Miahuatlán guide to magueyes
Cuixe Verde (Agave Karwinskii)
The Cuixe Verde is a very particular local karwinskii phenotype. It appears to be the product of open pollination and from seed is only found growing from what is collected from the regionally specific Madrecuixe, aptly named as the “mother” of agaves given the diverse offspring that is born from its seed. In eight to twelve years, Cuixe Verde grows extremely tall and thick, reaching over three meters in height. The plants can weigh hundreds of kilograms and yield a liter of spirits for every 6-8 kg of cooked agave. This plant does not produce seeds of its own, limiting its means of propagation to its rhizome system. There are very few farmers that have had the means or knowledge to propagate this varietal. As such, Verde is an extremely prized, but very rare cultivar.
Madrecuixe (Agave Karwinskii)
The maguey known locally as “Madrecuixe” is a truly remarkable plant. Similar in appearance to what is known by the same name in other parts of Oaxaca, this Madrecuixe is a distinct subspecies endemic to Miahuatlán. Characterized by a large, light-blue, spherical rosette, Madrecuixe can weigh anywhere from 60 pounds to more than 200, depending on its environment.
Cultivated for centuries, if not millennia, as a food and beverage source, Madrecuixe is renowned for its exquisite flavor as well as its genetic potential. In Miahuatlán, this particular Karwinskii varietal has the title madre, meaning mother, because the plant is capable of cross-pollination and produces seed that develops into very distinct varietals. Seed from the Miahuatlán Madrecuixe will often yield the varieties known locally as Verde (or Cuixe Verde), Tobaziche, and Coyote. One can also find agave that resemble Tobalá, Jabalí, and some Americana varietals, all born from Madrecuixe seed.
Often, the mezcaleros and growers find expressions that they themselves have never seen and cannot identify. This type of mixed outcome is so commonplace, that in order to ensure the reproduction of pure Madrecuixe, many maestros prefer to simply transplant the plantlets that propagate from the agave’s root system. However, growing from seed ensures strong and healthy plants while also maintaining the biodiversity for which Miahuatlán is so renowned.
Bicuixe (Agave Karwinskii)
In Miahuatlán, the maguey Bicuixe (pronounced bee-queesh or bee-quishay) is perhaps the most prevalent of the micro-endemic Agave karwinskii. While it is primarily a wild species, it could also be considered semi-cultivated as it is frequently transplanted and used to demarcate property lines and prevent soil erosion in the fields. This subspecies is far from uniform in appearance as there are multiple phenotypes and ecotypes, but one of its primary characteristics is its long and relatively thin tree-like stalk, often larger than the actual piña in size. While the Bicuixe piña has a moderate sugar content, they are small in comparison to other A. karwinskii varietals and have a much larger stalk to piña ratio, which can translate into slightly bitter notes, lending the distilled spirit an incredible balance of flavors. The Bicuixe, or Cuixe, as it can also be called in the area, plays such a quintessential role in local mezcal and agave spirits production that it could be considered the most archetypal and definitive expression of the tierras and culturas of Miahuatlán. The names of agaves in Oaxaca, and throughout Mexico, are regionally, culturally, and sometimes linguistically specific and should be treated as such. They are colloquial and can change from village to village and region to region. The Bicuixe found in Miahuatlan is very similar, and perhaps even identical to what is called Tobaziche in parts of the Ejutla valley, the Tobaziche of Santa Catarina Minas, as well as the Cirial from other parts of the Central Valleys.
Tobaziche (Agave Karwinskii)
The maguey known in Miahuatlán as Tobaziche is an increasingly rare agave endemic to this region. The Tobaziche was one of the many native magueyes nearly eradicated from the area when, in the 1980’s, industrial producers from Jalisco bought up local agaves en masse, encouraging farmers to replace them with Espadín. Prized for its beauty and sugar content, this variety of Agave karwinskii is relatively slow to mature, taking around 16 years before it is ready to harvest.
When the plants are young, the Tobaziche greatly resembles the Madrecuixe, another karwinskii varietal, though there are some clear distinctions between the two. Tobaziches have greener pencas, differently shaped spines, and a rosette that takes a slightly more oval form as the plant gets larger. As they approach maturity, Tobaziches will grow significantly larger than a Madrecuixe, commonly reaching 5-7 feet in height and developing piñas that can weigh well over 300 lbs. It is an agave that is able to reproduce from seed as well as through its root system, though interestingly, the the Miahuatlán Tobaziche is often found growing in beds of agave cultivated from Madrecuixe seedstock. Tobaziche is generally a cultivated, or semi-cultivated varietal, but because of its bizarre relationship to the Madrecuixe, small feral populations do exist.
Tepextate (Agave Marmorata)
Tepextate is a type of Agave marmorata that grows throughout many different regions of Oaxaca. The plant’s historical use in spirits was for the most part limited to remote and isolated regions of difficult terrain, where the production of mezcal was clandestine, and in situations where palenqueros did not have the land and resources to cultivate other varietals preferred for their higher yield. In the past, Tepextate was often used as medicine, with different desired properties derived from both the roots and the juices of its thick leaves. Except under extreme conditions of stress, Tepextate does not reproduce through offsets in its rhizome system, but rather exclusively from seed. Bats, moths, and hummingbirds are its primary pollinators, and is renowned for its large and beautiful yellow inflorescence. The flowering stocks begin to shoot up in February, and typically flower during Holy Week and are used for decoration in churches of the Central Valleys for Easter. Amongst palenqueros the plant is infamous for its extremely low sugar content and the difficulty involved in harvesting and transporting these plants from their preferred terrain of rocky hillside, steep ravines, and cliffs. These areas are most often inaccessible to trucks or even donkeys or mules and must be carried out by hand- leaving behind itchy rashes and blisters caused by its highly caustic juices. The name itself comes from Tepetate, a Hispanicized word originating from the Nahuatl tepetlatl, which refers to a geological horizon, a lime-rich but hardened and poor draining earth surface. It is in arid environments with steep slopes and extremely rocky and limestone-rich soils where the Tepextate maguey thrives, but even under ideal conditions may require 30 to as much 90 kgs of cooked plant to yield just one liter of spirit. For comparison, a liter or Espadín or different karwinskii varietals will require somewhere between 6-10kg of roasted agave; Tepextate is one of the lowest yielding varietals used in the production of agave spirits. In Miahuatlán, Tepextate is sometimes found at lower elevations but is more prevalent in zones just below 1400m to just above 2000m. It is often found growing alongside various aromatic herbs and plants, such as verbena, copal trees, and wild chiles.
There are two main morphological expressions of Tepextate in the Miahuatlán district, both exuberantly large and green, but with very differently shaped and sized leaves, with one type expressing considerably shorter and wider leaves. It is said that this type has a higher sugar content and thus produces a slightly larger yield. Both types can take anywhere from 9-35 years to mature, depending on a multitude of environmental factors, although palenqueros that know the plant intimately generally harvest between 12 and 15 years of growth in the wild. In Miahuatlán, certain communities have always worked with the wild-looking and wild-growing Tepextate, but in recent years its popularity in production has increased, in both a response to a shortage of cultivated varietals, and consumer demand that came primarily from outside of the communities of production. In response, the growers and producers in Logoche and other villages have started to select seed and cultivate Tepextate alongside other wild varietals that previously only found growing naturally in the wild. The history of human and agave interaction is tremendous, and it will be interesting to see where this next step takes the Tepextate.
It is important to note that the plant known as Tepextate in much of the state of Oaxaca is distinct from the varietal known as Pichumetl or Pichomel that grows in both wild and cultivated conditions in the Mixteca regions of Oaxaca and Puebla where this marbled-leaf varietal is often cultivated for pulque. In beginning to understand these plants and the very particular regional flavors found in their distilled form, it is important to respect the often hyper-regional colloquial names applied to the agave. These names reflect very specific cultural and linguistic origins, as well as a particular peoples’ relationship to the plant.
Jabalín (Agave Convallis)
Known as Jabalín or Jabalí, Spanish for “wild boar”, this maguey has been classified as both A. Convallis and A. Kerchovei of the sub-genus Littaea. This somewhat prevalent agave is found in a few variant forms between southern Puebla and most of Oaxaca state, either in densely clustered groups or in solitary form, both wild and semi-cultivated. The pencas are a rich green color with a subtle yellow stripe down the inside of the leaf, and are equally notable for their very pronounced, jagged spines. While the Jabalín does have a high sugar content, it historically has not been an agave preferred for distillation, but instead prized for its durable fibers and use as natural fencing. The Agave convallis contains elevated amounts of sapogenins, the same natural compounds used for organic soap making, resulting in a challenging and very bubbly fermentation. This intimidating process continues into distillation with first -- and more than often -- second rounds yielding a liquid that is greenish in color and capped with a thick layer of soap-like foam. For this reason, Jabalín is commonly triple-distilled, allowing for a crystalline appearance.