The Blue Agave: A Plant That Produces Tequila

Agave is not a cactus. The blue agave is a plant that has long, fibrous, bluish-green leaves, whose usable part for the production of tequila is the pineapple or head.

The Blue Agave: A Plant That Produces Tequila
A ranch worker is seen trimming blue agave plant on the field in Jalisco. Photo by Rudy Prather / Unsplash

Contrary to what some people believe, the agave is not a cactus, the agave is a plant that belongs to the Amaryllidaceae family, it has long, fibrous, lance-shaped, bluish-green leaves, whose usable part for the production of tequila is the pineapple or head.

The agave has been used, among other things, like paper, and fences to keep the estates. Also, the leaves or stalks as roofing tiles, stems or quiotes as beams, and the fibers of the leaves in yarns for fabrics. The tips of the stalks are sometimes used as nails, awls, needles, and even as juice or liquor from which wine, vinegar, honey, and sugar are made.

Maguey is a word that comes from the Antilles. In the region and in different cultures, it was recognized by several names: Metl in Nahuatl, Tocamba in Purépecha, and Guada in Otomí. Although the maguey is not only Mexican, nowhere else in the world are they identified with the culture, the landscape, and the people as in Mexico.

The blue agave plant beautifies the Mexican landscape with its pointed leaves. In different parts of Mexico, different strong drinks are obtained that receive the generic name of mezcal and take the surname of the town where they are born. The most famous of all is Tequila mezcal.

There are several species of agave, whose juice can be fermented and distilled for the production of alcoholic beverages, however, only the blue variety of agave tequilana Weber is the only one authorized for the production of tequila. The cultivation of this plant requires a combination of numerous factors such as altitude, preferably at 1,500 meters above sea level.

The soil conditions are favorably volcanic soil, clayey, permeable, and abundant in elements derived from basalt and rich in iron. Rainfall is about one meter per year. A constant temperature of semi-dry climate that oscillates between 20 Celsius degrees. Important the sun exposure, since it is considered favorable that there are cloudy between 65 and 100 days of the year.

Only one region of approximately 209 km2 in the state of Jalisco has the best conditions for the best reproduction of the blue agave tequilana Weber: the famous Tequila region.

The agave tequilana Weber blue variety has certain characteristics that make it different from other agaves since it is a fleshy plant in the form of a rosette, fibrous, blue, or gray-green color originated by a high content of waxes that prevent the plant from losing water. Its leaves are rigid, with marginal and apical spines. It stores inulin in the stem and is a producer of fructose.

Blue agave tequilana Weber can be propagated by seed or bulblet, which are not used for industrial production. In these cases, the method used is the rhizome method, which consists of transplanting the offshoots that sprout from the root of the plant.

When they reach a height of 50 cm and when the heart is the size of a grapefruit, they are detached from the mother plant by cutting them with a barreé. The optimum age for agave to reproduce is between three and five years. A mother plant produces between one and two offspring per year.

Once the offspring are separated from the mother, planting is done just before the rainy season, the new plant must be settled and buried in 75% of its volume, tamping the soil to secure the plant.

When the soil is tamped, the long process of evolution of the agave begins, which will take eight to ten years to reach maturity, during which time it must be maintained; cleaning of the soil, fertilization, growth control, and disease prevention.

To obtain a high level of quality, during the process there must always be a meticulous selection of the mother plants as well as the offspring. During the growth of the plant, some tasks are carried out to help the plant produce and conserve the maximum level of starches in the heart.

At six years of age, to favor its maturity, the pineapple is trimmed with a lowered broom, which consists of making horizontal cuts on the upper part of the leaves, leaving the surface flat. Almost at maturity, the pruning is made stricter, until the pineapple is almost devoid of stalks. This process is called barbeo castigado (punished shaving).

Once it reaches maturity and in the dry months, the agave begins to reduce the size of its leaves in the bud or center, becoming smaller and more numerous due to the growth of an inflorescence called quiote. This quiote grows rapidly and consumes all the sugars that have accumulated over the years, so it is cut. This operation is called desquiote.

After the agave has reached full maturity, the harvest is carried out and during this, the process of Jima is carried out, since only the central part (heart, pineapple, or head) of the plant, where the greatest amount of sugars is concentrated, is used in the production of tequila.