How Tequila is MadeHow Tequila is Made.
Tequila is made through time patience and dedication. The most common and basic process includes the following steps.
The whole Tequila process starts when small Agaves (hijuelos) are planted and grown for several years, usually between 5 and 12 years. During this time, to make sure that the plants grows healthy; they are cared for, weeded, pruned, and watched for pests. Agaves are not watered since they benefit efficiently from the rain season to achieve growth all year long.
The region where the agave's grow also has an effect on the final profile of tequila.
Agave's that grow in the Tequila Valley, otherwise known as the "Lowlands" grow on more fertile ground which results in tequila's that are more citrusy, herbal and earthier.
Agaves that grow on or near the Tequila Volcano, the "Highlands", where the soil is red and contains less nutrients, tend to be bigger and sweeter. The tequila's from this region therefore tend to be sweeter and fruitier.
A highly skilled Jimador determines which agave plants have reached their peak sweetness and maturity to harvest. This harvesting process is so special that it is known worldwide as ‘jima' and is done by hand using a long sharp utensil called ‘Coa'. The Jimdor takes great care removing the sharp spines of the agave with his Coa to reveal the agave “piña”. This traditional method has been transmitted from generation to generation.
A good ‘jimador' can harvest up to 3,000 kilos of agave a day, but the closeness of the “shave” is of upmost importance. An agave piña can weigh between 40 and 90 kilos and it takes about 8kg for one liter of tequila. In the last few years, the price per kilo of agave has shot up from about 87 cents to near 8 pesos. It is therefore tempting to leave a few centimeters of spine on the piña to maintain the weight. However, the premium tequila brands will not accept these “green” agaves as they result in a harsh tequila. Only the smoothest and whitest “shaved” agave piñas are used by the better distilleries.
(A green agave piña left compared to a clean shaved piña on the right)
The piñas or agave heads are halved or quartered and placed in masonry ovens (hornos) or steel containers (autoclaves) where the stream softens their texture and their starches become sugars suitable for fermentation. This process can take 50 to 72 hours when it is done in a masonry oven, or 8 to 14 hours if it's done in autoclaves.
In this stage, the cooked piñas are shredded and pressed to extract the fermentable juice called “Mosto”. This process has gone through several changes over the past decades, from the use of the ‘tahona' or mill stones powered by mules, to the modern Molino’s or machine shredders. Some large budget tequila distilleries now even have diffusers to extract the juice. The agaves are not cooked, but simply squeezed under high pressure to obtain the juices.
This is the stage of the process where the category of tequila is determined. If all the juices are now used in the fermentation step, the tequila can be called 100% de Agave. If however other sugars such as corn or sugar cane are now added up to the legal 49%, the resulting tequila is a Mixto. (see: ...)
The next step is fermentation where the Mosto is placed in wooden or stainless steel tanks together with yeast. Each distillery or tequila brand has their own type of yeast which can range from simple brewers yeast, cultivated yeasts from earlier batches, to open air fermentation where yeasts come naturally from fruit or citrus trees near the tanks.
The yeast transforms the sugars turning them into alcohol. The type of yeast used and the nutrients added determine the flavor and characteristics that tequila will have. Fermentation usually takes 2 to 12 days to reach an alcohol content of between 5-6%.
Distillation of tequila is the same as most other spirits. The fermented juice are distilled in pot stills or in distillation towers. The first distillation, or “destrozamiento”, returns tequila “Ordinario” which is about 25% alcohol. The ordinario is then distilled a second time which returns Tequila Blanco of between 55-60% alcohol.
As with most distillation processes, there are three “stages” that flow from the stills. The Head, the Heart (Corazon) and the Tail (Cola). The Head, or the first part of the distillation process contains methyl alcohol and aldehydes which are discarded. The tail contains heavy elements which are also discarded. The Heart or Corazon is the most pure and used for the second distillation.
Most tequila is filtered through activated carbon or cellulose filters to remove any last impurities. A blanco tequila is now diluted with de-mineralized water to reach the 38 or 40% alcohol level and bottled.
For a 100% agave tequila to become a Reposado, Anejo or Extra Anejo, the blanco tequila is rested in barrels for a period of time. Each distillery has its own preference as to what type of barrel it uses which include French Oak, American Oak, Encino, used American whisky or even used cognac and sherry barrels.
Further to the type of barrel used, the manner in which the barrel is treated has an enormous effect on the profile of the resulting tequila. Barrels can be left blank and untreated, but also grated to increase the contact with wood or even charred.
When a Tequilero has determined that the tequila has rested for a sufficient period of time to meet the flavor profile, it is filtered, diluted to the 38 or 40% alcohol and bottled.
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