The Versatile Agaves

The Versatile Agaves
Of all the native plants growing in Mexico and the U.S., the agaves are among the most useful. The maguey has many historical uses. Traditionally,
these are a source of various kinds of beverages as well as fibers.

Agave-Based Beverages

Various kinds of drinks can be made from the maguey or agaves. These include unfermented ones as well as fermented and fermented/distilled ones. Mescal, pulque, and other similar beverages are very popular drinks in Mexico. For the tequila and alcoholic drinks, the stems of the agaves are typically roasted, fermented, and distilled.

The mescal, which is similar to tequila but somewhat less refined, can also be made from the sap, particularly from the young flower buds. For this version, several different species can be used. Those species that are typically made into drinks include Agave atrovirens, Agave complicata, Agave crassispina, Agave gracillispina, Agave mapisaga, Agave melliflua, Agave quiotifera, and Agave weberi. This sap is fermented to make pulque, which can then be distilled. For tequila, the plants are generally about 25 years old, which doesn’t sound sustainable as it appears that the entire plant is harvested.

One of the most celebrated drinks is the pulque. One of the historical documents of Mexico from the Postclassic Period (800-1520 A.D.) was the Codex Vindobonensis. This portrayed the beverage being consumed by supernatural Mixtec beings. Like the Aztecs, the Mixtecs were neighbors of the Zapotecs.

Mayahuel was a supernatural being in this culture. Commonly he was shown on the documents of the period (either deerskin or bark-paper) as being seated and nursing a baby among the leaves of the maguey.

Historically, the native people called the undistilled drink honey water or aquamiel. This drink is the unfermented juice, and is high in sugar. When fermented, it has a taste similar to perhaps that of mead, beer, or a fermented fruit drink. The historical literature from the pre-Columbian period showed both supernatural beings and the area’s leaders drinking pulque.

For thousands of years the beverages have been made in the area. The hearts of the plants are cut and roasted in outdoor ovens. Then, this is crushed, often by a donkey and a grindstone, to extract the juice, which is distilled. This is often done as a cottage industry with one man or one family doing all the work.

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