How $600 can ensure the future of a prized agave
Unlike most sugar sources used to make spirits, agave has to be harvested before it can reproduce. This fact puts at risk the sustainability of long-growth agave varietals like Arroqueño.
All alcohol starts life as sugar. The sugars used to make wine come from grapes, a fruit that is produced annually by vines that can live for more than a hundred years. Whiskey and beer come from grain-based sugars, which take a maximum of six months to go from seed to harvest. Cane can take a year to go from seed to harvest, but most rum is made from a varietal that takes six months. But agave won’t reach harvest age until four years, at a minimum. And some varietals can take 20, 30, or (we have been told) as much as 40 years.
Additionally, the only way to capture the sugars in an agave is to interrupt the plant as it is preparing to reproduce. It creates sugars for that very purpose: reproduction. The sugars are meant to fuel the growth of its reproductive stalk, the quiote, which will blossom with flowers and seeds. If you allow the plant to go to seed, it will expend all of its sugar in the process. There will be nothing left to ferment.
So a varietal like the Arroqueño — which can take 18 to 22 years to reach maturity in the wild — is unlikely to be farmed, because of the long time between the investment of planting and harvesting (not to mention tying up your land). And with the worldwide boom in interest in mezcal, the Arroqueño growing in the wild is far more likely to be harvested for making spirits, which means they, too, are less likely to go to seed.
Eduardo “Lalo” Angeles of Mezcal Lalocura brought this problem to our attention in 2015. He had found an agave farmer who had planted a crop of Arroqueño, but was now regretting tying up his land for so long.
SACRED hosted a dinner in conjunction with the LTH Forum, a Chicago food-chat group. The money raised at this dinner — a modest US$600 — went to Lalo for the purpose of purchasing the crop of Arroqueño and replanting it on his land. The agave were estimated to be nine years old at the time of transfer, but some started going to seed as early as spring 2018. Lalo will allow a third of the plants to go to seed, and harvest the other two thirds for making spirits.
Maguey Arroqueño reaching maturity at Eduardo Angeles’ Lalocura palenque in Santa Catarina Minas, Oaxaca