MEZCAL PRODUCTION

Para todo mal, mezcal; para todo bien, también

For everything good, Mezcal; and for everything bad, also

The beauty of mezcal never disappates, it changes, flourishes and grows. Mezcal connects you to something bigger and each sip needs to be respected.

Mezcal – from Nahuatl ‘Mexcalli‘ – simply means ‘cooked agave’.

The mother of Tequila, comes from generations, centuries before, she is very old but hasn’t lost her looks. She is as sexy and seductive as ever and what’s more is that she’s taking on the world, connecting everyone she meets on the way.

COMING OF AGE

To make any agave spirit, the source, the agave itself needs to be ripe. When an agave reaches maturity, it shoots a beautiful long thin trunk from its centre sky high – these can grow more than 10m in height. This trunk will grow until it starts flowering in order for birds, bees, insects and bats to pollinate them.

It takes great skill and knowledge to know when it is time to harvest an agave. If you are late by even 2 weeks, you may have missed your opportunity and the agave would no longer be of use to you for making Mezcal. To make Mezcal or any other agave spirit you are relying on perfectly ripe pinas (agave hearts) that hold a vast amount of starches which the plant has collected over the years. If the agave is still growing it might taste bitter and sharp, the same goes for an already matured agave. The flowering trunk or quiote sucks out all the required starches in order to grow as tall as they do. Depending on climate, altitude, weather the quiote can grow either really quickly or very slowly.

Just when the agave starts to mature the Jimador or harvester almost heartlessly chops the stem, which does not grow back, however the agave keeps on creating starches and desperately tries to push them in to the stalk so that she can reproduce. By doing this, the sugar content of the agave grows immensely. The Jimador now chops off the pencas (leaves) and takes the harvested pinas back to the Palenque for it to be cooked. Sometimes the pencas are also returned to the Palenque to be used in the next few steps of production.

BAKE BABY BAKE

As with any step of creating mezcal, how it is done has an impact on the flavours of the end product. The most traditional way of baking an agave is to this day still the most widely used, which is in a dug out cone shaped earthern pit. Some producers however do use clay or stone ovens above ground.

The earthern pit has been used for hundreds of years around the globe for cooking. Some producers line their pits with stone, so there is no contact between the agave hearts (pinas) and the soil, this will of course alter the flavours and the cooking time also, however other producers might not line their hornos therefore allowing heat and smoke to escape through the soil.

The cooking is done by starting a fire in the bottom of the pit often using the pencas and then using either burning wood or volcanic rocks/river rocks. Any of these will of course alter the flavours again.

Sometimes the pencas are used to separate the burning rocks/wood from the pinas, as they would otherwise receive more of a toasted flavour rather than baked, but again, this is the beauty of Mezcal, as it is always different.
Once covered with earth, sand and pencas it is left for days (~4-6 days) to make sure everything is cooked through, caramelizing it.

I HAVE A CRUSH ON YOU

Once the agaves are cooked, softened and their starches transformed in to fermentable sugars it is time to extract the juices from the fibrous pinas so that the next step can begin: fermentation. The Maestro Mezcalero would traditionally place the agave hearts in to a flat, circular stone pit where it will be milled by a large tahona wheel. The tahona would traditionally be pulled by a mule or for ‘Artesan Mezcal’ and ‘Mezcal’ a tractor to release the juices. Mezcaleros delicately move the fibres to the centre of the mill, making sure every tiny bit is extracted. This is a long process and the workers sometimes have to work days at a time with no rest in order to complete this step of production. Some Maestro Mezcaleros don’t use the traditional tahona mill and instead opt for a far more strenuous and ancient form of extraction, a mallet like tool that they use by hand to crush the agave hearts in a hollowed out tree trunk or canoe.

FERMENTATION STATION

Once all the juices are released these are collected to then be placed in a fermentation tank, barrel or even jar/bowl. Using natural airborne yeasts surrounding the area of the distillery (palenque) is very traditional, but some prefer using cultivated yeasts, for better flavour control allowing more consistency with the final distillate. Using naturally occurring yeasts could take longer before fermentation can begin as it may take time for the airborne yeasts to arrive, start multipying and eating, therefore converting, the sugars to transform them in to alcohol. Cultivated yeasts that could be injected in to the fermentation vat would not only provide more consistency but also more efficiency. When the fermentation begins the liquid known as tepache begins to move erratically. In Mexico they say that if you listen closely you can hear the agave singing to you while it dances in the vats in the form of bubbles. This process can take approximately between 1 and 3 weeks. The liquid will settle after all the sugars have been converted and there are no more for the yeasts to feed on. This is what’s called ‘mosto muerto’. The tepache will be about 5-10% ABV .

IN THE STILL OF THE NIGHT

The final step of production is the distillation. This is the process of extracting the alcohol from the fermented juice which is sometimes known as the “purification”. Distilling means to physically separate components through evaporation and condensation, this also increases the concentration of alcohol, as the liquid is reduced. As alcohol heats quicker (boiling point of ~78°C) than water (100°C) and therefore evaporates first, it separates from the water rising up and once cooled, turns back in to its original liquid form thereby ‘condensates’. This drips in to a pipe that leads to a separate pot. First distillation hightens the ABV of the fermented agave juice from about 5-10% to 20-30%, a 2nd distillation is required to reach the minimum alcohol content of 36% needed to be called Mezcal. Each distillation will add to the ABV.

The addition of water post distillation to lower the ABV is frowned upon by purist Mezcal drinkers, as the natural flavours of the distillate would be compromised ‘Con agua, no hay Mezcal’. This is another reason why the ABVs on each batch of Mezcal can vary a lot. Mezcals that have an ABV of 40% are commonly created to suit the cocktail market and for those who are being introduced to the spirit category.

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