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The incredible agave

The mother of tequila, mezcal and the strange, obscure pulque. The ancients believed that the agave was a gift from the gods. If you chance upon this majestic plant in the desert, you might think so too. Agave can stand eight feet tall, its giant sword-like leaves may span 12 feet in diameter.

Nomadic tribes that roamed the high plains of the American southwest and north-central Mexico at times subsisted on the plant, gnawing on its flesh to satiate their thirst. One Aztec myth describes a thunderbolt from the heavens splitting open an agave, revealing the aguamiel (honey water) inside its heart. The sweet juices fermented, goes the legend, into an intoxicating drink known as pulque. Aztec priests administered pulque to sacrificial victims to ease their passing into the next world as their beating hearts were torn from their chests.

The agave, too, is sacrificed. Maturation takes eight years or more. “It sends up this tall huge flower stalk, like a big phallus,” says noted tequila expert Ian Chadwick. The stalk is pruned as soon as it sprouts, forcing the succulent core to ripen and produce aguamiel. When it gives up the last of its sweet blood, the plant dies. “The cycle,” says Chadwick, “is all life, sex and death—like a Woody Allen film.”

“Agaves are remarkable,” says Park S. Nobel, a UCLA professor of botany who’s been studying the desert plant for 30 years. “They are beautifully adapted to the arid climate and high terrain.”

The agave can tolerate up to eight months without rain, and its 200-plus leaves are V-shaped to catch the little rain that does fall and guide it into its thirsty heart. All parts of the ubiquitous plant were at some point put to use: thorns with fibers attached served as needle and thread or fishhook and line; the strong-and-long fibers were bundled into brushes, corded into ropes, and woven into clothing. Ingenious natives fashioned agaves into weapons, furniture, toys, musical instruments, even paper. The plant is still used for making rope and feeding livestock, in soap and hand creme formulations and shows promise as a source of steroids.

But many would say that the agave’s most important contribution to the world is tequila. Cortez and his conquering cohorts noticed the natives sipping pulque and brought the Old-World technology of distilling to New Spain. The Spanish distilled aguamiel from various agaves into a rough spirit called mezcal vino. But it was the venerable families of Sauza and Cuervo in the little town of Tequila who discovered the best variety, cultivated that agave and produced a “mezcal tequila” so excellent that the world took notice.

Like wine grapes, the soil, altitude and climate affect the agaves, which are grown in rows of 1,000 to 2,000 plants per acre. The jimador (harvester) severs the root with his sharp coa (sort of a hoe) and then trims away all the leaves until the heart is left—looking like a giant pineapple, which is why it’s called a pina (Spanish for pineapple). Pinas can weigh from 80 to nearly 300 pounds at harvest. It takes about 15 pounds of agave heart to produce a liter of tequila.

Like all of the world’s great distilled spirits, tequila is governed by a complex web of tradition and strictly defined regulations. According to the Tequila Regulatory Council, tequila can only be distilled from Agave Tequilana Weber Azul, or the blue agave. And it can be produced only in the states of Jalisco (home to the town of Tequila), Nayarit, Michoacan, Guanajuato and Tamaulipas. There are 200 distilleries, regulated by Mexican law, producing some 700 different labels of tequila.

There is a division among producers: some use old-fashioned methods, others adopt more-efficient modern techniques.

“Some producers make a big deal about their traditional methods,” says Chadwick, “while others take a scientific approach.” In 10 years of research, Chadwick has tasted both kinds. “What really counts is a passion for making truly fine tequila.”

At the distillery, the pinas are cooked to turn starches into fermentable sugars. For this, they can be baked in traditional ovens (called hornos) or autoclaves, sort of a pressure cooker that speeds up the cooking time considerably. Then the cooked hearts are crushed to release their juices, either in modern milling machines or with tahonas (huge grindstones driven by donkeys, which crush the pinas in cobblestoned pits).

Fermentation takes six to 12 days. Tequila must contain a minimum of 51 percent agave. Premium brands boast that they are 100 percent blue agave. But the so-called mixto tequilas can be fortified with sugar. Another important choice is yeast. Some distillers have been using the same strain of yeast for 50 years or more, maintaining it carefully between batches. Others prefer commercial cultures.

Tequila runs from the still clear as water. This can be diluted to final proof and bottled as plata (silver) or blanco (white) tequila. For aficionados, platas represent the purest essence of tequila.

By law, all 100 percent blue agave tequilas must be distilled and bottled in Mexico. Mixto tequilas often are exported in bulk via tanker truck or ship. About 60 percent of tequila produced is exported, to over 150 countries, with the United States the prime market.

Many mixtos are joven abocado or the so-called “gold” tequilas, in which caramel coloring imparts that golden hue. Reposado, or “rested,” tequilas are aged. They spend a minimum of two months and up to a year in wood, usually in large redwood tanks. Anejo, “aged,” tequilas get the full treatment. They are aged in small barrels for a minimum of a year and up to four years. All that wood aging puts fine anejos in the same league as Cognac, Scotch and Bourbon.

Experts can’t agree about which type is best. “Silver tequilas have a cleaner, purer flavor,” says Sean Herrick, a manager at Agave restaurant in Atlanta. “But I find that anejos have more character.”

Agave boasts 87 different agave-based spirits—enough to suit the most discriminating. “We recommend that the premium tequilas be served straight up in a snifter,” says Herrick. Will his customers order an anejo at $20 a shot? “Sure they will. It’s all in the education.”

Another agave-based beverage, mezcal is also attracting attention from connoisseurs. Up until recently, only inexpensive mezcals were available in the United States—often with the telltale worm in the bottle. In the past few years, a few artisan-crafted mezcals have found their way to the States. These quality spirits are crafted with traditional methods, and proponents compare them favorably to the finest tequilas. The catch comes in that even consumers familiar with fine tequilas are confused about mezcal. Contrary to what some believe mezcal is not related to the hallucinogen mescaline or peyote cactus (agave isn’t even a cactus). And, though all tequilas are mescals, not all mezcals are tequila.

Mezcal is made like tequila, only with important differences. Tequila can only come from certain delimited areas, much like only French brandy from the Cognac region can be called Cognac. Perhaps the finest mezcals are found in the states of Oaxaca, Guerrero, San Luis Potosi and Zacatecas.

About 10 species of agave are used in making mezcal. Mezcal comes in blanco, reposado and anejo varieties, depending upon the aging. It is always 100 percent agave, with no added sugar.

A key difference in mezcal production is in how the pinas are cooked. Instead of steaming, the agave hearts are buried with hot coals in a stone-lined pit to bake for three days or more. This gives mezcal a smoky character. Traditionally, the spirit is distilled only once compared with tequila’s double distillation.

Some experts are betting on a surge of interest in mezcal; others say it is a premium niche product that can’t match tequila’s popularity. During the mid-1990s, when tequila became the hip sip, many producers put their money on 100 percent blue agave tequila. Over-production soon caused a shortage of prime blue agave plants. Since it takes years for an agave plant to mature, it will take time for supply to catch up with demand. In the meantime, a few producers quietly switched some of their labels to mixtos.                

Nectar of the Gods

With names like “My Life Means Nothing,” “Trip to the Moon” and “Memories of the Future,” Pulquerias (saloons that only served a mildly alcoholic drink called pulque) flourished in Mexico from the mid-1800s to early 1900s.

The pulquerias attracted a diverse crowd, from mariachis and day laborers to writers and artists; but, they prohibited women, men in uniform and dogs from entering.

Pulque is an ancient beverage fermented from the sap of the agave. The sour beer is ingrained in Mexican culture. A mural by Diego Rivera in National Palace in Mexico City shows Aztecs collecting aguamiel (honey water) to make pulque.

It’s still produced in the traditional manner: a cavity is carved in a ripe agave where the aguamiel collects. The sweet liquid is siphoned through a hollow gourd twice a day and allowed to ferment to about 4 to 6 percent alcohol.

“[Pulque] has a rather sour, earthy, fruity flavor and slightly slimy consistency and is very much an acquired taste,” writes culinary expert Diana Kennedy in her book “My Mexico.” It’s often mixed with fruit juices to make it more palatable.

Highly perishable, pulque is not exported, although there have been attempts to bottle it. A few pulquerias still exist today, mainly in Mexico City, but modern Mexicanos prefer to drink beer or tequila.

Color swatches: A Guide to Tequila’s Many Hues

Plata or blanco (silver or white): This is the youngest version, straight out of the still without any aging. Some experts say plata is the purest expression of tequila, pleasantly peppery and herbaceous.

Reposado (rested): A little wood time, two months up to a year of aging in large tanks, or sometimes barrels, imparts a straw color and softens any ragged edges. Many aficionados prefer reposado.

Oro (gold): This variety of tequila is mainly produced for export markets; the addition of caramel turns silver into gold, fostering the illusion of aging. Gold tequila is also a margarita mainstay.

Anejo (aged): These tequilas spend a year or more in small barrels. The oak imparts rich yellow-brown color as well as nuances of vanilla, spice and flowers. Connoisseurs often compare the best of the anejos to Cognac.

The Big Gulp: Eating the Worm

There’s no worm in the bottom of a tequila bottle. That’s mezcal. It was a marketing gimmick hatched back in the 1950s. Some low-end mezcal brands still sport a worm or are sold with a small sack of dried worms ground with salt and chilies as an accompaniment.

Worms do infest agaves, but those sick plants wouldn’t be selected for mezcal making, and anyway the grubs wouldn’t survive the grinding and cooking processes intact.

They aren’t even worms, but rather moth larvae. Gusanos blancos (white worms) live in the leaves, while gusanos rojos (red ones) live in the roots and corazon (heart) of the plant. That’s where the mystique comes in. Supposedly the worms ingest the magical spirit of the agave, and if the tippler in turn ingests the worm, he’s imbued with that magic.

You don’t have to be drunk to enjoy them. Gusanos were and still are considered a delicacy. The fancy Los Girasoles restaurant in Mexico City serves up a pricey plate of Aztec snacks—worms, grasshoppers and ant eggs.

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