Thursday, April 30, 2015

All About Agave

Alcohol has been made by humans since ancient times. Perhaps humans witnessed the effects of the consumption of nearly rotten fruit, on some ancient animals, and decided to experiment themselves. Even today animals in Africa have been witnessed getting drunk on the fallen, half fermented fruits of a particular tree, as they rot in the sun. Sugars are broken down in the natural process of fermentation as they are consumed by yeast. At some point in history, humans decided to start fermenting things deliberately, and experimented with making alcohol out of a variety of plant sources. European tribes used grapes, which were very easy to grow, and which did well in the climate; it was a simple matter for them to make wine. In ancient times, in what is today Mexico, another plant was used for alcohol production. That plant is a succulent and is known as the agave.

Tequila is Mexico's national drink and is among the most consumed beverages in the world; agave being it's source. It blooms and dies each year, as it is a perennial monocot plant; each rosette producing only a single flower. They're commonly called 'century plants' because of this tendency; they're one of the few long-lived species that will only have one chance at spreading its genetic information. It's a misconception that the genus is related to cacti; they're actually more closely related to aloe.

The agave is mostly native to Mexico, though there are a few species found in the southwestern United States and a few spots in South America. The plants are adept at retaining water, and their fleshy strong leaves form a rosette that grows out from the center. The stem is quite short normally; as a plant it produces a small number of flowers on a tall stalk. Once the fruit is developed on this long, skinny mast, the entire plant will die.

There are four common species of the plant. Agave americana is also called 'maguey' in Mexico. It is used in syrup and sugar production. very uncommon to Mesoamerica, attenuata is actually native to the area; its flowers are curved and has a spiky shape, resembling a foxtail. Not surprisingly, a tequilana is used in the production of the alcohol. And A angustifolia is used to make mezcal, a similar drink.

Agave has had many uses over the centuries. It has four edible parts: the sap, called honey water, is just one of the elements of the plant that includes leaves, flowers and stalk. The local cultures fermented the juices into liquors, cooked and ate the root, and even made paper and clothing from its leaves. The nectar produced by the sap is often used as an alternative to sugar, and will be added as a binding agent to some foods. There's no doubt; the agave is a helpful succulent that is far more than the tequila it makes.

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