I used to believe that a century plant bloomed once every hundred years.
Turns out it’s a rare event but not that rare.
A century plant/agave will bloom once in its (10-30 year) lifetime, using all the energy it has saved up in the form of sugars to shoot up a single, brilliant flowering stalk.
And then it dies.
Which is the depressing part. (It should probably be called the decade plant.)
So let’s focus on a happier part of that story: sugar.
If you happen to harvest an agave plant after it has had years to store up sugar but before it spends it all to go out in a blaze of glory, then all that sweetness can be yours.
The edible part of the agave plant is well guarded by layers of pointed, spiny leaves in every direction.
Cut those off (carefully!) and you get to the head of the plant. (In Spanish, it’s called la piña, because it looks like a pineapple.) And that is where the sugar is hidden.
A few hours (or maybe days) in an oven or roasting pit, and it will be ready to eat or mash up for syrup or liquor.
I may be oversimplifying a bit, but this gives you the basic idea.
Now let’s talk tequila. It’s only tequila if it is made from the blue agave plant and comes from certain regions in Mexico (the same way sparkling wine can only be called “champagne” if it’s from a specific part of France).
The roasted, mashed up agave liquid gets fermented and distilled to become silver (in Spanish, blanco, “white”) tequila. You can drink it that way or change the flavor by allowing it to age in barrels. If it has been aged (“rested”) two months to a year, it’s known as reposado. If it’s been aged longer than a year, it’s añejo. I’m not a tequila expert, but silver tequila is said to have a brighter flavor, while reposados and añejos are said to be more mellow.
Tequila is just one type of mezcal, an umbrella term for any distilled alcoholic beverage made from any species of agave. There are regional variations throughout Mexico, including bacanora, sotol, and others only available locally.
Pulque is a drink made from agave that’s not distilled, so it’s not a mezcal. It is fermented, however, and alcoholic enough to cause early Spanish missionaries to accuse local populations of being constantly drunk on it. But, really, people probably would’ve been drinking a lot less if they didn’t have Spanish colonizers all up in their business.
Anyway, Mezcal PhD has a really useful article and chart of agave beverages.
Now that we’ve cleared that up, along with the fact that it doesn’t take agave a century to bloom and that tequila is made from agave that hasn’t bloomed, I have another thing for you to think about.
Agave typically grows in higher elevation deserts that get more rainfall than Tucson. However, as I mentioned yesterday, agave was one of the crops grown there centuries ago. (You’ll notice agaves showing up around 0:36 on my Mount Lemmon video, after we’ve gained some elevation and left the saguaros behind.)
The riddle: How could this have been this possible?
Feel free to share your theories, and I’ll fill you in on what I learned in a post later this week!
The Agave Heritage Festival goes through May 7 in Downtown Tucson!
- May 3, 12pm: Lecture on Mezcal Origins + Future by Ana Valenzuela in Haury Auditorium at University of Arizona. Free.
- May 3, 3pm: Agave Heritage Festival Week Proclamation from Tucson Mayor Rothschild in Hotel Congress lobby. Free.
– More Agave Info –
If you want to go down a historical rabbit hole about pulque and cochineal in colonial Mexico, this should get you started…
We were guests of Hotel Congress, one of the presenters of the festival.