Growing and Harvesting the Agave|
The Weber Blue Agave Tequilana plant is the only one allowed in the production of tequila. It takes generally 7-12 years to grow to maturity. You'll see tequilas being billed as
"Highland" or "Lowland," and this can give an indication of the resulting flavors. The area near the Tequila volcano is known as the lowlands, and has a more dry, volcanic soil.
The area in the Los Altos area is known as the highlands, and has a deep red, clay soil. The rain and sun are also different between the two areas. The tequilas made from lowland
agave are generally more earthy, whereas those made from highland agave are generally sweeter, more floral, and having more citrus flavors.
The agave plants are harvested by "Jimadors" who slice off the long, spiny leaves of the plant, and carry the "piña" ("pineapple") or heart of the agave plant to the distillery.
Once they're at the distillery, the piñas are split, and readied for the ovens.
Baking the Agave
Once the piñas are harvested, they must be roasted or baked. This process converts the starch to simple sugars which can later be fermented.
There are two ways to bake the piña, or pineapple of the agave. The more traditional way is to use stone ovens, and the faster way is to use an autoclave pressure cooker. Some think that
slow cooking in a stone oven is the way to go, and that the autoclave is for speeding up the process at the expense of quality. This isn't entirely true. When used with too high of a
temperature, the autoclave can cause the piña to become bitter, but there are distillers who are adept at extracting the sugars properly. Conversely, not all who use stone ovens
do it optimally.
Consider that a true premium tequila maker such as Casa Noble will bake the agave
in stone ovens for 38 hours, whereas those cranking out the lower quality, heavily sweet stuff will bake the piña in an autoclave pressure-cooker for 6 hours.
Everyone cooks to some degree- Which gives better flavor: Slow cooking, or using high heat just to get something done faster? While it's generally accepted that slow-cooking
works best, there are exceptions to the rule. Some of the best tequilas I've had come from autoclaved piñas.
Milling or Crushing the Agave
Once the agave is cooked, the juice must be separated from the fibers. The old school way of doing this is with a "tahona" stone in a circular pit. The round tahona stone rolls around
the pit, either being pulled by a mule, or now almost exclusively pulled by electric motor. The modern way of doing it is with a multi-stage mill, which shreds and squeezes the fibers,
extracting the juice.
Both of these processes will send the extracted juice to a holding tank, from which it will later be sent to a fermentation tank.
What's a "Diffuser?"
Let's say you want to produce tequila. You want to produce a LOT of it, in the shortest time. You come up with a machine to shortcut the tried and true way to do it.
A diffuser will shred uncooked agave, force hot water and chemicals through the shredded plant, and then cook the starchy water, all in a few hours. This shaves lots of time
off of the production, but it's hardly the loving, craft production you'd see with artesanal tequilas. And it shows in the flavors.
Fermentation of the Juice
The agave juice is combined with water, put in a large tank, and left to ferment. There are two methods- Open-topped tanks, which allow bacteria in, and closed-topped tanks, which don't.
Sometimes yeast is added, but more often the natural yeast in the atmosphere is sufficient
to convert the juice to alcohol. The temperature is carefully controlled, so as to make the most optimal environment for the yeast. It's said (in a rather folksy way) that
"yeast eats sugar, burps carbon dioxide, and pees alcohol." An odd (and somewhat coarse) way of putting it, but it's essentially correct. After most of the sugars have been
converted to alcohol, the fermentation is done.
The purpose of the distillation process is to extract the water that was added for the fermentation process, as well as any impurities.
What comes out from the distillation comes in three phases:
Some tequila manufacturers include all of the head, body, and tail. Some will use portions of the head and/or tails.
This gives a higher quantity of finished product for the amount of agave used. It is more cost-effective, but doesn't result in the best tequila.
- The Head: The first part of the distillation, has the most volatile, strongest alcohol content.
- The Body: The middle part of the distillation, has the most flavors, a reasonable alcohol content. The best part of the process.
- The Tail: The final part of the distillation. It's the heaviest, "bottom of the barrel," so to speak.
The grungy, dirty remnants of the distillation, and most water vapor.
All tequila is distilled at least twice, and sometimes three times. The result of the first distillation tastes pretty mild, nowhere near what you'd think tequila would taste like.
It's only after the second distillation that the concentration of alcohol is high enough.
In fact, the alcohol percentage is higher than 80 proof- I've had tequila right out of the still at 136 proof, or 68% alcohol! (It was "hot" but amazing!)
In order to get the alcohol content down to 80 proof (40%), it's watered down. This also dilutes the flavors. I'm told that El Tesoro de Don Felipe (and
maybe a couple of others) don't do this- Instead, they discard the head and the tail of the distillation, using ONLY a portion of the body. This is a more costly way to
produce tequila, but it's a matter of integrity, and commitment to a philosophy. Still, the most common distillation practice is to discard most or all of the head and tail, use all
of the body, and water it down to 40% or 80 proof. This still yields a great product as well.
Temperature affects the distillation process. When speaking with Carlos Camarena, the
master distiller of El Tesoro de Don Felipe tequilas, I was told that alcohol boils at 172.4oF/79oC. We know that water boils at
212oF/100oC. El Tesoro de Don Felipe boils the fermented agave JUST above alcohol's boiling
point, but well below that of water. Many manufacturers boil the agave at a temperature just below that of water's boiling point to speed up
the distillation process. He told me the metaphor
of driving- If you're driving at 65 mph over a lot of leaves, your car creates a vacuum which pulls the (undesired) leaves along. But if you drive
at 10 mph, there's no vacuum, and the leaves aren't pulled along with the car. The same goes with distillation- Boiling the fermented juice at a temperature closer to water's
boiling point will speed up the distillation, but also pulls water vapor along with the alcohol.
El Tesoro de Don Felipe distills slower, so as
to not pull water vapor along with the alcohol. The water vapor in the tequila will dilute the tequila, and weaken the delicate flavors.
If you consider it takes the agave plant eight years to grow to maturity, and 14 days to distill, it
seems incomprehensible that most distillers take the shortcut of shaving a few days off the distillation time by raising the temperature.
When referring to aging, it's meant that the tequila is aged in oak barrels. Once the tequila is removed from the oak and bottled, the aging stops.
Blanco tequilas aren't generally aged- It is allowable for them to be "rested" in oak for up to two months, though most distillers don't. Reposados are aged up to a year, Añejos up to
three years, and Extra Añejos generally up to five years, though some more than that. The oak used is either American or French white oak. Some producers use new barrels. They're the
most expensive, but provide a more consistent result than using previously-used barrels. Quite a few producers use previously used barrels. Some that have been used to age Jack Daniel's, some that
have been used to age wine, etc. When using used barrels, it takes skill to produce a tequila with the desired flavors. Germán González, the master distller of T1
(and formerly of Chinaco) is quite skilled at using
previously used barrels, and makes some spectacular tequilas. More often though, second-hand barrels are used simply as a way of cutting costs.
One problem though, is that barrels are somewhat like teabags- They can be used more than once, but each successive use will give a little less flavor than the last.
They do wear out, and lose their ability to add flavor to the tequila.