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All about craft tequila
There are misconceptions about tequila. It has been largely marketed as a party drink, doing shots of it and licking lime off your own or someone else’s body may be fun at the time. But tequila is finally getting the respect and recognition it deserves.
Similar to how you’re only drinking real champagne if it comes from the Champagne region of France, Tequila can only be made in Mexico in the tequila region which spans over about 5 areas, Michoacán, Guanajuato, Nayarit, Tamaulipas and The Highlands of Jalisco, where the town of Tequila is found. The reason you can only make tequila in Mexico is because it is made with a variety of agave called Agave Tequilana Weber Azul, or as it is much more commonly known, blue agave.
There are many different types of agave but for tequila, it specifically needs to be made with blue agave, which can only be grown in those areas of Mexico. Any liquor made with an agave plant is called a mezcal, meaning tequila is an agave spirit but not all agave spirits are a tequila. The word mezcal is used to describe any agave spirit. So, in the same way that scotch and bourbon fall under the label of whiskey, tequila falls under the label of mezcal.
Agave is a huge plant that resembles a sort of large succulent with stems that can reach over 2 metres in height that all stem from one big bulb called the agave piñas. To harvest the agave plants jimadors (the word for the skilled workers) take a long, razor sharp tool called a coa, which looks similar to a flat shovel. They slice off all the leaves and are left with the piña. A jimador can usually harvest around 100 piñas a day, which is an incredibly hard job considering the heat they are working in. A ripe piña usually weighs on average around 32kg and it takes about 7kg of piña to make a litre bottle of 100% agave tequila.
Once all the piñas have been harvested they cut them in halves or quarters, and are taken to a giant brick oven (the horno) where they then cook the agave in a slow bake for 24-48 hours. Different tequila producers use different temperatures and use slightly different methods at this point to cook their agave to a desired flavour, however the slow cooking is essential as it prevents the natural sugars in the agave from burning which while giving a taste of bitter caramel also then makes the fermentation process much more difficult.
After the piñas have all been cooked, they need to be shredded so that the juice can be extracted. They are traditionally shredded by a big stone wheel called a tahona driven around a circular pit that was originally pulled by donkeys. Now, however, the process has moved to a much more modern style with a roller-mill on a conveyor belt which pulls the crushed piñas through natural spring water from the distillery which separates the crushed fibres from the sweet agave juices and also gives a.
There are only about 7 tequila brands that still use the traditional methods of shredding. The juice then gets put through a pachaquil which will separate out all the larger particles. Different sized particles will end up changing the flavours when they get to the fermentation and distillation stage.
The fermentation happens then when all of the juice is put into a large container and mixed with yeast. The yeast eats away at the natural sugars within the agave juices, and the byproduct of that is alcoholic. The type of yeast that goes into the juices will also determine the flavour profiles of the tequila once it is complete. They sometimes also use the shredded fibres of the piñas to coat the top of the fermentation to act as a sort of lid whilst also maintaining the strong depth of flavour. It will spend about 72 hours in the steel vats while it ferments.
Distillation is basically the process of purifying the liquid through heating and cooling. Since alcohol has a lower boiling point than water does, as you boil the mixture, the alcohol will rise to the top of the vats where it will then be cooled and collected.
All tequila is regulated to be double distilled. This process helps cut out what they call the “heads and tails” of the liquid.These are components of the mixture that need to be cut out whether it be for health reasons, taste, or quality. The first distillation is called ‘Ordinario’, and after the second distillation the liquid is then called ‘Tequila’. It can then be distilled again, like the brand Casa Noble who is triple-distilled. This when you have your drink finished. Technically.
After that there are a few different ways to finish your tequila off through aging. After the first distillation, it can be bottled and sent off then as Blanco tequila. No oak flavours, just the tequila in its purest form. This is tequila best for shots.
Then you have Reposado Tequila which is best for cocktails, specifically a margarita. And that is aged anywhere between 2 to 12 months in oak barrels. That slight ageing helps smooth out the tequila.
Next up the line we have añejo tequila which is the kind of tequila that you want to put in a glass and sip. This is aged for between 1-3 years.
Anything aged more than that is extra anejo which is aged for a minimum of 3 years. This is cream of the crop stuff. This is for tequila aficionados and collectors even. There is no limit to the ageing that can be done at this point.
To get certified organic tequila, the whole making process needs to be done without any excess chemicals, whether that is for speeding up the fermentation and distillation process or using pesticides and fertilizers on the agave plants themselves. This isn’t solely for the quality assurance of the tequila itself but also put in place to sustain and protect the soil, air, and water around the region.