Agaves are really strange plants because they reproduce in three ways, none of them exclusive. They sprout little clones of themselves from their bases; these are most commonly called hijuelos and can be produced throughout an agave’s lifecycle. If you live in the southwest you’ll frequently see agave plants growing in gardens or medians that have all these little agave plants sprouting from the base of the plant, occasionally crowding out the original. Those are hijuelos.
In Spanish the literal translation of hijuelo is young or a plant shoot. Sometimes it’s used specifically to refer to one of the so-called “pups” which are genetic clones of a mother agave: They literally emerge from the root system of an agave and grow along side of it. More generally it’s used when discussing the propagation of baby agaves in nurseries across Mexico. This is all a tricky and contentious business that gets to the very heart of mezcal because it determines exactly what sort of fruit goes into your bottle.
But agaves also create seeds, it’s just that these are only created once in an agave’s life. At the end of their lives agave plants grow a huge flower out of the center of the plant known as quiotes. The quiotes are majestic sights which soar into the air, usually 20-some feet, and display amazing yellow flowers. Frequently people will dry them out and lean them against a wall as a fantastic decoration.
But back to how they function, the quiotes sprout seeds which are pollinated by birds and bats. Yes, bats are one of the great pollinators in the agave world! After they are pollinated the seeds fall to the ground and can produce genetically distinct agaves. In practice, this is nature’s crap shoot because agave seeds aren’t the most prolific producers. But it’s also critical because this is the way agaves obtain genetic diversity, making them disease resistant and, over enormous amounts of time, allowing for different varieties to evolve which is where you get all the wonderful agave varieties that make for such diverse mezcals.
But wait! The story of agave reproduction doesn’t stop there. Agaves are really strange plants for a variety of reasons but one of the best is their third method of reproduction. This is another clonal method but is really strange: Small, baby, agaves grow off the top of the mother agave, fall to the ground, and root themselves where they fall or are carried. This is rare and hard to see. And they have a great name “bulbils.”
So, why should this matter to you, my fine mezcal connoisseur? Well, how agave is grown has a huge impact on what you’re drinking. That’s why.
Right now the vast majority of mezcal is produced from a single species of agave called espadin, also known by its latin name Agave angustifolia, because it has been among the easiest agaves to cultivate in controlled circumstances. It has been easy because farmers could grow it from seed and hijuelos, it matures at a relatively well defined rate, and yields a reasonably consistent level of starch. Farmers love that sort of consistency because they know that if they plant an espadin hijuelo today, water it, and do the minimal field maintenance – they’ll be able to harvest it in 6-8 years. Note that variation, 6-8 years – that means if you plant a field of espadin today you’ll be harvesting it somewhere between six and eight years down the road, potentially longer. That counts as consistent in the mezcal world. In comparison a vineyard manager in Napa or Sonoma measures consistency in an annual window of the months between August and October. Incidentally, espadin is the genetic parent of blue agave used to make tequila so they have lots in common, especially the ease with which they’re grown.
The level of consistency in planting espadin is critical for mezcal because farmers can set up a reasonably controlled, agricultural, production line and know that they’ll be able to make a certain amount of mezcal at a certain time in the future. They can scale this process up by using nurseries but that also takes more time, again, they have to be thinking in those long 6-8 year intervals. These green houses bear no resemblance to the metal framed glass enclosures of a nostalgic European past nor the sealed plastic enclosures of our acquaculture present. No, generally these are just plots of land devoted to getting young agave plants through their first years which may have a bit of burlap or woven plastic propped overhead to offer shade in particularly brutally sunny locations.
One of the more interesting developments in the world of mezcal in recent years is that agave growers have figured out how to cultivate many other types of agaves that everyone used to assume would only grown in the wild like tobala, madrecuixe, and cupreata. Luis Mendez in Sola de Vega was the first person we can find who started experimenting with cultivating tobala and other wild agaves (more on this as Susan visited him during her trip in July.)
Today more people are embarking on projects to cultivate silvestres, to mention just a few: The Fundación Agaves Silvestres is working in San Dionisio Ocotepec while Vago has been working in Candelaria Yegole and Tosba up in the Sierra Norte. This is of enormous importance because there’s only so many wild agaves to go around, in some areas of Oaxaca’s central valley where tobala used to grow in abundance you’d be hard pressed to find a single plant. Many other areas are getting stripped bare in the silvestres gold rush. Others are managing their stocks aggressively but it’s an incredibly tough proposition; if you could get a ton of money for the wild agaves on your property today wouldn’t you be tempted?
Cultivation also makes production more predictable which means that agave growers can also plan on income for important things like future investments in their business and crucial things like paying for their kids’ education and health care. The big picture here is really important exactly because so many people work in the cultivation industry: If they can earn a living wage and hew a path to development in the mezcal industry it makes everything better, literally. It develops the mezcal industry, which results in consistent revenue streams to farmers, distillers, and everyone else in the supply chain. That means they can all feed their families and invest in other, more sustainable or profitable, enterprises. It also has a huge impact on immigration and every other facet of Mexico’s relationship with the world, especially with the United States.
Of course there’s a downside to this development as well: Truly wild agaves are unique and can be used to produce mezcals of truly unique flavors. That’s another way of saying, you really might want to save the bottles of mezcal made from truly wild agaves sold today because they’re literally unique. In a few years many mezcals made from previously wild varieties of agave will be the product of cultivation with different flavors. That’s not to place a value judgement on them but they will be different.