The raw material for mezcal according to science

Mezcal has become the new emblem of Mexico. Its elaboration is an expression of the tradition and culture transmitted by generations of master mezcaleros, turning this distillate into a complex and extremely captivating drink.

Agave plant for mezcal: The production of mezcal is an extension of the rich and varied legacy of generations of mezcal masters. Photo: Public domain
Agave plant for mezcal: The production of mezcal is an extension of the rich and varied legacy of generations of mezcal masters. Photo: Public domain

The spirit called mezcal is made from the fermentation and subsequent distillation of musts from different species of the genus Agave, which belongs to the family Asparagaceae.

These plants have rosette-shaped leaves or stalks, native to the American continent, and are distributed from the southern United States to northern South America and the Caribbean. Agaves generally thrive in desert locations with low water availability; however, some species live in semi-desert locations with water availability and at different altitudes above sea level.

The species used for mezcal production belong to the subgenus Agave, since they have a high content of fermentable sugars, while the species of the subgenus Littaea generally contain large amounts of saponins that interfere with fermentation. Below is a brief description of the three species that provide the largest volume for mezcal production.

Agave angustifolia Haw var. Espadín

One of the most widely used species for mezcal production is the Espadín variety of the A. Angustifolia plant, a crop of great importance to the mezcal industry at the national level and of great economic value to Oaxaca.

The producers of mezcal prefer this species and variety, because it is short-cycle for its use, since it takes seven to nine years to reach maturity and produces bigger size pineapples; the reason why it is cultivated in greater extension with commercial aims, besides being the variety that contributes the greater volume of the raw material for the elaboration of mezcal.

Maguey landscape. Photo: Wikipedia
Maguey landscape. Photo: Wikipedia

The period for the cultivation of the Espadín agave begins with the transplant of the rhizomatous shoots and/or aerial bulbs, in the months of April or May, before the beginning of the rains. When it reaches maturity (emission of the floral stem, escapo or quiote), the plant accumulates energy in the form of sugar in its stem (heart or pineapple), an essential matter for obtaining the alcohol; this is the moment of the harvest or cut, before flowering or forming the quiote.

An important problem for the conservation of wild agaves is that they are produced only by seed, because the plants used for the production of the drink do not reach flowering and therefore do not leave offspring by means of seeds.

Over the past 50 years, the cultivation of agaves has intensified, particularly Agave Angustifolia Haw. (Agave Espadín) which is grown in association with corn and beans, but also as a monoculture, which reduces soil conservation practices and the preservation of natural resources.

Agave cupreata Trel. & Berger

This species belongs to the subgenus Agave or Euagave (easily recognized by the paniculate inflorescences) and is located within the group Crenatae, which is distinguished by its copper-colored spines, wide light green leaves, very jagged with very marked prints of thorns on the edges and flowers of intense yellow or orange-yellow. It does not produce offspring or bulbs, so its natural reproduction is strictly sexual, using seeds.

It is commonly known by the names of "Chinese maguey", " gordito" or "papalote" (from the Nahuatl word papalotl, which means "butterfly", and was so named because of the peculiar figure formed by its stems); it is an endemic species that is distributed on the mountainsides of the Balsas River basin, a semi-arid region of the states of Guerrero and Michoacán, in the south-west of Mexico.

Agave potatorum Zucc.

It is one of the species that is used in the state of Oaxaca for the production of mezcal, which is classified in the subgenus Agave or Euagave, within the group Hiemiflorae, characterized by its leaves. The plants rarely produce offspring, so their reproduction is preferably by means of seeds, from which a large number of seedlings are obtained and then passed on to the field. It is commonly known by the names "papalometl" (from Nahuatl "papalotl" and "metl", "maguey") or "tobalá" (from Zapotec "Toba", which means maguey and "la", hot or aromatic: "hot or aromatic maguey").

As you can see, mezcal is produced from a large number of agave species and varieties that grow in different regions of Mexico, which allows you to taste a drink with a great diversity of aromas and flavors for the most demanding palates around the world.

By Benjamín Rodríguez Garay, Antonia Gutiérrez Mora, José Manuel Rodríguez Domínguez

Source Conacyt