What Is Agave? Everything to Know About the Main Ingredient in Tequila

by Jim Casey
(Photo by Chip HIRES/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

Agave is a grass-like flowering plant from the Lilium genus. It typically grows in arid conditions in the Americas. It’s not a cactus. It’s actually a . . . Bored? Okay, that’s enough botanical/geographical jargon. Agave is responsible for tequila, and that’s cause for celebration. But not just any of the more than 200 species of agave. It’s a very specific agave known as Blue Weber (Weber Azul) agave. And that’s the heart of this article (or, I should say “piña of this article,” but we’ll come back to that point).

While there are only three ingredients in pure tequila—Blue Weber agave, yeast, and water—the process is complicated. In fact, technically speaking, if you want to make “tequila,” you’ll need a Blue Weber agave farm in the Mexican state of Jalisco or another approved municipality in the states of Guanajuato, Michoacan, Nayarit, or Tamaulipas.

All “tequila” will be labeled Producto de Mexico. (photo by Outsider)

Oh, Mexico

Yes, tequila comes from Mexico. Make no bones about it. Any agave-based spirit made outside the aforementioned Mexican states ain’t tequila. It may be classified as mezcal if it’s made in one of nine approved Mexican states, or it just may be labeled an “agave-based spirit” if it’s made in the U.S., among other locations.

Two quick points about mezcal, before continuing the tequila talk. All tequila is mezcal, but not all mezcal is tequila. Mezcal can be made from a variety of different agave species (not just the Blue Weber agave that tequila is known for).

A field of Blue Weber agave in Tequila, Mexico. (photo by Marc DEVILLE/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

Back to tequila. Of course, tequila production is serious business in Mexico. In 1974, “tequila” became the intellectual property of Mexico. That’s why you’ll never see an American-made tequila (or, a tequila from any of the other 193 countries in the world). Just like bourbon comes from the United States and Tennessee Whiskey comes from, you guessed it, Tennessee, tequila comes from Mexico. Period.

In short, Mexico has gone to great lengths via official treaties and agreements (NAFTA) to protect tequila with a Mexican Designation of Origin.

Piña Party

The tequila-making process typically features 7-Steps, including harvesting, cooking, extracting, distilling, and more. Of course, let’s focus on the steps that are agave-centric, so we aren’t here all day.

Blue Weber agave is usually harvested between seven and 14 years. Only the agave’s heart, called a piña (see, told you we’d come back to that) is used to make tequila. Piñas can weigh anywhere from 80 to 300 pounds. The piña is steamed in brick ovens or earthen pits. The piña is then crushed and juiced, which is then fermented in wooden or steel vats for several days to produce a wort called mosto. The mosto ferments thanks to natural microorganisms or the addition of yeast. The resulting mosto is distilled at least twice.

A jimador harvests Blue Weber agave pińas. (photo by Chip HIRES/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

The distillate is then prepared into one of five expressions, as designated by the Consejo Regulador de Tequila (Tequila Regulatory Council: TRC): blanco, joven, reposado, añejo, or extra añejo.

In addition, to learn more about tequila’s five expressions, check out Outsider’s breakdown of the 5 Types of Tequila. Of course, if you want our list of Outsider-approved Blancos, we’ve got ya covered.