A Toast to Agaves

Agaves, those bat pollinated, succulent, strong leaved, slow-growing, xeric- and heat-loving Western Hemisphere plants, are literally the heart of the tequila and mezcal industry. As fascinating as the bat pollinator aspect is we’re going to focus on the how agaves are used to produce liquor.

Image by Jesus Cervantes/Shutterstock

Let’s start with the differences between mezcal and tequila. These include region of origin, plants used and production methods.

We’ll start with regions and plants.

The name “mezcal” comes from the Nahuatl word “mexcalli” which means “oven-cooked agave.” Although mezcal can be made from any agave species, production focuses on roughly 30 agave species, varieties, and sub-varieties. While mezcal’s history centers around the region of Oaxaca, Mexico, it’s now produced throughout the country. As mezcal can be made with any agave species the name has become a general one for most agave liquors in Mexico. It often implies an artisanal aspect to the drink whether it’s deserved or not. In 1994 the name mezcal was recognized as an Appellation of Origin  (AO, DO). There is also a Geographical Indication (GI), originally limited to the states of Durango, Guerrero, Oaxaca, Puebla, San Luis Potosí, and Zacatecas. Similar products are made in Guanajuato, Jalisco, Michoacán, and Tamaulipas but these have not been included in the mezcal DO.

(Patricia Zavala Gutiérrez/Global Press Journal)

While both mezcal and tequila are made with agave, only one species is legally allowed for tequila production, the blue agave.
Tequila production is located primarily in the area surrounding the city of Tequila, which is northwest of Guadalajara, and in the Jaliscan Highlands of the central western Mexican state of Jalisco.  Tequila is also recognized as an Appellation of Origin (AO, DO). It can be produced only in the state of Jalisco and limited municipalities in the states of Guanajuato, Michoacan, Nayarit, and Tamaulipas.

Blue agave field
Photo by Christian Heeb

Now let’s take a look at production methods. Harvesting agave for mezcal and tequila production starts out the same.

Seven to ten years after planting the plants are mature enough to harvest. They are manually harvest by “jimadors,” highly skilled people trained in the art of agave harvesting. It’s hard, labor-intensive work.

Using machetes or a “coa de jima”, a specialized agave cutter, the jimadors cut off the long agave leaves to get to the core of the plant called the piña.

The piñas are collected and taken for roasting. Roasting method is where mezcal and tequila production methods differ.

Pit roasting the piñas is traditional for mezcal production.

Agave piña roasting pit for making Mezcal
The rocks in the pit are first heated with charcoal
When the the temperature is correct, the piñas are added.
Alternating layers of piñas and chopped agave leaves are added until the pit is full.

The entire thing is covered and left to smoke for 2-7 days depending desired smokiness of the final product.
Roasted piñas.

Cooking piñas for tequila is a much simpler process. They’re actually baked.

Traditional brick ovens can be used.
Or large metal ones such as these.
The end result is the same.

After roasting or baking the piñas receive the same treatment regardless of the final product, mezcal or tequila. They’re crushed or shredded to extract the juice which is then fermented for a period of time. The fermented product is then distilled twice and then usually aged. Some mezcal is not and is sold a “joven” or young. Aging can last from one month to as long as 12 years. After aging the liquor is usually stored in stainless steel tanks to reduce evaporation.

And yes, I hear you there in the back row, “But what about the worm?!”

Gusano de Maguey in a bottle, waiting to be added to finished mezcal.

The worms are only found in mezcal, never tequila, and not all bottles have one. Bottles of mezcal which have a worm (called gusano) are labeled “con gusano,” meaning “with worm.” The worm is actually a caterpillar of the moth Comadia redtenbacheri which can infest agaves. If a “worm” is to be included it’s added at bottling. Doesn’t that sound like a fun job.

There are various stories as to why a “worm” would be added. Some claim it’s a marketing ploy. Others say it’s there to prove that the mezcal is fit to drink…OK. Others believe that it brings good fortune and strength to the lucky person who finds it in their glass. If you’re fortunate to find one in your glass be sure to swallow it whole, don’t chew it. And some claim it’s there to impart flavor. Yummy.

Mmmm, pickled ‘pillar!

And lastly, I’m sure some of you have seen “worm suckers” at shopping emporiums which carry a certain type of tourist stuff with a (supposedly) south-of-the-border flavor. Yes, I’m talking about the famous, or infamous, tequila-flavored worm sucker.

Also available in different colors and flavors. Look for them at finer tourist traps across the Southwest USA.

Don’t fall for this! As educated and discerning Garden Professors blog post readers you now know that #1: Tequila never contains a worm and #2: the “worm” is actually a caterpillar and the above critters encased in sugar are actually the larvae of the darkling beetle, commonly known as mealworms. Be a savvy consumer, hold out for the real thing.

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Sylvia Thompson-Hacker

Sylvia Thompson-Hacker is a Doña Ana Co. New Mexico Extension Master Gardener. She is also an admin on the Garden Professor's Facebook page and the Garden Professor's Facebook blog group.

2 thoughts on “A Toast to Agaves”

  1. I had the good fortune of visiting Mazatlan de Oaxaca where I got to see the roasting and crushing of the pinyas. Donkeys were used to drive a huge stone which crushed the cooked pinyas. Mezcal consumption is definitely a celebrated part of Oaxacan culture.

  2. Fascinating article. Thanks very much for this posting. I lived in Mexico for a year and spent quite a bit of time in Oaxaca where many traditions remain intact and well practiced. Mezcal production is one of those wonderful traditions and is well celebrated in Oaxacan culture as it is also in Puebla and Michoacán. I have had mezcal sin gustano many times sitting out on the main plaza in Oaxaca and it’s a classic Mexican spirit.

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