the lab to ensure each plant has at least 24% sugar, enough to make tequila. If the plant isn't sweet enough, it isn't passed on for production.

Only the sweetest agave heads onto a conveyor belt and off to the mills, where the cooked plant is smashed and the "sugar water" is obtained. This juice of the agave is all that's needed, and the liquid heads off to the fermentation tanks for 24 to 36 hours, then off for double-distillation in copper pots for around nine hours. Finally, the tequila is put into custom-made barrels, utilizing a variety of wood types based on the desired flavor profile, where it will sit to age before being bottled.

Tequila is aged in barrels before being bottled and distributed. (Photo: Josie Maida)
Tequila is aged in barrels before being bottled and distributed. (Photo: Josie Maida)

Types of tequila

Espinola de la Llave tells Yahoo Life there are five classes of tequila: "White tequila, which is complete right after distillation and reposado, which is aged for at least two months, but no longer than one year. If the alcohol is aged for more than a year, it's an añejo, more than three years, extra añejo. Last, joven tequila [is] a blend of young and aged tequila."

Once the tequila has been properly aged and bottled, it can be sent off for consumption around the world.

Getting more from tequila byproducts

As both caring for agave plants and the tequila-making process require intense labor and tradition to produce, it's important to the community that they not waste a single part of the plant. The leaves and byproducts of the tequila-making process are used to make everything from lotions to bug repellents to hats, and now, even homes.

Domingo Rios is a jimador who has been working in agave fields for over 40 years. (Photo: Josie Maida)
Domingo Rios is a jimador who has been working in agave fields for over 40 years. (Photo: Josie Maida)

Currently, the Mundo Cuervo team is working on a new project: The House that Tequila Made. The housing project is a continuation of José Cuervo's Agave Project — an initiative started in 2019 to spearhead the company's commitment to agave and create a circular economy by repurposing the materials that result from the tequila production process. Its ultimate goal? To make the process of producing tequila more sustainable.

By partnering with ITESO (Instituto Tecnológico y de Estudios Superiores de Occidente) University, located in Guadalajara, Mexico, Jalisco's capital, the team is creating homes made using 100% sustainable materials, including repurposed agave byproduct from the José Cuervo distillery.

From tequila, sustainable housing

This sustainable housing project will provide affordable and attainable housing to the people of Tequila, beginning with José Cuervo's very own. Antonio "Toño" Gonzalez Magallanes, his wife and their children will move into the first agave house in the coming weeks. Gonzalez Magallanes was selected to receive the first home due to his dedication and commitment to his work as a jimador.

Jose Cuervo is now using byproducts from the tequila-making process to create sustainable housing. Antonio
Jose Cuervo is now using byproducts from the tequila-making process to create sustainable housing. Antonio "Toño" Gonzalez Magallanes, his wife and their children will move into the first agave house in the coming weeks. (Photo: Josie Maida)

Utilizing water, soil and fibers from the agave plant, left over after tequila is produced, large bricks are formed then used to build the structures, which will also have brand new eco-technologies, a dry composting toilet and solar power.

These sustainable homes take just 12 weeks to construct. And, according to Mauricio Rodriguez Mejia, the architect behind the new construction, they cost 40% less than other homes in the area. They're also easier for people to build safely.

"They're using the materials from the production of the tequila, but also things from the ground, from the soil," he says. "It permits a circular economy: It's less money than regular construction and it's easier. It allows the people building their house to be involved in the process."

"This program helps with housing for lower income people in the area," Rodriguez Mejia adds. "It has been difficult for people to have dignity in their houses and to have a nice home, because it's so complicated to build one."

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