For every liter of tequila bottled, the fermentation process generates about 11 pounds of agave pulp. Consider this at scale. In 2021, tequila sales in the United States amounted to about 27 million nine-liter cases. That’s a mind-boggling 2.7 billion pounds of agave waste pulp. Or 2.7 billion pounds of waste material that could be used for something else—like making bricks.
Last October, Kendall Jenner’s popular 818 Tequila company partnered with Mexican nonprofit SACRED, which works to support the rural Mexican communities that produce agave spirits. Together they started the 818 Bricks Program, using 818 Tequila’s post-production agave fibers to create adobe bricks. The first batch of bricks has just been completed and will be used to build a school library and a tasting room for a family-run distillery—145 miles away from 818’s distillery in the Mexican region of Jalisco.
“To me, it’s so beautiful that they’re thinking both about, how do we decrease our footprint on the planet and at the same time, how do we improve the communities that are helping us build our business,” says SACRED founder Lou Bank, who was introduced to 818 Tequila through 1% for the Planet, an international organization with members like 818 Tequila, Patagonia, and Honest Tea that contribute at least 1% of their annual sales to environmental causes.
Both the buildings and the bricks were designed by local architect Eric Gómez Ibarra, whose firm, Tierra Cruda, specializes in bioclimatic architecture that uses local materials. Ibarra says that agave has been used to make adobe bricks for “thousands of years”—it can even be found in the bricks that make up some of the region’s ancient pyramids. But as modern technology and concrete became more prevalent, traditional practices fell out of favor: Adobe bricks can’t be manufactured industrially because the formula varies, based on the agave batch and the kind of clay or soil available for each project.
In this case, Ibarra says the bricks are made of 10% to 15% of agave fiber, which works a bit like a binder. The rest consists of soil from the buildings’ excavated foundations, clay sourced in the region, water, and about 5% of another byproduct of tequila-making called viñaza. Ibarra says that this highly acidic distillation waste helps make the adobe bricks more water-resistant.
Everything is mixed the day before, then poured inside wooden forms where it sets before it’s removed and left to sun dry for about three days, depending on the season. Unlike conventional bricks, which are fired in kilns at an average temperature of 1,900 degrees Fahrenheit, this process requires no energy, in some cases resulting in a net-zero carbon footprint for the building. And because adobe bricks absorb heat during the day and release it at night, their cooling properties help further cut down on a building’s emissions by reducing the need for AC.
Adobe bricks are one of the oldest and most common building materials known to man, and they can last for 400 years if properly maintained and protected from rain. To improve their durability, however, Ibarra has designed a sinuous pattern on the surface of each brick. “When you have a very flat surface drying in sun, it’s going to crack if it dries too fast,” he says. “The main reason [for the pattern] is to prevent crackles on the surface, but it also helps to give more grip once they’re laid on the wall.”
This isn’t the first time that bricks have been infused or made with waste material. In 2012, the startup Biomason started growing bricks out of bacteria (and urea). Since 2013, Dutch company Stonecycling has been developing bricks with as much as 80% of industrial and construction waste (these recently found their way into a residential complex in Manhattan). And after years of R&D, Los Angeles-based startup ByFusion is now turning nonrecyclable plastic into building blocks fit for construction.
In Mexico, agave bricks are slowly making their way back into construction, too. In Oaxaca, where most of the world’s mezcal is produced, local architecture firm COAA recently created adobe bricks using waste from the mezcal brand Sombra Mezcal. This methodology is now being perpetuated in Jalisco, where the 818 Bricks Program is helping revive the tradition and create jobs. “We want them not only to have money but also know that what their grandparents did is also good now,” says Ibarra. “They can relearn these skills and if they want, repeat them for their houses.”
The library is breaking ground in the next few weeks and will be complete by January 2023, followed by the tasting room, which will take about five months to build. For now, Bank says that SACRED is only working with 818, but he’s hopeful that the initiative will inspire other spirit companies to follow in their footsteps. “If somebody else comes to us, we’re more than open to continuing our mission,” he says.