Raw Material Agave in Mezcal Production
Although at first glance these plants are not expected to produce products suitable for human consumption, the range of these is very wide.
The cut flower shoot (quiote) is a speciality of the local cuisine and tastes like stem cabbage. The cuticle of the leaves (mixiote) can be pulled off and stuffed with meat and vegetables and steamed. The individual flowers (gualumbos) are also edible and the juice of the heated and squeezed agave hearts is known as agave syrup (aguamiel). It is also the basic material of fermentation to produce agave distillates.
Of the currently around 270 described species of the genus Agave from the family Agavoideae, the vast majority are found in the highlands of Mexico, which indicates that the development of the plant began here.
Both cultivated and wild species are used for the production of distillates, with growth phases of varying lengths ranging from 5 to 15 years or more. Tequila may only be made from Agave tequilana Weber, while over 30 species can be distilled into Mezcal, with the use of A. angustifolia being the most widespread. Both mature in about seven to eight years, can be cultivated, produce a high sugar content and are comparatively easy to propagate. In general, however, growing agaves is very labour-intensive.
The more interesting Mezcals, however, are obtained from wild species, where the terroir, i.e. their natural environment, location and altitude, have a more marked influence on the taste than than cultivars. The best-known wild agave species for Mezcal production is A. potatorum, called Tobalá. The extraction of agaves is often very laborious, as they usually grow in remote locations and are transported by pack animals.
Different types of agave produce different flavour profiles in the end product — similar to the vine in wine. These are subject to further influences such as processing techniques in the distillery or the terroir of the plants, but they are definitely recognisable.
At the end of its vegetative phase, the agave is mature (estar a sazón) and can be harvested. The target of the harvest is the heart of the agave, where it has stored years of accumulated energy as inulin (a carbohydrate form), which is later converted back into sugar.
If the flower stem (quiote, varejón, escapo floral) is already beginning to sprout from the centre, it is cut. This leaves the nutrients collected over the years in the heart of the plant. This remains in nature or in the field for a few more months, rarely up to two more years (capón de 2 años, bien picado).
For harvesting, all leaves are removed (rasurar) and the heart (corazón, mezonte) is cut off just above the ground. Its shape now resembles a pineapple or pine cone, which is why these parts of the plant are also called piña. An exception here is A. karwinskii, which forms a stem that is strongly woody and gives the plant a resemblance to a yucca. Regardless of whether the quiote has been topped or the plant is able to bear the flower, the agave dies on reproduction if it has not been harvested first.
Harvesting (jima, cosecha) is always done manually, with special machetes (e.g. in Santa Catarina Minas at Real Minero) or with coas, a circular sharp blade on a long stem, depending on the region and agave species. While it is common for small producers that the master distiller selects, and harvests the agaves himself, large producers use specialised harvesters, the jimadores. They work on a piecework basis and are paid by the kilogram of agave harvested. Good jimadores determine themselves which plants are ready for harvesting and with which cut (sharp, medium, long) the leaves are removed. This has a great influence on the flavour, as the green parts of the leaves produce bitter substances when cooked, for example.
After harvesting, the agave hearts are transported to the distillery. In the case of field cultivation with trucks, and in the case of wild plants in hard-to-reach locations with pack animals.
The next page, MANUFACTURE, deals with the further processing of agaves into spirits.
Agaves can be propagated in three ways:
1. vegetatively by shoots from the underground rhizomes (the "root") of the agave, similar to offshoots. This happens in mid-life and the young agaves are genetic clones of their mother plant, called hijuelos.
2. generatively by flowering, pollinating and forming seeds, thus completing the agave's life cycle. Seedlings of this plant carry the genetic information of the mother and father. The flower is mainly pollinated by bats.
3. if no pollination takes place, many agaves can form small brood agaves (bulbilos, apomixis) on the flower bases, which can later fall down and take root. These plants are also a clone of the mother plant, without a genetic father. This is partly provoked in cultivation by cutting off the flowers.
Not all agave species practice all three types of propagation. This is important for breeding and sustainability in Mezcal production. Vegetative propagation from natural clones of the mother plant saves time and labour, but reproduces a few genetic individuals repeatedly over long periods of time, creating monocultures susceptible to disease. Desirable wild Mezcal agaves such as A. potatorum or cupreata do not form clones at all, but grow only from seed. This exclusive generative propagation exposes them to overexploitation more quickly than plants that can be propagated by cuttings and obtained from field cultivation.
All the distilleries that we IMPORT DIRECTLY have their own sustainability activities.
More about this on the PRODUCER PROFILES.
It is important for us to support the producers in these activities, but not to prescribe them, as each producer has its own requirements. That is why we do not have organic or fair trade certifications, as we do not find these top-down requirements of a "western" market for traditional producers helpful.