July 17, 2024
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How Traditional Agave Harvesting Makes a Difference in Tequila Quality

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Image commercially licensed from: Unsplash


Tequila is a spirit created from the agave plant. Like a fine wine, tequila has centuries of tradition that impact how its production and quality. 

“Tequila is a product of the region in which it is made,” explains Alec Tesa, founder of award-winning tequila brand Eleven20. “The types of agave harvested in each area and the techniques employed impact the finished product’s color, taste, and aroma.”

Traditional agave harvesting is done by hand

To understand the importance of traditional agave harvesting, it’s vital to look at how long it takes for an agave plant to mature. The optimal age for harvest depends on the climate, but agaves typically need to grow from 7 to 10 years. Choosing the plants ready for harvest requires the knowledge of a skilled jimador, or tequila farmer. 

“The process for traditional agave harvesting is labor intensive,” says Tesa. “The people who perform the work know exactly what needs to be done because they have been doing it for generations.”

Harvest takes place during the harsh desert conditions of spring and summer, when agave plants reach peak ripeness. Harvesting agave is one of the most physically demanding jobs, requiring jimadors to labor with heavy equipment in order to harvest the plants, which can grow up to 12 feet tall and weigh 100 pounds.

Workers use traditional tools such as coas (hoes with flat, sharp heads) and macuahuitls (wooden swords with sharpened obsidian blades) to shave away the spiny leaves and flowers from the agave plant. When they have painstakingly collected every leaf by hand, they are left with the piña — the plant’s heart — which contains all the sweet sap used for agave nectar or alcohol fermentation and is cooked to ultimately produce the tequila.

Traditional agave harvesting is sustainable

Traditional agave farmers still employ sustainable methods and practices that respect the land and its inhabitants — including humans, animals, and plants. This ensures that people can continue to enjoy tequila for many generations to come.

“In the past, the only way to harvest agave was by hand,” Tesa observes. “This meant it took years for fields to be completely cleared and replanted. While today’s technology allows us to harvest much faster than our ancestors, we still follow their tradition of sustainability and ensure our methods do not harm the land or wildlife surrounding us.”

Types of agaves

Agave is a succulent plant that thrives in both the wild deserts and lush farmland of Mexico. Native Mexicans have used it for thousands of years as food, medicine, and fiber.  

The variety of agave used to make tequila determines its flavor profile. There are over 100 varieties of agave in Mexico and over 200 worldwide, but only four are commonly used to produce high-quality tequilas: 

  • Weber Blue Agave (used in blue-labeled blancos)
  • Espadin Agave (used in reposados)
  • Tobala Agave (used in extra añejo)
  • Pasion Azul Agave (used for ultra-premiums)

A fifth type of agave, Cenizo, has recently been gaining popularity because it produces a smoother-tasting spirit than most others. At the same time, it is able to withstand higher alcohol content when distilled into liquor, making it the perfect agave for producing mezcal.

Contemporary agave harvesting techniques cut corners

“Contemporary agave harvesting techniques cut corners,” Tesa remarks. “These shortcuts lead to lower price points for certain brands, but they also yield a lower quality tequila.”

The most obvious example of cutting corners in today’s agave harvesting is the use of machines that rapidly chop down and cut up plants, rather than human labor. While this method is much faster, it unfortunately frequently damages delicate agave plants which results in heaps of wasted agave. Only harvesting by hand ensures that each plant is handled with care. 

When skilled farmers implement traditional techniques to carefully cut the base of each agave stem with a hand-sharpened machete or knife, they achieve precise control and ensure minimal damage to the leaves and agave plant. Leaves comprise as much as 20% of each plant, so it is critical to preserve as many as possible.  

Contemporary harvesting methods also cut corners by cutting down younger plants than traditionally used in the past. Younger plants result in lower-quality spirits because they have not developed their full sugar content.

Judging quality among tequila distilleries

“The quality of a tequila depends on three things,” says Tesa. “The agave plant, the distillery’s processes, and how those two elements interact. If you’re looking for the best-tasting tequila, look closely at the distillery and its practices.” 

Tesa recommends looking for a distillery that uses traditional agave harvesting methods to ensure the tequila comes from a premium variety of agave harvested at peak ripeness. Next, he advises consumers to look at whether the product contains 100% agave. 

“Many distilleries combine agave sugars with other sugars — such as cane sugar or beet syrup — because they are cheaper,” he says.

Finally, Tesa tells consumers to check if the distillery uses additives during fermentation, including yeast cultures from other plants, such as grapes or apples. These additives are prone to give off unwanted flavors when mixed into fermented mashes containing pure agave sugars.

Traditional agave harvesting is time-consuming and labor-intensive, but the higher-quality tequila is worth the effort. “If you’re going to drink tequila, you should drink the best,” Tesa remarks. “Traditional methods deliver a final product with better taste, color, and aroma profile.” 

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