The tequila agave plant originates from the State of Jalisco, which stretches from the Pacific Ocean to the highlands of central Mexico. Agave tequilana, as it's known botanically, has been fermented for centuries to make the alcoholic drinks for which it is famous. The plant is also called blue agave or mezcal, and commercial cultivation is centered on the town of Tequila, 40 miles northwest of Mexico's second largest city, Guadalajara.
Despite its cactus-like appearance, tequila agave belongs to the lily family. The thick, blue-green leaves grow up to 6 feet long from the oval-shaped base of the plant. The base is called the heart, or pina in Spanish. This explains the name origin of the well-known pina colada drink. The pina is oval in shape and can weigh up to 300 lbs. when mature.
Tequila agave is well adapted to the dry, silica-rich volcanic soil that covers most of Jalisco's highland areas. The plants grow best at elevations above 5,000 feet. Like most succulents, the leaves act as water reservoirs to carry the plant through the sometimes lengthy dry season, which is followed by heavy rains. Unfortunately, it is extremely rare to find blue agave growing in the wild, as much of its habitat has been taken over for commercial production.
It is estimated that there are over 300 million tequila agave plants under cultivation in Jalisco, with an average plant density of 1,500 per acre. Such is the demand for the end product of these plants both domestically and internationally. It takes an average of eight years for the plants to be harvest-ready, so it is fortunate that they require little care and attention after planting.
Tequila agave is harvested when the fermentable sugar content has reached the minimum acceptable level of 24 percent, as dictated by Mexican law. Plants grown at higher elevations typically contain more sugar, with reports of some crops averaging over 40 percent. When the leaves are cut off, the pina looks very much like a huge pineapple. Tequila agave plants mature on an ongoing rather than a seasonal basis, so harvesting is a year-round undertaking.
The harvested pinas are gathered and brought to tequila factories. They are roasted in large steam-heated kilns and then crushed to extract the juice. Fermentation takes anywhere from two to 12 days depending on the weather. The distillation process is two-stage and produces the clear tequila end product, which can be anywhere from 40 to 70 percent alcohol, depending on where and how it is processed. The average harvest size of the tequila agave pina is 65 lbs., which will be distilled down to produce about 1 gallon of tequila.