Wednesday, March 9, 2016

The Alsatian Connection To Tequila

The next time you have a shot of tequila, a Margarita or other tequila cocktail, you should give thanks to the French region of Alsace.

Why? What connection does Alsace have with the Mexican spirit tequila?

Let's start with a little information on the most basic element of tequila, the agave plant. Agave is a perennial succulent and was once believed to be related to the lily family but newer evidence places it closer to the asparagus family. There are over 200 varieties of the agave, about 50 of which are safe to consume. Many of those 50 varieties are used to produce Mezcal, though the majority of Mezcal is made from only a small fraction.

By law, with the first standards having been created in 1949, tequila can only be produced from Weber Blue Agave, a plant which can grow as tall as ten feet. The piña, the heart of the blue agave, can weigh an average of 100-200 pounds. Legally, a tequila must be made of at least 51% blue agave and the rest can be other sugars, such as corn or sugarcane. The best tequilas are said to be made from 100% blue agave.

Now let's travel across the Atlantic Ocean to Alsace. In 1830, Frédéric Albert Constantin Weber was born in Strasbourg, the capital of Alsace. He would also later be known as F.A.C. Weber and Dr. Albert Weber. He became a Doctor of Medicine from the University of Strasbourg in 1852, publishing a thesis on cerebral hemorrhage. Soon after his graduation, he joined the military, becoming a military surgeon. Frédéric also had a hobby of plant collecting, though I haven't been able to determine the origin of this hobby.

Around 1864, Frédéric was sent on a military expedition to Mexico, an invasion that would later be known by several different names, including the Maximilian Affair, the Franco-Mexican War and War of the French Intervention. Mexico, which owed debt to France, Spain and the UK, had defaulted on payments and Emperor Napoleon III of France convinced Spain and the UK to invade Mexico to recover their monies. However, France was soon alone when Spain and the UK realized that Napoleon III wanted to size control of all of Mexico. In the end, France's efforts failed and they had to leave Mexico.

During the approximate four years he was in Mexico, Frédéric somehow found sufficient free time to exercise his hobby, studying some of the native plants of Mexico, especially cacti and agave. He returned to France and eventually published some of his findings though many of his plant studies wouldn't see publication until after his death in 1903.

Most importantly, in 1902, Frédéric, under the name Dr. A. Weber, published an article in the Bulletin du Muséum d'histoire Naturelle (Issue #3, page 218) which was titled “Notes sur quelques agave du mexique occidental et de la Basse-Californie.” The article discussed and described the blue agave plant, referred to as agave tequilana, and its use in producing Pulque and Mezcal. It should be noted that when Frédéric was in Mexico during the 1860s, tequila didn't yet exist as a separate entity, and Mezcal, sometimes known as Vino Mezcal de Tequila, was the norm. It wouldn't be until the 1870s, that tequila started being known as its own entity. After Frédéric's death, agave tequilana would be named after him, becoming Weber Blue Agave.

Once, tequila could be produced from a number of different agave plants, but eventually it was decided that it could only be made from Weber Blue Agave. There are alternate explanations for why this agave was chosen, some, especially the large tequila companies, claiming that it was because it is the best agave. Other allege that blue agave was chosen because it is prolific, matures relatively quickly, and the piña has a high level of sugars. This makes it more appealing to large tequila producers who need to make significant amounts of tequila cost effectively.

Frédéric's study of the blue agave likely helped to elevate its importance, bringing it to the forefront, and now it is the cornerstone of tequila production. The use of the Weber Blue Agave is a nod to Alsace, a long distance path showing the interconnectedness of the world.

To honor Frédéric's work, please raise a glass of Crémant d'Alsace and follow it with a shot of Tequila.

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