From the Rich Soils of Jalisco...
Tequila is predominately produced in the western Mexican state of Jalisco, near the town of Tequila. The hills of the Jalisco area are covered in agave farms. Over 100 million agaves dot the 100 thousand acres dedicated to growing the plants, that in turn produce 50 million gallons of tequila each year. About 40% of the tequila produced in Jalisco is exported. The production of tequila is a way of life in Jalisco and the surrounding areas. More than 30,000 people are employed as farm workers, eight thousand more in various other capacities, and the university even offers courses in tequila engineering.
There is considerable debate over which region in the State of Jalisco, and which method of distillation, produces the best tequila. Most of Jalisco is a high plateau, about 7,500 feet above sea level. The soil is red with rich minerals at the highest points, and black in the valleys. Some contend that the best agave is grown on the slopes of the extinct volcano beside the town. Others, from the highlands region, where the agave grow very large. Highland distillers tend to use more traditional production methods to manufacture smaller quantities of tequila, whereas those closer to town produce export product made in a more modern facility. Up until 20 years ago, by law, all tequila had to be made in Jalisco. Still, only two distilleries are in business outside the state.
Tequila is made from the center of the blue agave. The blue agave is part of the lily family, not, as commonly thought, the cactus family. It has a lifespan of 8-14 years. The plants are grown in cultivated orchards known as potreros (pastures). They are grown from shoots taken from the four to six year old adult plants at the start of the rainy season. Typically, the shoots are left to dry out in the field for about a month, then planted in a nursery until transferred to the field one year later.
The agave plant takes about eight years to mature to the point where it is suitable for fermentation. Sometimes, it is left for up to 12 years. For instance, Herraduara uses only plants that are 10 years old or older. The more mature the plant, the better the natural sugars. It is routinely pruned to encourage the pina (center) to grow. Most fields are hand grown and cultivated by traditional methods which have been passed down for generations. The agave depends completely on rainfall for moisture, as the fields are not irrigated.
A Time to Harvest...
The heart of the agave, which resembles are large pineapple or pinecone, is that which is utilized for producing tequila. At maturation, it weighs from 80 to 300 pounds. The largest pinas ever grown in the highlands have weighed up to 500 pounds. The agave produces a 15 foot tall shoot topped with pale yellow flowers. The stalk itself is picked and eaten as a vegetable from agave that grow in the wild. The cultivated plants are not allowed to grow a stalk, because it deprives the plant of nutrients. The ripened pina develops a maroon tinge and red spots on the leaves, and also begins to shrink.
The pina is cut from its stalk for harvesting. The 6 to 7 foot spiky leaves are cut away from the heart using a sharp, long-handled tool called a coa. Some fields have three generations or harvesters working them, as this is a skill passed from father to son. An experienced harvester can gather more than a ton of pinas per day. Harvesting is done year round, as the plants mature at different rates.
After harvesting, the pina's are taken to a factory. Traditional distillers (tequilleros) soften the pinas in steam rooms or slow-bake ovens for 50-72 hours. The traditional oven is called a horno- which is where Sauza's name Hornitos orginates from. The agave process its natural juices during baking. The process also softens the fibres and keeps the agave from caramelizing and adding a bitter flavor. Natural flavors are preserved through this method. Some large distillers cook their pinas in pressure cookers in a single day. Most, but not all traditional distillers allow the pinas cool for 24-36 hours, and then mash them separate the pulp from the juice. Some keep them together during fermenting. It takes about 7 kilograms of pina to produce 1 litre of 100% agave tequila. The average pina makes 60-100 litres. Smaller distillers often purchase agave syrup, rather than involve themselves in the entire process.
Originally, the pinas were beat with mallets to break them up after they were soft and cool. They were moved to a giant grinding wheel which was operated by mules, oxen or horses. Modern distilleries use a mechanical crusher to process out the waste, which is then used for fertilizer. The pinas are then minced and strained to remove the juices (called aquamiel or honey water), and mixed with water in large vats. Then, the liquid is sprinkled with yeast. The mosto is left to ferment in wooden or stainless steel tanks. Naturally, the process takes 7 - 12 days, but modern plants add chemicals to accelerate the process toward completion in as little as two days. Longer fermentation results in a more robust body. Brown Sugar cones or cane are sometimes added to speed fermentation when less plants, or immature ones, are used. These tequilas are called mixto, and are not labeled 100% agave.
The result of fermentation is a liquid with about 5-7% alcohol. This liquid is distilled twice in traditional copper pot stills called alambiques, where the best are said to come from Tomelloso, Spain. In modern distilleries, it is done in stainless-steel column stills. Distillation takes four to eight hours. The first, called the ordinario, takes about 1 1/2 hours, and is 20% alcohol. The second takes about three to four hours and is about 55% alcohol. The resulting liquid has three components. The cabeza (head) has more alcohol and unwanted aldehydes, and is discarded. The middle section, El corazon, (the heart), is the best part and is saved for production. The end is the colos, (tails), and maybe recycled into the next distillation to make it more robust.
All tequila is clear after distillation. The color comes from aging in wooden barrels, or from adding caramel (in mixtos only). Before bottling, most tequila is filtered. Most distillers add water to bring the alcohol content down to 40%. Reposado and anejo tequilas will be stored in wooden casks in warehouses. Now that premium aged tequilas are so fashionable, some distillers are aging them longer in oak barrels to absorb the maximum coloring. While some distillers may place additives into the tequila to give the impression of age, distillers like Centinela, disdain such a practice. Tequila placed in a new barrel vs. an older one can affect color as well. Therefore, the color is not always an accurate reflection of age or quality.
The final product is usually blended with other barrels of a similar age to create a consistence of taste and aroma. The Tequila Regulatory Council oversees the production to ensure that standards and quality control are in place and met. The resulting mix is bottled. All 100% agave tequilas must be bottled in Mexico. Only mixto tequila is allowed to be shipped in tanks and bottled outside the country.
A Proud Legacy...
There are all too few instances left where the ways of days gone by are still carried on with such dedication and meet with such success. It is no wonder that the sight, taste, and smell of a well bottled tequila conjurs up not only appreciation for the final product, but also for all the skill, labor and care that stands behind the proud tradition of this most unique product of Mexico.
The contents of this article are condensed from 'In Search of Blue Agave,' by Ian Chadwick.
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