Fifteen college students board a plane to Mexico with one thing on their minds: tequila. But it’s not what you think … at the end of this trek, there will be a grade. The University of Houston’s Spirits of Mexico class, a first of its kind in higher education, takes a comprehensive look at the business of agave spirits.

Earlier this year, clinical assistant professor Nathan Jarvis with Hilton College-San Antonio took a group of hospitality students on this experiential Mexican journey from the agave fields that canvas miles upon miles of hilly Jalisco countryside to the major distilleries outside of Guadalajara.

The learning began in the classroom, where students from Hilton College (San Antonio and Houston) spent four days, upward of seven hours a day, learning about agave and the production of agave spirits. After covering topics such as agronomy, harvesting, tequila and mezcal regulations, production practices and responsible service of alcohol, they were off to visit tequila country.

Ana Garcia, preparing for a career in event management, appreciated the passion of the jimadors, or Mexican farm workers, she encountered during a visit to Patrón Spirits International in Jalisco, Mexico. More than 300 million agave plants are harvested in the Tequila region each year. The large, spikey-leaved plants can take as long as a decade to mature, before being harvested for their heart, or piña, to produce products vital to the Mexican economy—tequila and mezcal. Tequila comes from the Blue Weber agave, while its cousin mezcal can be made from multiple varieties of agave.

“We talked to one jimador, and it was clear how much he loved his work, even though it’s a really tough job,” Garcia said. “It was a family thing. His father and grandfather both worked in the fields. It’s been a big part of their culture for generations.”

Tequila is one of the largest and fastest growing spirits in North America. The United States imports about 78 percent of all agave tequila produced in Mexico, and it’s a significant part of restaurant operations in San Antonio. Margarita anyone?

“Adding this class to our food and beverage curriculum is exciting, and we hope it will have an impact on the city and the industry as it prepares students for their careers,” said Jarvis. “The students leave this class with an in-depth understanding of the sustainability of agave spirits and how to select, serve and sell the product.”

The jimadores use a coa, a flat-bladed knife at the end of a long pole, to cut the spikey leaves off the agave. Some students even took a turn wielding the coa. The piñas, which can be as small as a basketball or as large as a 200-pound boulder, are cooked, converting the starch into sugar, before being fermented and distilled into alcohol.

A sweet, yet earthy aroma emanated through the distilleries visited by the students, including Jose Cuervo and Casa Herradura, where Garcia enjoyed homemade ice cream topped with tequila.

Other stops included meeting with representatives from the Guadalajara Convention and Visitors Bureau and the Consejo Regulador del Tequila A.C. (CRT), Mexico’s tequila regulatory council. Tequila is a Mexican designation of origin product, which means it can only be produced in five Mexican states. The oversight is substantial. Farmers planting agave plants must notify the CRT, which certifies the species and even uses satellite imagery to monitor the growth of the agave and any pathogens that could harm a harvest. State-of-the-art labs are used to test the purity of the final product.

“The council knows exactly how many plants are growing on thousands of farms and when they will be ripe. It helps them predict the success of the crops and the long-term prospect for the tequila industry,” said Jarvis.

Reflecting on the experience, Garcia expects her newly found knowledge will have a positive impact on her career.

“Tequila production is so important to Mexico,” she said. “It was an eye-opener.”