Under the blazing hot sun on a Wednesday afternoon, a monstrous agave plant lurches lazily over the curb on the corner of East and Boundary in Historic Oakwood.
A group of people cluster around it, wearing gloves and long sleeves. They're armed with an arsenal of tools: machetes, a hacksaw, a chainsaw, shovels. The agave's quiote—the middle stalk that supports the budding flowers—is taller than the house behind it, quivering slightly as a man grabs hold of the broad leaves at its base and prepares to slice into them. Cars trickle past; many slow down and pull over to watch.
The agave is about to be harvested.
Agave are succulents—plants with thick, fleshy leaves and stems that retain water in arid climates. Native to the southwestern United States and Mexico, they are best known for their role as a star ingredient in the making of tequila and mezcal.
This particular agave, though, will become beer, courtesy of a collaboration between Raleigh mezcaleria Gallo Pelón and Bond Brothers Brewing Company of Cary.
This agave plant has flat, broad leaves several hand-widths wide. Called the "century plant" (though it doesn't actually take a full century to bloom), or maguey in Mexico, it is also known as "American aloe" and is often confused with the healing plant because of its similar shape. But using it as aloe would be a grave mistake.
"If the sap gets on you, it's really, really bad," says Marshall Davis, general manager of Gallo Pelón.
"It's like the opposite of aloe vera," says Sean McKinney, head of blending at Bond Brothers. "It actually causes burns."
"And these things," Davis chimes in, pointing at the tiny teeth that line the edges of each leaf, "are really sharp."
Hence all the protection and the tools. These are tough buggers.
The brewers will actually get two beer styles out of the endeavor. The first will be a tamarind-ginger-smoked agave saison that will be available in about five to six weeks on draft at Bond Brothers. For the second one, they'll take the first beer, toss in a little lactobacillus bacteria and brettanomyces (wild yeast) to sour it, then pour it into a tequila barrel and leave it to age until Gallo Pelón's anniversary next March, where it will be available exclusively by the bottle until they run out.
The agave Americana plant in Oakwood has developed the prestige of local celebrity over the years. During its harvest, one woman, while walking her dog, called out that she thought neighbors would throw their bodies in front of it to protect it from the city.
The plant's owners, Joey and Kennan Hester, have lived in the house on the corner for five years. Joey calls the history of their dwelling "bald-faced luck." When the Hesters were looking to rent, the house came up as one of the first available rentals. A couple of years later, when they were looking to buy, the owner just happened to be looking to sell. The yard came as-is, with exotic plants thriving on the lush property since before 2004. Joey estimates that the agave had been there for between twenty to twenty-five years.
Then it began to bloom.
It was not the first agave to bloom on their property. One did when the couple first moved in; another bloomed last year but rotted, so they dug it out. Agaves are perennial, meaning they live for more than two years. They consist of rosettes, or a circular arrangement of leaves, that flower once and then die off.
So this was the agave's swan song.
Just around the time the Americana began to sing, Joey happened to reconnect with an old friend—Davis—and they toyed with the idea of making mezcal with it. Ultimately, they decided the process would be too involved and time-intensive. Then, a city mandate came—the plant was too big, a hazard, and was blocking a stop sign. It had to be taken down before June 30. The Hesters were resigned to digging it up and tossing it out.
But an idea was brewing.
- Photo by Laura White
- Gallo Pelón owner Angela Salamanca and a crew drag the agave.
Gallo Pelón and Bond Brothers first began to talk about collaborating more than six months ago, but it was only in the last few weeks that they sat down to discuss it—right around the time the agave began to bloom. They talked about doing a more traditional Mexican lager, but chose to get weird—and Davis just happened to know exactly where to get something weird.
So Davis got in touch with Joey.
Joey says he figured, "Man, if they'll take it, then I don't have to dig it up myself!"
And just like that, the plant had a future, and the Hesters had a couple of extra hands to help take it down.
Agave is traditionally harvested using a sharp, pointed shovel, a coa, and the pros can do it in a few quick thrusts. The process this day would take a little longer, with a chainsaw doing the final work of severing the agave's pina, or core, from the ground. The pina was then transferred to the Bond Brothers brewery, where a forklift was used to move it to the cooler until it could be transferred to Davis's house to begin the roasting process.
"Typically for mezcal it's a five- to seven-day roast," says Paul Wasmund, head of brewing at Bond Brothers and affectionately called the "chief roasting officer." "Generally it's a much lower heat smoke, so we're going to be kind of Americanizing this process, taking hints from some of these barbecue lords, these pit masters."
The crew will use a pit smoker, crank up the temperature, and roast it for forty-eight to seventy-two hours to pull out the flavor.
"This plant is too far gone for mezcal. Traditionally, when they are harvesting the plant they cut the flower," McKinney says. "As soon as it starts to sprout they cut it, because it shoots too many sugars up the stem. You want that sugar to stay for proper fermentation."
He says it won't necessarily provide a whole lot of fermentable sugars for brewing, either. But for Bond Brothers and Gallo Pelón, this beer is more about the story.
And for the moment on that street corner, after close to an hour of chopping and sawing, machetes passing from one hand to the next, the hard work is done.
"We need a beer!" Centro and Gallo Pelón owner Angela Salamanca says.
"We have mezcal chilling!" Kennan calls back.
In the end, they have both. Covered in sweat, with the chopped up pina in the road and the quiote perched atop the entire length of Salamanca's truck, the harvesters toast to the future of this collaboration, one quite literally rooted in the community.
This article appeared in print with the headline "An Agave Falls in Oakwood"