Pioneers of Australian agave

Agave is a remarkable plant.

Looking like a cross between a cactus and a succulent, the many species and variation of agave native to the American continent have had many uses. While it’s a pretty decorative plant and is fast becoming a viable biofuel option, what I’m most interested in (as I’m sure you are) is it’s potential to create spirits.

Thinking about agave and spirits, the first thing that comes to mind is tequila. Originating from Mexico, the production of tequila is highly regulated and guarded, and doesn’t allow the inclusion of just any agave plant type or producer.

Producers that can’t fit into the classification of tequila are still making spirits from the agave plant. With names originating from the Spanish language and largely coming from the areas tequila is made, there has long been an association between agave spirits and Mexico.

Australia’s industry hadn’t dipped far into agave spirits production at all. That is, until recently, when our first two agave distillers took on the challenge, fought the spiky agave plants and won.

One of these producers is Black Snake Distillery, based near Narrabri in New South Wales. The family operation run by Stephen Beale and Rosemary Smith came from an idea in 2016, when one of their daughters returned from a trip to Mexico.

Beale and Smith, thanks to their daughter’s recognition of the similarities between Australia and Mexico’s climates, set to work investigating the agave that grew wild on their rural property, discovering it was a species used to produce Mezcal in Mexico.

Guessing it had broken free from being a decorative garden plant many years prior, Smith said the property is “overrun, absolutely overrun. I don’t believe we would have to plant while Stephen and I am still alive.”

Beale said this is evidence of how well agave fits into the Australian climate. He said: “It seems that certainly in our area it is a viable plant.”

After Black Snake harvest the plants, they’re taken to an oven Beale built in line with Mexican style, where it is smoked. They are then also crushed, distilled and bottled on site to become the ASp agave spirit.

While Black Snake Distillery is an operation that runs “farm to bottle” entirely from their own property, Australia’s other agave spirit distiller had a different approach.

James Becker has his background in winemaking in the Hunter Valley under M&J Becker Wines. Becker described how he came to be interested in agave spirit production, to ultimately go on to create Pinche.

“We spent some time working in California and obviously got exposed to a lot of tequilas and just really enjoyed it,” Becker said. “When I came back to Australia I saw that the government with another entity had invested in bringing some plants from tequila, the species being Agave Tequiliana, the same one used in Mexico [for tequila].”

“I made note of everyone connected to the project and just started making calls… got down to the main people and pestered them for about half a dozen years until they relented and let me buy some of the plants.”

Purchasing 30 plants from the remote plantation research crop in Northern Queensland, Becker enlisted the help of friend Mark Shaddock in the harvesting and creation process. After pressing and fermenting the juice in the Becker winery, they then teamed up with Surry Hills’ Brix Distillers to use their still under the guidance of Head Distiller Shane Casey.

L: harvesting wild Agave Americana on the Black Snake property
R: the Agave Tequiliana crop in Northern Queensland that Becker used for Pinche

Overcoming challenges

The first big challenge for anyone who works with agave is the harvesting of the plants themselves. While the different species range in size, what they all have in common is the tough spiky leaves that surround the heart or “piña” that is needed for the agave spirit production.

When Becker harvested, he took Shaddock up to Queensland and spent three days in the fields collecting the piñas.

“It was honestly the three hardest days’ work of my life,” he said. “It was horrible, the plants are really hard to work with. They’re obviously spiky, but they have sap which contains calcium oxalate which is a skin irritant, sort of like aqueous fibreglass… it made it a very uncomfortable harvesting experience.”

Smith also described the harvesting as pretty tough, and said: “it’s not the most pleasant work to get from the paddock to the bottle.”

“Our land is pretty dry at the moment with the terrible drought and [the plants] are very very clumped together in a dry creek bed.”

With the land so dry, and the agave plants needing to be dug out to get to the piñas, it’s gruelling work. Living on the land and through such a drought pushed Black Snake to develop sustainable practices, but this opened up other challenges.

Being solar powered, the energy they need to create enough heat for distilling can be hard to harness in the cooler months. Smith said that compared to a batch they did in summer at the start of the year, their most recent batch has taken almost three times as long.

Some of the piñas harvested by Becker and Shaddock

“We’re completely solar powered now, we’ve got a lot of panels, and it’s going well,” said Smith. “But we wouldn’t be able to put a heater on in the shed all night or we’ll black the house out. We’ve got electric blankets that go around some of the tubs, and they come on and off intermittently. So, that keeps the temperature fairly stable… but it doesn’t keep it at like 30 degrees which would be ideal.”

Being a one off distiller, Becker faced challenges around high production costs and transporting products and materials. But he said that if they were to do another batch, this would be vastly brought down. The first run is always the hardest.   

The idea of Australian agave is starting to be received well by the Australian market. In fact, Kings Cross bar Dulcie’s was so impressed with Black Snake’s ASp product, they threw them a launch party off their own back.

Beale said that while the market for agave spirits other than tequila is building in the US and Australia, he said that a history of poor quality spirits pretending to be tequila had warped opinion somewhat. Producers across the world are trying hard to get that back by showing the unique terroir of their locations in their spirit.

“There are issues with recognition – while we are using the Mexican traditions as our guide, our product definitely has an Australian accent,” Beale said.

“Where you grow the plants and how you process them (we use eucalyptus wood to cook/smoke), all make a difference.”

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