The Art of Tequila

Fermentation and Distillation! Where the Magic Happens

What exactly is fermentation? We associate that word with alcohol and more recently, with the kombucha craze. Fermentation is the chemical breakdown of a substance by using bacteria, yeasts, or other types of microorganisms. In alcohol, fermentation is when sugars are converted to ethyl alcohol. In making Tequila, fermentation of agave juice is the transformation of sugar into alcohol using yeast. Distillation is the action of purifying a liquid by a process of heating or cooling. In making Tequila, the distillation process is divided into two.

The Fermentation of Aguamiel

After the piñas finish the grinding process and the aguamiel, sweetwater, is extracted from the agave, the juices are sent to large fermentation tanks where natural yeast slowly begins to consume the agave sugars, creating alcohol. Each manufacturer ferments their tequila using large wooden barrels or stainless steel tanks. The fermentation process usually takes around 50 to 60 hours, and each manufacturer has their own secret yeast recipe. Some Tequila companies also claim to have used an, "all natural," yeast found in the blue agave plants. Others, believe keeping the piña fibers in the barrels or tanks during fermentation will bring about a sweeter flavor.  After the fermentation process has finished, the remaining juice is left to rest for approximately twelve hours.

Separating the Good from the Bad

Distillation will essentially help increase alcohol content in Tequila. In other words, distillation is the process we use to separate the good stuff from the bad stuff. Whereas fermentation will have juices that yield 5-7% alcohol, distillation will increase alcohol level to 25-55%, depending on the manufacturer and the amount of time used to distill. The first stage of distillation involves putting the juice, now called, mosto, through a copper still. Tequila producers boil the mosto until it vaporizes and collects condensation. At this point, the product will separate into three different components. The first, called the cabeza, has unwanted ethanol and methanol and a fairly large amount of alcohol. This juice will be discarded. The middle part, know as, el corazon, contains all the wonderful ingredients producers will later bottle. The tail end, colos, is also usually discarded, but is sometimes recycled and used in the next distillation. After this process, the mosto has now turned into Ordinario, a liquid that cannot be called Tequila under Mexican law until it has been distilled at least one more time. Oridinario will take one more trip through the still, and suddenly, ta-da! We have Tequila.

The newly made Tequila is considered white Tequila, Tequila Blanco. Tequila Blanco can be bottled immediately for consumption, or it can be stored for settling. There are some Blanco Tequilas that will age up to two months in order to provide a smoother taste. However, if you're wanting the best Tequila out there, Extra Añejo, you'll need to wait at least three more years.

Salud! 

 

Oven Tenders and the Precious Agave Extraction: Part 2

 

We know all the Tequila aficionados out there have some knowledge of Tequila, its origin, and maybe even the different types of Tequila that are sold. What many people don't understand, is how the hand-crafted beverage is created, and the different  workers and their roles in the tequila production  process. Here, we lay out the first part of the process, the oven tending and agave extraction.

The Long and Winding Road to Tequila

The Tequila production process starts with the mighty Jimador and his knowledge in harvesting the agave. The Jimador uses his Coa, a flat-bladed tool attached to a long stick, to strip the agave of its shoots,  and expose the big bulb of the agave, the piña. After a long morning of harvesting and pruning the agave, the large and heavy piñas are taken to their respected distilleries.

At the distillery, each piña is chopped up into halves or quarters. To put into perspective, approximately seven kilos of piña pieces is required to produce 1 liter of 100% agave Tequila. That's a lot of piña chunks! The loading of the piña chunks into the oven is a lengthy process. Oven tenders, the men who carry the piñas in out of the oven, wear traditional, long clothing that help protect their skin from direct contact with the piñas. Piñas are capable of irritating the skin, causing an itchy rash. Because piñas can weigh over 100 pounds, oven bearers also wear a special hat with metal frame that can bear the weight of the piña on their heads.

The process for actually making the Tequila involves cooking the agave and then crushing it. Piñas go into hornos, traditional ovens, and are still slow cooked using the artisanal process which requires 36-40 hours of heat exposure. When the piñas are done cooking, the oven tenders open the hornos and let the steam circulate for about eight hours. Cooking the piña is extremely important, as it will change the flavor the Tequila. Heat separates the bitter honeys of the agave, reduces caramelizing, and helps break down the piñas fibers and natural sugars.

The Extraction Process

After the piñas have cooked and cooled off, they are placed onto a conveyor belt that takes them onto four different  mills for grinding.  The first mill will shred the agave into multiple pieces using numerous blades to cut into the fibers. The rest of the mills will crush the different pieces in order to extract as much precious juice as possible. Many times, water will be added during the shredding process to help extract more sugar from the fibers.

To cook the piñas, Tequila producers can use large brick ovens or stainless steel autoclaves that act like pressure cookers. There used to be a more traditional way of manufacturing Tequila, using a large tahona stone. As this process was considered time consuming and somewhat ancestral by many, some manufacturers discontinued the use of the stone. Others claim using the large wheels, which weigh more than a ton, yield better results. Therefore, many manufactures reserve the process for their best brands. After all this work, the juices will proceed to the distillation process.

We're almost finished with creating the perfect Tequila!

 

 

 

Jimadores: The Agave Whisperers: Part 1

In Mexico, becoming a Jimador requires skill, knowledge, strength and diligence.

Tequila production is a long process, as the agave used to make the popular spirit can take about eight years to mature. Tequila production is a traditional, artisanal process that depends on the diligent work of Jimadores, the agave farmers named for the coa de jima, the flat-bladed tool they use to remove the agave flower.  

An agave farmer’s hands reveal years of work in the relentless agave fields.  Their days are spent processing the agave harvest to produce the agave nectar that becomes tequila.

The Agave Whisperers

Tequila production is a long process, as the agave used to make the popular spirit can take about eight years to mature. Tequila production is a traditional, artisanal process that depends on the diligent work of Jimadores, the agave farmers named for the coa de jima, the flat-bladed tool they use to remove the agave flower.  

An agave farmer’s hands reveal years of work in the relentless agave fields. In Mexico, becoming a Jimador requires skill, knowledge, strength and diligence. Their days are spent processing the agave harvest to produce the agave nectar that becomes tequila.

Understanding The Recipe for Success

Mexican law requires that Tequila only be made from one type of agave, the blue agave known as Agave Tequiliana Weber. Jalisco, in Central West Mexico, is one of the only designated regions in the country that is able to produce Tequila. The tequila-making process and active role of the Jimadores has been passed down through families and generations.  Historically, one could only become a Jimador if he had been born into a family of Jimadores. While this tradition has adapted to fit growing Tequila consumption, many young and aspiring Jimadores still learn the trade from their fathers. While the trade is more open to newcomers than it was in the past, the process for harvesting and cultivating the agave has remained practically unchanged since the 1600s.

Where Tradition Trumps Technology

Today, traditional harvesting continues to be practiced without the use of machinery, even as demand increase for high-quality tequila.

Jimadores spend hours in the sun, perfecting their knowledge of the plants and the surrounding soil. They can easily recognize when the agave plant is ready to harvest, and which plants will harvest well enough to meet the highest standards.

Typically, a Jimador can identify when an agave is ready for harvest by measuring the size of the hijuelos (the sharp shoots that stem from the base) and by the amount of sugar that has accumulated and oxidized on the surface of the plant. As the plant's thick, spiny pencas reach fifty centimeters in height, teams shave away at the agave stalks to reveal the core using a very heavy and sharp, flat-bladed knife known as a Coa. The Coa helps expose the piña, the vibrant core that resembles a pineapple and consists mostly of sugar. Jimadores then work to detach the piña from the ground, a difficult task as piñas can weigh over 100 pounds. At the end of the process, the piñas are put into the back of a truck, manually, and driven to their respective distillery.

Respect the Jimador.

Jimadores play an essential role in the creation of Tequila. They must be able to work swiftly in the tight, endless rows of sharp agave plants, identifying the perfect time for harvesting. If they harvest too early, they risk exposing agave that will be bitter and not sweet enough. If they harvest too late, the agave will have grown and sprouted a quiote, a 25-40 foot stem that releases seeds in the air, making it unsuitable for tequila production. Skilled Jimadores will harvest around 80-100 agaves daily, since it takes about seven kilos of piña to make one liter of quality Tequila. All of this work is done, of course, underneath the sweltering sun.

So the next time you're out with friends, make a toast to the legendary Jimador and his work. Take a moment to savor the different notes, taste the quality of the sweet beverage, and remember the hard work that went into producing it.