One of the best known products which Mexico has given the world is tequila; a distilled alcoholic spirit with sweet and strong flavour which comes from Tequila town in Jalisco State. Like other beverages (the Champagne or Scotch whisky), Tequila can only receive its name if the spirit produced in a given area; the town of Tequila and the surrounding communities. At least 51 percent of its contents should come from agave plant. The blue agave is a plant similar to a pineapple (giant) and only develops in soil land volcanic and arid climate . It takes 8-12 years to be ready for production, requiring 7 pounds of agave to produce 1 liter of tequila. The best tequilas are manufactured from 100 percent blue agave. The production process involves six basic steps as explained below:
Planting and harvesting
The production process starts with jima, the harvest and jimadores, the people responsible for growing and harvesting of the agave. Producers might have their own agave but most of them choose to buy the agave from growers.
The plant grows for 8 to 10 years which is enough time for the agave to produce honey in its piña. The jimadores then use a too known as coa to extract the piña and also clear it of thorns and leaves.
During the cooking step, steam injection from stainless steel autoclaves or traditional brick ovens is used in activating a chemical process in the piña which converts complex carbohydrates to simple and fermentable sugars. Cooking also helps in softening the piña thus making the process of extracting sugar to be easier.
Once they have been cooked, agave heads are then transported to milling areas for sugar extraction. Cooked piñas are then crushed so as to release the juice (aguamiel) which will be fermented later. The traditional method is crushing the piñas using a giant grinding wheel (tahona) which is operated by mules, tractors or oxen within a pit which is circular. Modern distilleries are now using a mechanical crusher in separating the fiber from the juice. Once the piñas have been minced, they are then washed with water before being strained so as to remove the juices.
During fermentation process, the sugar is transformed to alcohol within stainless steel tanks or large wooden vats. Yeast might be added so as to control and accelerate the fermentation process. Traditionally, the yeast which grows naturally on agave leaves is used. However, currently many distilleries are using cultivated forms of wild yeast. The fermentation process typically takes 7-12days depending on which method was used.
The fifth step in production of tequila is distillation. During this step, the ferments are separated by steam pressure and heat within distillation towers or stainless steel pot stills. Although some tequilas are distilled 3 times, majority of the tequilas are distilled only twice. The first distillation (deztrozamiento/smashing) takes a few hours and yields a liquid that has an alcohol level of around 20%. The liquid is known as ordinario. The 2nd distillation (rectification) takes between 3-4 hours and yields a liquid that has an alcohol level of around 55 percent. After the second distillation, tequila is now considered as silver/blanco tequila.
Almost all containers which are used in aging of tequila are American or French white oak barrels which have previously been used in aging of bourbon. Reposados are usually aged between 2-12 months, Añejos between 1-3 years and the Extra Añejos are aged for more than three years.
Blanco (“white”) clear tequila. After distillation immediately bottled.
Gold or Joven (“young”) a blend of white tequila with aged tequilas
Reposado (“rested”) tequila, which has aged at least two months in oak container.
Añejo (“aged” or “vintage”) tequila, which has aged in oak container minimum one year and maximum three years. The container may not exceed a size of 600 liters. The alcohol content must be adjusted with water.
Extra Añejo (“extra aged”) tequila, which has aged at least three years in oak container.
The longer time the tequila takes to age, the more tannins and colour the final product shall have. The condition of barrels (for instance their age, previous uses and whether their interiors have been toasted or burnt) shall also affect the taste of tequila.
Just like champagne, the tequila is also assigned an Appellation of the Origin status thus limiting production to 5 Mexican states: Jalisco, Michoacán, Guanajuato, Tamaulipas and Nayarit. Jalisco state of is proud by being the centre of production. Jalisco is the only state which has the status of Appellation of Origin as a whole. It is considered to be the place where the tequila was first produced and where its standards are well-defined. Other states have only been permitted to grow the Blue Agave in small, defined regions. All 100 percent agave tequilas should be bottled in designated Mexican regions and should bear ‘Made in Mexico/ Hecho en Mexico’ on their labels. Non-100 percent agave tequila/mixtos can be bottled and sold anywhere around the world.
Photo source Gerrit Garbereder