Agave - Gems in the Karoo

May 2002

by Garth Cambray

The science behind making alcohol is an interesting one. Science is what has allowed us to make alcohol from some of the most bizarre and unusual life forms on our planet. As one drives through the dry but beautiful Karoo near Graaf-Reinet in South Africa you will see stands of a dark blue-grey leafed plant, which farmers often call the American aloe, and which are all members of the Agave family. It is hard to imagine looking at this plant that it could be used to produce alcohol, but that is precisely what the owners of Agave Distillers are doing.

How it all started - Mexico

To get to the heart of this story we need to switch continents to central America. As the Spanish invaded central America they took with them many different beliefs and technologies to those currently in the area. They also took a lot of people, who had a demand for alcohol. At this time, problems in viticulture in Europe had damaged wine production, and the chief spirit of the time, brandy was in short supply. The indigenous peoples of central America produced a wine from the agave plant which they called mescal. Mescal, a product of an ingenious fermentation involving a number of different microbes, could attain alcohol concentrations of up to 17% by volume. When they distilled Mescal, the Spanish colonists found they could produce a potent drink which was extremely harsh. In the 1950's, the product was improved and formally branded as Tequila and marketing since then developed it as a global brand produced by a number of independent distilleries in Mexico. A number of very large distilleries have developed in Mexico. In the late 1990's, at the peak of Tequila's international popularity, a virus began damaging the Agave species used in producing Tequila, resulting in a huge price increase.

"Tequila" in the Karoo

In the early 1900's, Agave plants were distributed throughout South Africa for both erosion control and as a fodder crop in droughts. Thousands of plants were planted by many families in the Graaf-Reinet area. Over the years these lines of Agaves multiplied into thick rows of plants. In the late 1990's, a group of entrepreneurs established a factory to produce "Tequila" in Graaf-Reinet. The project was funded largely by venture capital, but over capitalization on inappropriate technology resulted in the project going insolvent before producing any product. Prior to bankruptcy the original producers also became aware of the fact that their product could not be marketed as "Tequila", as this is considered a trademark of Mexico.

One of the minor shareholders in the original distillery, the McLachlan Family Trust, which has interests in the wine business, decided at this point to diversify its beverage holdings and invest further in taking the distillery to market. At this point the name was changed to Agave Distillers. A French technology company was brought on board briefly to assist with technology and market development.

The Agave

In our interview with Roy McLachlan, the quiet, thoughtful CEO of Agave Distillers we were given an inside tour of the facility. A sustainable cropping system is used to harvest the agave plants just before they flower. At this point the agave would have built up large stores of sugars for producing a five to six meter flowering stalk. When a large agave 'mother' is harvested, suckers come up around it. These young suckers continue the cycle and ensure a sustainable supply of agave for future harvesting.

The agaves are stripped of their outer leaves, and the sugar rich heart is taken back to the distillery. Technology developed on site is used to extract sugars from the agave. In short it is pulped and boiled in two different ways and then pressed to extract juice.

The juice, rich in plant sugars, is fermented using a consortium of microbes. The microbial consortium has been developed in-house by the distillery. After fermentation, a large percentage of the sugars in the agave have been converted to ethanol. This product is then distilled using pot stills and the best segments of the distillation run are then tanked for maturation. Following maturation the product is bottled and distributed.

As scientists we were impressed by a number of aspects of the facility including high standards in technology, sterility and safety. In an area with high unemployment it is encouraging to see that where people can be employed instead of machines, this has been done.

"Tequila" and Tourism

The factory is located on the national highway between Cape Town and Johannesburg, hence a constant flow of tourists is available for on-site sales once the venue is opened to the public. This will also be exciting for the residents of Graaf-Reinet and many of the surrounding towns who all told us fantastic stories of the distillery, most of which were apparently well down the grape vine in terms of their factual distortion! For a distillery rooted in a small community such as this, good community relations will be fundamental to expansion in the future. The on-site sales will ensure these relations.

For the Tequila producers of Mexico, it is to be hoped that this new South African entry into the market will be viewed as a partner who can keep the demand for Tequila alive until they can produce it again. After this, all players in the industry can work to grow the market together.

In the final analysis Agave spirit by any other name remains "tequila".


May 2002