Updated: Sep 24
And Why Classifying Agaves Is An Impossible Task
Suggested pairing with this article; Mezcal Ensamble
At first I had only read about it, but after visiting Puebla and Oaxaca I can verify that it is true. Friends, I have come to report to you something that I have seen with my own eyes. Today I will translate its history, significance, and importance in relation to agave spirits.
The flavor diversity of agave spirits is potentially infinite because there is a potentially infinite amount of future agave species.
In his book Mezcal in the Global Spirits Market: Unrivalled Complexity, Innumerable Nuances, Alvin Starkman proposes that at least 1,000 decisions go into making each batch of mezcal. Each decision has a impact on flavor to one degree or another.
The primary impact on the flavor in the process of making agave spirits, is the species of agave. In Mexico, we call it la materia prima, or the raw material. (The only exceptions are barrel aging, abocados, and destilados con which compete with the agave as the primary impact on flavor).
According to the Level One course at the Agave Spirits Institute, there are an estimated 200+ species of agave worldwide and 157 of them can be found in Mexico.
Putting an exact number on the number of agave species is hard because it is such a moving target making it nearly impossible (and incredibly expensive) to classify. New varieties of agave are being naturally created on a daily basis and that is mainly because of agave's pollinators.
Bats will travel up to 2,000 kilometers from Southern United States to Southern Mexico using flowered quotes as a food source. Bats can visit many different quiotes in one day according to Fredo Brena of Marcos Brena mezcal.
The pollen that the bats, bees, hummingbirds, and other pollinators carry sends information to the quiote. The agave uses this information to construct the seed pods that will eventually fall to the ground and germinate new baby agaves.
This means that agaves can and do cross-pollinate with each other creating a proverbial ensamble at the agave gene level.
Some agaves are not compatible with each other, while some are extremely compatible.
To give you an example, here in Jalisco raicilleros use A. Rhodacantha (Maguey Mexicano) to make Raicilla. That same A. Rhodacantha looks drastically different and tastes completely different from a one in Oaxaca, used to make Mezcal. As the agave spreads in territory, its habitat is constantly changing along with its genetic makeup.
When the genetics, terroir, and climate have transformed agave scientists consider it a variant or variety. This is particularly the case in Southern Jalisco where Miguel Partida of the agave spirits brand Chacolo has identified 14 different kinds of wild A. Angustifolia (just in his backyard).
Every variant has its own unique flavor characteristics. Making the potential amount of flavors available virtually infinite.
But there is a catch.
You may be wondering why you only see the same 15 species agaves being distilled and bottled with the exception of a few rare cases like Chacolo. That is because agave needs human intervention to help propagate them to create enough to transform into an agave spirit.
Human intervention dictates whether a new species of agave will be a one-off or will transform into a full blown population. When we think in terms of an agave spirit, a maestro mezcalero may choose to propagate a variety of agave for one of three reasons; flavor, sugar content, and size.
If the flavor profile is exquisite, the mezcalero can essentially create his own proprietary flavor with hybrid agave from his / her own land. If the agave contains a lot of sugar like the case of A. Maximiliana, it makes a better yield that will give a producer more volume for each batch. The more sugar an agave has, the more potential alcohol you will have. Lastly, if you can get a great flavor, good sugar, and the piña is a manageable size like Maguey Tobalá, then you have won on all fronts.
In the Mexican state of Puebla, a hybrid species of agave is slowly being propagated. It is unclear whether it is intentional or unintentional, but this hybrid of an A. Cupreata and A. Potatorum is popping up throughout the agave growing regions.
At this point in time, the amount of Cupreatorum is not enough to provide even a single batch. So the mezcaleros will harvest it and call it A. Cupreata OR A. Potatorum depending on how close it looks to the corresponding agave.
I do imagine a future though where you will start seeing productions with this specific agave.
Also near the town of San Luis Amatlán, Oaxaca is a reforesting project directed by Fredo Brena, a third generation mezcalero and a sustainability director, where there is a triple hybrid of Coyote, Cuishe, and Jabali. Yes, I said tripple. As Fredo Brena famously put it, "The agave has the shape of a Cuishe but it is not a Cuishe. It has the pencas of the Coyote, but it is not a Coyote. It has the color of a Jabali, but it is not a Jabli."
Fredo never gave this agave a name, but the fate of this Jayotishe is in the hands of Mr. Brena himself. Maybe at some point in the future it will be cultivated to the point where we can enjoy this tasty looking agave. Or maybe it will be a one-off, only time will tell.
Also in Oaxaca, the Karwinskii family of agaves is famous for hybrids. The maguey Madre Cuishe even gets its name for its ability to reproduce with other agaves.
Arguably it is because of human intervention why so many species of agave exist today.
Evidence suggests that the indigenous people of the Americas have been using agave for more than 12,000 years. Historical uses for the agave are endless including; food, shelter, soft goods, pulque, and as a religious symbol. More modern uses include spirits production, fuel, and making adobe bricks.
Agaves have been domesticated to serve the purposes listed above. Some agaves are better suited for certain purposes than others. A. Blue Weber may make a great tequila, but it is not as good for making fibrous goods like Lechuguilla is.
Just like corn, agaveros or agave farmers will harvest seeds from only the best plants to be sold and replanted later on, a popular practice in the state of Oaxaca. Each time they do that, a more robust, more enduring, more purpose-serving plant is created. (I hate to break the news to you, but corn did not start out as this huge cob).
It is not too far outside the equation to assume that the agave's history is somewhat similar to corn. We are likely so far removed from what the original genus agave specie looked like 12 million years ago that it could be unrecognizable today, but maybe I am reaching...
Saving Endangered Agaves
The list of endangered or threatened species of agave is quite lengthy, but is that really surprising? With so many variants and hybrids, the list is probably even larger than reported.
Whether the reason is overharvesting, humans destroying habitats, or just mother nature naturally taking its course, saving wild agaves is a necessary and sustainable practice.
Thanks to the genetic makeup of the agave, saving a specific varietal from extinction could be theoretically quite easy. Afterall, one quiote contains 2,000 to 3,000 seeds. Assuming a typical 90% germination rate for an experienced semillero or agave seed farmer, you have a hectare worth of germinated agaves just from one quiote. If you let those agaves all reach full maturity to produce seed pods, you have roughly 7 million seeds to plant not including any hijueloes, agave clones, that you may get along the way.
You need very little resources to do this. A noble proposition for the tequileros of Jalisco who can certainly spare a hectare for the purpose of generational prosperity.
For someone like me, or you, all species are worth saving. But in reality, the agave spirits industry, landscaping industry, and biologist as a whole decide where and when resources should be directed. As of this writing, spirits made with agaves grown from seed do not fetch a higher price point that those grown from hijuelos even though the amount of work involved is significantly more.
The more species of agave we have, the more flavors we can create making the possibilities potentially infinite.
The more cross-pollination that happens, the more enduring the genetic makeup of the agave is.
Classifying all of the agave varieties is an impossible task due to genetics constantly changing.
It was because of human intervention why agaves exist in the form they do and it will be because of humans why certain species may disappear once they stop serving its purpose.
I was listening to the audiobook called The Mezcal Rush: Explorations in Agave Country by Granville Greene and he gave an interesting concept that I really like;
Humans did not domesticate the agave, but that the agave domesticated itself for its own survival.
It is super interesting to think about nature happening to us instead of the reverse. Sincerely, Greg Rutkowski
Greg is a certified Master of Agave Spirits and a distiller at Finca 18. With a Polish-Mexican background, he moved to Puerto Vallarta, Jalisco from Chicago. Today he dedicates most of his time tending his agaves and giving tours of the distillery.