Five Fast Facts about Agave

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Today is Cinco de Mayo, a day to celebrate all things Mexican, and more specifically, a day to commemorate the Mexican Army’s unlikely victory over French forces at the Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862.

Here in the USA, we typically frame our annual celebration of Mexican culture in terms of food and beverage (well, especially the beverages) so it is likely that a great deal of tequila and mezcal will be consumed today and all through the night. As such, I thought I would take this opportunity to write a post all about Agave. Agave is (of course) the amazing plant that gave us tequila and mescal, but there is so much more to know about agave.

#1: Depending on how you break it down, there are somewhere between 130 and 208 species of Agave (it’s an unwieldy family that defies classification in some ways). Agave is a type of monocot (a group of flowering plants whose seeds typically contain only one embryonic leaf). Agave is native to Mexico and some parts of the American southwest, as well as parts of South America. Agave has been successfully introduced to Europe and South Africa.

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#2: Contrary to popular belief, Agave is not a cactus, but rather it is a member of the Agavaceae family and closely related to both the lily family (amaryllis) and asparagus. Agave is, however, a succulent (loosely defined as a group of plants with thick, spongy leaves that store water). So, agave is a succulent, and cactus is a succulent, but agave is not a cactus.

#3: According to William H. Prescott (American historian and botanist, 1796–1859), agave was used by the population of Mexico for more than just beverages. A portion of his book, The History of the Conquest of Mexico, (1843) reads: “Its bruised leaves afforded a paste from which paper was manufactured…its leaves further supplied an impenetrable thatch for the more humble dwellings. Thread, of which coarse stuffs were made, and strong cords were drawn from its tough and twisted fibers; pins and needles were made from the thorns at the extremity of its leaves; and the root, when properly cooked, was converted into a palatable and nutritious food.”

#4: Agave is monocarpic – meaning they die after flowering. So whether the plant is allowed to grow its flower stalk and spread its seeds, or if the flower stalk is removed to allow the stem to swell (as for use in tequila), the plant is still going to die after reaching sexual maturity. Luckily for the agave, most plants take six to eight years to reach this point, and some—such as Agave americana— take much longer. Agave americana is often referred to as the “century plant” because it supposedly takes a century to bloom, but in reality it is closer to 15 to 20 years.

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#5: Agave nectar (more accurately called agave syrup) is a sweetener commercially produced from several species of agave, including Agave tequiliana and Agave salmiana. Agave syrup is sweeter than honey and tends to be less viscous. Most agave syrup comes from Mexico and South Africa. Agave syrup has been marketed as a “healthful” sweetener, but this fact has been the subject of criticism due to its very high fructose content. It is, however, a true vegan alternative to honey, and – because it dissolves quickly and is sweeter than pure sugar – it is useful in (you guessed it) cocktails!

One more note: If you plan on having a wee bit of tequila to celebrate Cinco de Mayo, why not step away from the sweet-and-sour-laced frozen Margarita and try a classy, classic Paloma! Click here for a recipe.

References/for more information:

The Bubbly Professor is “Miss Jane” Nickles of Austin, Texas… missjane@prodigy.net

About bubblyprof
Wine Writer and Educator...a 20-year journey from Bristol Hotels to Le Cordon Bleu Schools and the Society of Wine Educators

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