Editors Note: The following article is written by a new correspondent for Yucatan Living, Byron Augustine. Byron recently moved to Valladolid after spending 42 years teaching and finally retiring from full time university teaching in August of 2010. He retired as a Distinguished Regents’ Professor Emeritus in Geography at Texas State University, has visited 54 countries on five continents, 49 of the United States, 26 Mexican states, and 8 Canadian provinces. He authored or co-authored 14 books, 23 journal articles, and several magazine articles. And just to top it off, he has had 1,112 photos published by 57 publishers on five continents. Phew! Not only has he done all that, but he has kept track of it all too!
Byron visited the Yucatan in 1978 for the first time and stayed in the Hotel El Meson del Marques in Valladolid, where he met and became friends with the owners, Mario and Lupita Escalante. He eventually brought more than 600 students on Study Abroad Programs to Valladolid and the Yucatan between 1978 and 2007. He and his wife fell in love with the Yucatan and even more so with its people, and finally, in 2008, they purchased a house in Valladolid. After spending two years renovating the house, they finally moved there permanently in January. Now, Byron is writing about Valladolid for Yucatan Living… lucky us! The following is his first report, on the nascent liquor distillery in Valladolid… you’ll see when you read the article why we just dare not call it tequila.
The Agave Plant in Yucatan
There are few plants that are as deeply rooted in Mexican history as the agave (ah-GAH-vay). While there is no botanical agreement on how many species of agave exist, there is general acceptance that the number is between 200 and 300 species. More than ninety percent of those species grow somewhere in Mexico.
Historically, Native Americans living in Mexico, including the Yucatán Peninsula, were well aware of the agave plant. They used its fibers for clothing, rope, sandals, bags, and mats. They also used the sharp, pointed tips of the agave leaves as needles and in blood-letting ceremonies.
The agave species native to the Yucatán is Agave fourcroydes, which is also called henequén or sisal. In the early 1800s several large Spanish haciendas began to grow henequén for commercial purposes, producing rope and burlap sacks. In 1834, Cyrus McCormick patented a mechanical reaper to harvest wheat and other grains. Some farmers described the machine, "as a contraption that was a cross between a wheelbarrow, a chariot, and a flying machine." The mechanical reaper was a huge time saver for farmers in the United States, and coincidentally, McCormick’s contraption used enormous amounts of twine string, the best type of which was made from henequén. As the popularity of the mechanical reaper grew, the demand for twine string exceeded supply.
In the Yucatán, hacienda owners quickly increased the production of henequén, blanketing the land with the popular bluish-tinted plant. Narrow gauge railroad tracks were built to carry small railroad engines and cars which delivered the leaves of the plant to processing plants scattered across the peninsula. Towering brick smokestacks (called chimineas, seen in the photo above) belched smoke from wood and coal-fired steam boilers that provided the power to run machines which crushed and separated the henequén fibers. Later, diesel engines were used to operate larger and more efficient machines.
Henequén Millionaires in Merida
During the last quarter of the 19th century, henequén profits were so large, that the plant was referred to as oro verde or "green gold." The families that owned the henequén plantations acquired immense wealth and were referred to as "henequén millionaires." In 1900, Mérida claimed more millionaires per capita than any other city in the world. They lavished their wealth on opulent mansions along Mérida’s Paseo de Montejo and other parts of the city, travelled to Europe for enjoyment and shopping, and copied the designs, architecture and life styles of the Parisians.
As with any boom, there is always a bust. Dark clouds were on the horizon that would threaten the success of henequén production. After the Mexican Revolution of 1910, the government kept its promise to initiate land reform and began to break up the large haciendas in favor of small farms. Yucatán henequén production suffered in 1939 when the DuPont Chemical Company initiated production of the synthetic fiber, nylon. Other factors, including financial misdeeds and the planting of henequén in other parts of the world, delivered the final blow. By the 1960s, the majority of henequén plantations had failed and large numbers of haciendas were abandoned. Many observers felt that the agave plant in the Yucatán would slip into obscurity.
An Entrepreneur Moves to Valladolid
In 1998, a new resident from Chiapas was welcomed to Valladolid. His name was Gotthold "Gotty" Beutelspacher. Beutelspacher’s grandfather was a Baptist missionary who settled in Chiapa de Corzo and began a lengthy commitment to the work of the church. Gotty’s father was a boat design architect who designed boats used primarily on the Grijalva River. Gotty attended the National Autonomous University of Mexico in Mexico City and earned a degree in geology. His career has taken many interesting twists and turns over the years. He worked for CFE (the Mexican national electricity company) in Chiapas while assisting in the construction of the Angostura Dam on the Grijalva River. He also was employed as an assessor for the state government of Chiapas and served as the Head of the Agriculture and Fishing Department.
In 1980 he founded a successful honey exporting business. Although the business was healthy, security problems related to the Zapatista unrest encouraged him to find a safer place to conduct his honey export operations. Valladolid was the place he selected. After founding Productos Selectos del Sureste, he began exporting Yucatán honey to Germany in 1980.
Agave Azul in the Yucatan
Beutelspacher, a naturalist and environmentalist, soon became fascinated with the agave plant and the history of henequén production. He began to research the possibility of importing another species of agave (Agave Tequilana ‘Weber Blue’), most commonly called Agave azul or blue agave. This species is used to produce tequila, the national drink of Mexico, as well as an important spirit sold on international markets. After lengthy consideration he decided that Agave azul would flourish in the physical environment of the Yucatán.
In 2003, he planted 15 acres of Agave azul plants imported from the state of Jalisco. A visionary with a missionary zeal for this new endeavor led him to encourage other land owners to convert some of their land to Agave azul production as well. In May of 2006, 17 growers established the Alliance for Producers of Agave Azul in the Yucatán. Currently, these growers are cultivating 1,650 acres (650 hectares) of Agave azul. They hope to double that acreage in the next year and are planning on increasing plantings to five to ten thousand acres in the next ten years. Most of the alliance members and a large percentage of the plant acreages are located in Yucatán state with some smaller operations in Campeche and Quintana Roo.
All About Agave Azul
Agave azul likes hot weather, thrives on rocky, thin soils that are well drained and loves lots of sunshine. Bingo! The Yucatán is tailor-made for these requirements. The plant is a succulent that is capable of storing significant amounts of water in its leaves and the head (cabeza) of the plant. The head is also commonly referred to as the piña or pineapple. It is this part of the plant which is processed to produce tequila.
Agave azul has long leaves with sharp hooks along the edge of the leaf and a lethal point on the end of the leaf. Walking about carelessly in an agave azul field can lead to a painful injection. The leaf also contains longitudinal fibers that represent the vascular system. The fibers are similar to those found in henequen but are seldom used for commercial production, although a local artesian makes novelty items from fibers he processes by hand.
There are other beneficial characteristics of Agave azul that make it a good ecological fit for the Yucatán. It is almost completely immune to hurricane damage and needs no irrigation to prosper. The plant does not suffer from any pests or diseases that require the use of chemicals that could damage the environment. Weeds are easily controlled by grazing livestock between the rows or by using a hand-held mechanized tool with steel blades to clean the fields three times a year.
A mature plant will reach an age of ten to twelve years before it shoots a twenty- to thirty-foot stem from the center of the plant, produces flowers, and promptly dies. Fortunately, seeds are seldom used for planting. Instead, young plants sprout from the root system of the plant around its base. These new plants are referred to by field workers as hijuelos or pups. Each plant may produce up to thirty pups which are then used for replanting on harvested fields or for transplanting in new fields. The plant begins producing pups after three years and current fields in the Yucatán provide a more than adequate supply for growers. It is no longer necessary to import the young plants from Jalisco.
The piña is usually harvested when the plant is seven to eight years old, long before the plant flowers. Harvesting the pineapples is done by a skilled worker called a jimador. He uses a long-handle tool with a very sharp circular blade known as a coa de jima to trim all of the leaves off the plant revealing the pineapple. At this point, the jimador uses an ax to cut off the pineapple at its base. The leaves are spread between the rows where they decay and provide natural organic fertilizers for the next planting. The pineapple is transported to the distillery for final processing.
Since Beutelspacher’s first plantings are between seven and eight years old, they are now being harvested and processed into distilled spirits. For this to occur, a distillery had to be constructed. In December of 2010, a grand opening introduced the citizens of the Yucatán, particularly Valladolid, to the new facility. The distillery is distilling Agave azul using the traditional methods of processing and aging.
Stay tuned for Part Two of this article next week, all about the Valladolid distillery, the process of producing tequila and the challenge of marketing the new product.
Read more about haciendas, many of which have been renovated in the last twenty years, as noted in our article Haciendas in the Yucatan.
Read more about the henequen industry in the early 20th Century in our article Yucatan Sisal in History.