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El Agave

To often you here the question. " What kind of cactus is tequila made from?" Tequila is made from tequilana weber azul a plant classified as a succulent, in the order Liliaceae. Definitely not a cactus.

The agave plant has had many uses throughout history such as:

  • Making paper
  • Fence type barriers to protect property
  • The leaves have been used as a type of tile for roofing material
  • The quiotes (flower stocks) once dried are used for beams in ceilings
  • The fiber from the pencas (leaves) are used as thread for sewing material
  • The spines at the end of the pencas are use for needles and nails
  • The liquid produced by the plant has been used for making wine, vinegar, honey, sugar and of course Tequila!

The origin of the word Maguey comes from the Antilles. It has been called by many names in Mexico and in other cultures. Metl in Náhuatl, Tocamba in Purépecha and Guada in Otomí. Although the agave is found world wide in no other culture is the agave so widely used as it is by the people of Mexico.

In the Náhuatl culture, the maguey was a divine creation represented by Mayáhuel, a goddess revered by this culture. Mayáhuel was married to Petácatl, who represented certain plants that assisted in the fermentation process of pulque, giving this drink magical powers apparently passing those powers to those who drank it. The maguey was very important as a nutritional and dietary supplement to the people of this region.

The agave of pre-Hispanic times was considered sacred a gift from the gods. Some of the oldest records are are seen in the Tonalmatl Náhuatl codex, meaning " The Aztec Pilgrims Papyrus," telling the story of the Mexican people.

According to the Natull, Laud, Florentine and Mendocino codices, the indigenous people found many uses for agave; food, threads, needles, shoes, roof tiles, clothes, nails, weapons and paper.

The indigenous people of the region learned to cook the agave after a field had caught on fire via a lightning strike during a storm. In the field were some agave plants that had cooked during the blaze, after investigating they realized that there was a sweet nectar coming from the baked agave and was soon considered a gift from the gods.

When the Conquistadors arrived in the states of Jalisco, Colima, Nayarit and Aguascalientes they encountered an alcohol made from agave by the Ticuila or Tiquilinos Indians. This fermented drink was used during religious ceremonies and special occasions. When the Spaniards partook of this beverage they immediately took to it and soon found themselves conquered by Mayáhuel, the Spaniards began using the tips of bull horns to drink this beverage. It soon became common place to use this type of vessel and were given a name "Cuernito".

The fields of blue agave enhance Mexico's landscape with its blue rosette shape and long sword like leaves. A variety of alcoholic beverages are produced in Mexico,
These beverages are given the generic name of mescal. They also receive the name of the region where they originate, The most famous being Tequila mescal.
There are several varieties of agave, who's juices are fermented and distilled to produce alcoholic beverages; however, only the blue agave Tequilana Weber is authorized to be used for the production of tequila.

The cultivation of blue agave is area specific and requires optimal conditions to produces the correct amount of starches required to convert to sugar during fermentation.

Factors such as altitude 1500 meters above sea level, favorable soil condition; volcanic loamy mixture with excellent drainage, sufficient nutrients; rich basalt and iron, close to a meter of precipitation, semidry climate with a varying temperature of 20° Celsius and adequate sunshine 6 hours a day or 65 – 100 days of sunshine a year.

There are two areas with optimal condition for growing blue agave tequilana weber in the state of Jalisco one being Tequila and the other Los Altos of Jalisco.

The blue agave tequila weber var. azul has specific characteristics that separate it from the other varieties of agave. A fleshy rosette shape made up of fibrous grayish blue leaves which turn green when handled due to the loss of the wax coating.

The wax coating is essential to maintaining moisture within the leaves enabling the leaves to store water. The leaves are rigid, with marginal and apical spines. The leaves also store a form of insulin and produce fructose.

The propagation of tequilana weber var. azul occurs naturally via seed dispersal and the formation of bulbs on the quiote (flower stalk) however for commercial purposes the hijuelos (pups) that are produced via a rhizome are harvested and used for propagation. Harvesting hijuelos occurs when they have reached a height of 50cm and a diameter the size of a grapefruit at, that time they are separated from the mother plant and prepared for transplanting. The optimal age for agave to produce hijuelos is between 3 and 5 years of age and produces 1 to 2 hijuelos per year.

The planting of hijuelos is done just before the rainy season insuring the proper amount of moisture to establish a strong root system. The hijuelos must be planted with 75% of its bulb mass in the ground to properly seat the new agave plant.

Once the hijuelos have been planted the long journey begins; taking 8 to 10 years to mature. Throughout the years, the plants are cared for, by fertilizing, weeding, growth control and disease prevention.

Many steps are taken to insure the highest quality of agave production. The selection of the a healthy mother plant and the hijuelo plays a major role in achieving vigorous and healthy plant. There are also steps taken to insure maximum production and storage of starch in the heart.

When the plant reaches an age of 6 years, the process called debarring is performed, using a machete to remove the tips of the plant leaving them flat without the apical spine.

During the dry season the mature plants "cogol" (center) begins to reduce in size, becoming smaller due to the growth of the quiote. At this time the quiote must be removed or risk loosing the sugar accumulated over the years rendering the plant useless. The term used in this process is know as desquiote.

When the plant reaches maturity the "jima" (harvesting) begins. A specialized tool is used called a "Coa". The Coa is a round shape blade on the end of a sturdy stick.

The Jimador uses this tool to remove the pencas and begin shaping the agave into a piña (pineapple). The agave plant is separated from the root system leaving the plant ready for shaping. Depending on the age, climate conditions and how close the cut is made the piña can weigh over 100kg (220 pounds).

Read more about the agave and tequila on the History page.