On my recent trip with the Tahona Society, we visited took ATVs into the agave fields and "helped" harvest some agave.
There, Olmeca Altos tequila Master Distiller Jesus Hernandez filled me in on some details about agave I didn't know, so I thought I'd share them:
- The quiote, the giant asparagus-shaped sprout that shoots up from a mature agave plant in order to spread its seed, only comes from the female plant. This is nearly always cut soon after sprouting so that it doesn't drain energy from the agave heart.
- After the quiote sprouts, you have a year and a few months to harvest the plant - it can go through one rainy season after sprouting but not two.
- Only the male plants that do not sprout quiotes have a cogollo, a dense circle of leaves where the quiote would have been. Most quality producers make sure to cut out the cogollo when harvesting or before baking the agave, as this negatively impacts the flavor of tequila.
- Agave can be harvested year-round but they tend to harvest less/none in the rainy season. This isn't because the agave are waterlogged and therefore have a lower sugar-to-weight ratio, as Hernandez says that mature plants aren't effected so much by this, but because logistically it's hard to get the trucks in and out of the muddy fields to collect the heavy agave after harvest.
- Sometimes you'll see an agave field with the tips of all the spiky leaves cut off. Hernandez says that some producers think that this helps the heart of the agave grow stronger, but he doesn't believe this is true. However, he says it is common to cut off the tips of the leaves when they come through annually to apply pesticides and herbicides, just so that they can get through the dense rows of agave without getting cut on the leaves.
- The leaves of the agave plants grow and die annually and new ones grow above them, much like how a palm tree grows with rows of dead leaves left lower down. I always thought they were the same leaves just growing bigger each year!
- They apply pesticides and herbicides annually up until the year before harvest, as they don't want any of that residue around for harvest.
- At the base of agave plants sprout rhyzomes, little baby agaves called hijuelos. These are cut and replanted after the mother agave plant is 3-4 years old.
I also learned something from Guillermo Sauza, distiller/owner of Fortaleza Tequila.
- You can get huge agave hearts in the Lowlands, you just have to fertilize the fields. Sauza says that people don't usually do that in the area anymore since the current prices are so low for agave.