TEQUILA PRODUCTION

PATIENCE IS A VIRTUE

Tequila can only be made from one specific agave type ‘Agave Tequilana Weber Azul’, named such because of the gorgeous shade of ocean blue its pencas or leaves have.

There are over 200 known species of Agave with 700 more subspecies. Of all of these agaves the Tequilana Weber agave matures the quickest, but still takes approx. 7 years to grow before it can, or rather should, be harvested. Other varietals can take over 30 years to mature.

When the agave is mature, the jimador expertly cuts the pencas off using a sharp spade like tool called a coa or a machete, without damaging the pina (heart) and transports it back to the hacienda.

BUN IN THE OVEN

Once harvested and taken to the hacienda the pinas are chopped in halves or quarters and placed in the oven to transform the starches in to fermentable sugars.

There are 3 types of ovens that are used: Autoclave, stone oven and horno de tierra.

The horno de tierra is the most traditional form of cooking agave which is a stone lined pit in the ground, still used to make Mezcal but rarely for Tequila production although it was used for centuries to make Tequila before the category grew. The process would take between 3 to 5 days and therefore a very inefficient method. It’s a method that’s hardly used anymore except in other agave spirit categories.

Once the demand for Tequila grew throughout the world, Mexico needed a more efficient way of cooking, so they started using industrial sized clay or stone ovens that used steam to cook the agaves. The oven is crammed with as many chopped pinas as possible and then sealed. Piping below the floor allows steam to be injected into the room, and in doing so, cooking everything thoroughly. Stone ovens are still quite popularly used to this day for making Tequila. This reduced the waiting time to approximately 2 to 3 days.

As technology developed autoclaves were created, these are steel tanks and essentially pressure cookers. Autoclaves allow for easier temperature control and a more efficient/economical process and can be completed within 6 to 12 hours.

MASHED UP

There are a few methods that are used to release all the natural glucose:

The tahona, which is a traditional milling stone, weighing up to 1 ton that is pulled by a mule on a flat, circular stone pit. This would grind the pinas and release the juices needed for fermentation. This technique is only used by handful of producers of Tequila. Left is an image from the Tapatio distillery, which still uses this method.

Most producers these days use a Molina, a mechanical mill, or even a shredder that does the work for the mule. This would be in the form of a small tractor and works the same way as the 1st method, crushing the agaves as it goes around.

There is one more method, the diffusor, the quickest way of extracting agave starches which doesn’t even require any cooking to take place, making it a popular choice for big industrial producers for a very quick and efficient production. In this process the juices are extracted through pressure and steam – additives and toxins are also added to speed the process up. This strips away any taste and character of the agaves and is a big no-no in making good quality Tequila.

YEASTIE BOYS

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, however extremely rare in the world of Tequila as cultivated yeasts allow for better flavour control and therefore more consistency with the final distillate. Using naturally occurring yeasts could also take much 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.

When the fermentation begins the liquid known as tepache begins to move and bubble 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 is about 5-10% ABV . Fermentation may occur in wooden vats or stainless steel tanks.

YOU’RE STILL THE ONE

The final step of production is the distillation. This is the process of extracting the alcohol from the tepache 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 heightens the ABV of the tepache from about 5-10% to 20-30%, a 2nd distillation is required to reach the minimum alcohol content of 35% needed to be called Tequila.

Each distillation increases the strength of the spirit’s ABV.

BEAUTY BEFORE AGE

Once distillation is complete you are left with Tequila in its purest form, clear, crisp and full of flavour! It is unadulterated and pure, however a lot of producers decide to age their product in new or used wooden barrels, giving it extra flavours.

There are 4 types of ‘generations’:

Blanco is straight from the still and has all the natural flavours of the ground in which it grew. Some producers decide to let the tequila rest in stainless steel for a short while, allowing the edges to soften.

Reposado means rested and has been aged in a barrel for a minimum of 2 months to a maximum of 12 months. This gives it a slightly more oaky taste as you can imagine and is perfect for whiskey lovers.

An Anejo has been aged for more than 1 year, and anything that has been aged for 3 years or more is called an Extra Anejo. These are wonderful sippers and great in an old fashioned. The barrel imparts a far stronger smoky and woody flavour in comparison to the Reposado, not just because it’s aged longer but also because they traditionally use smaller barrels.

Fun fact: Some producers play music for the resting spirit, as they believe it helps the flavours balance and grow in to something more beautiful! This wonderful thought actually does have some logic: Put very simply the music lets off sound waves that pass through the barrels and very gently keeps the liquid moving, so it never settles and mixes evenly with the flavours seeping through the oak barrels.

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