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In the U.S. tequila is experiencing both "premiumization"- the positioning of the product as a high-end item with status and snob appeal - and diversification which offers the consumer many alternatives beyond the established brands. Over the past three years, at least 44 new tequilas hit the U.S. market, and more are looking for distribution. AC Neilsen reported that there were 40 premium tequilas on the US market in 2006 compared with only 13 in 2004.


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Updated May, 2011

Agave: More than just tequila

Maguey, photo by Edward WestonAgave is the name given to a widely varied family of succulents. The name comes from Greek mythology: Agave (Agaue) ("illustrious" or "noble") was the daughter of Cadmus, the king and founder of the city of Thebes. Her mother was the goddess Harmonia. Agave's husband was Echion, one of the five spartoi. She had a son, Pentheus, also a king of Thebes, and a daughter, Epirus. Fittingly, Agave was a follower of Dionysus (also known as Bacchus in Roman mythology).


In his novel, Mexico, James Michener wrote,

"The maguey is a symbol of the Mexican spirit. They are like dancers with beautiful hands. They lend grace and dignity to the land and have always been the symbol of peace and construction. From their bruised leaves were made the paper upon which records were kept. Its dried leaves formed the thatch for homes, its fibers, the threads that made clothing possible. Its thorns were the pins and needles while its white roots provided the vegetables for sustenance"

The thorny end of a blue agave leafAgaves are not cacti (often found in the same terrain), but are members of the family Agavaceae, which are succulent. Agaves are actually related to the lily and amaryllis families, and not closely related to cacti at all. Agaves range from Alberta, Canada, to southern and western United States, through Mexico, to central and tropical South America (Venezuela and Columbia in the south). Agave grow best at mid-high altitudes (4,000–8,000 feet - 1,220-2,450 m -  above sea level).


In the lowlands around Tequila, the ripe agave piñas are generally 60-80 kg, while in the red earth of the highlands they are much larger on average: 90-125 kg.


The plants have a large rosette of thick fleshy leaves generally ending in a sharp point and with a spiny margin (thorns or 'teeth'); the stout stem is usually short, the leaves apparently springing from the root. Yucca, is a related, but separate genus.


The teeth or spines on a blue agaveMost agaves are monocarpic: they can flower only once in their lives, although a few can flower more than once. Flowers have distinct male and female parts. During flowering a tall asparagus-like stalk ('inflorescence') called a quiote first grows vertically from the centre of the leaf rosette. When mature, this stalk branches, and produces a large number of shortly tubular flowers. Several species of agave are pollinated by bats.


Smaller agave species may flower after only 3–4 years, while larger species may take 40–50 years. The flowers grow on a single large stalk that sprouts out of the middle of the plant and in larger species may grow up to 5m (15 feet) tall.


The agave used in tequila is the Agave tequilana Weber var. azul, and only that agave is allowed for use in tequila. Agave tequilana Weber var. azul is a diploid species with 2n = 60 chromosomes, and thirty bivalents from pollen mother cells confirm the basic chromosome number of x = 30.

Hijuelos cut and trimmed in an agave fieldTequila producers cut the quiote to prevent it from draining sugars and nutrients from the mother plant. After development of fruit the original plant dies.


Before flowering, shoots called hijuelos ('pups' - also called mecuatls) are produced asexually from the base of the stem, starting around the fifth year. These will become new plants. Growers remove the pups for replanting: the best and strongest pups are from the first cutting, around the sixth year. They will appear every year after, but are considered progressively weaker. This process leads to a monoculture because the pups are genetically identical to their mother.


And that monoculture is highly vulnerable to diseases, parasites and environmental changes because the species cannot adapt over the generations, since every plant is basically the same. As one report noted in mid-2006,

Current germplasm diversity used in the production of Agave spirits in west-central México is in danger of erosion due to an expansion in the cultivation of the clone A. tequilana Weber var. azul, used for the elaboration of the famous drink "Tequila."

Another agave field (not blue agave - agave americana?)

Hijuelos will also appear at the base of the remnant of the quiote - usually an indicator the agave is ripe for harvesting.


There are more than 300 species of agave listed, but only about 200 are formally recognized (Lopez says 274). Of these, 136 of them grow in Mexico. The image to the left shows a field of another type of agave, possibly one used to make pulque, growing in Los Altos outside Arandas. A different kind of agave can be seen growing on the cliffs beside the highway that runs north to Morelia from the coast. While only blue agave can be used for tequila, other agaves are used for mezcal and regional spirits.


Agaves have been used as a source of food, fibre, medicine, shelter and tools (like needles) for the past 9,000 years. The quiotes have also been used as a musical instrument, apparently similar in nature and sound to the Australian digeridoo. In more recent times, the quiote wood has been used for making surfboards.


South African agave Agaves were introduced into Europe in the middle of the 16th century, mostly for ornamental use. Agaves - particularly the Mexican blue agave -  were later introduced into South Africa. One story claims it was Portuguese sailors who brought them in the mid-19th century. A second relates that agave plants were distributed throughout South Africa in the early 1900s for both erosion control and as a fodder crop in droughts, and thousands of plants were planted by many families in the Graaff-Reinet area.  A third story says a young girl brought three imported agave plants from Grahamstown in 1938, and planted them on a farm outside Graaff-Reinet.


Regardless of which tales is the truth, the agave in South Africa flourished in the Karoo, and have been used to make an agave-based spirit (one brand is called Agava) since 2003. Because of the international denomination of origin, no one outside Mexico can make an agave spirit and call it tequila.


Commercial inulin powderAs reported in The Informador, June 16, 2007, The researchers at UACh see a new market opening for agave growers in inulin production.


Recent studies by the Independent University of Chapingo (UACh) have shown that agave contains more inulin than in most other natural sources, Inulins are a group of naturally occurring sugars produced by many types of plants. They belong to a class of carbohydrates known as fructans. Inulin is used increasingly in foods, because it has unusual nutritional characteristics. Inulin has a minimal impact on blood sugar, making it generally considered suitable for diabetics and potentially helpful in managing blood sugar-related illnesses.


"It (inulin) is the product of the future and Mexico can take advantage of that. We are one of the few countries in the world that cultivates it. It could be the opportunity that waited for the farmers," declared Remigio Madrigal Lugo, leader of the research team.

The tequilero agave is richer in fructans than the chicory. In order to produce a kilo of inulin, 6 kilos of agave are required. As of June 2007, a kilogram of inulin sells in the market between the $3 and $12 USD.

In Mexico, Nestle is the main consumer of inulins. Bimbo, Gamesa, Lala and Quaker, are also adding inulin to their products. In the last six years inulin imports to Mexico have increased from 13.30 tonnes in 2000 to 1,533 tonnes in 2005.

The world consumption is about 250,000 tons a year, mostly in Europe and Japan, where the product is heavily used in milk production, yogurt, ice creams, breads, candies, pastes, jams, sauces and cold meats. The largest producer of inulins is currently Belgium.

In 2005, AC Nielsen determined that $77 billion dollars in foods contained inulin. The forecast for 2011 is that $500 billion USD will be spent in inulin-added foods.



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