Understanding how a particular spirit is made helps a person better appreciate and enjoy the experience of drinking it. Different levels of enthusiasm will dictate to what level of detail you want to learn about the process. This blog will give you a well-rounded, basic understanding of the 7 stages required to produce this amazing liquor.
There are 7 stages that are required to produce a batch of tequila. Namely: harvesting, cooking, extraction, fermentation, distillation, aging and bottling. Every step is regulated by the Consejo Regulador de Tequila (read: The tequila police), ensuring that all guidelines are followed guaranteeing the maximum quality output.
Whilst every step is carefully watched, each distillery has its own specific methods which affect the colour, aroma and taste of the tequila. Read on.
Step 1 - Harvesting
The output of any process is heavily dependent on the quality of the inputs and the same goes for tequila, so it comes as no surprise that a great quality tequila is made out in the fields. The planting, tending and harvesting of the Blue Weber agave plant is a manual effort that uses artisanal know-how that has been passed down from generations. Many distilleries grow their own agave's in their own fields which have been carefully toiled, prepared and cultivated to ensure ongoing fertility and the best growing conditions.
Farming agaves is a slow process which requires constant attention to detail. The plant grows in neat rows for anywhere between six to ten years and is constantly tended until they are ripe and ready to harvest.
The job of harvesting the agaves are left to highly skilled workers who’s craft has been perfected over many years. The harvester, or "Jimador" makes use of a sharp curved tool call a Coa to remove the leaves from the piña, often referred to as the heart of the agave. The piña is covered in over 200 leaves that must be completely removed before cooking. Agave plants can grow big with ripe agaves weighing in at up to 140kg. Whilst the heart of the agave will grow with age, it is the starch content that is far more important. We cover the reason why in stage 2. Approximately 6kg of piña will produce 1 litre of delicious tequila.
Step 2 - Cooking
As many of you will remember from high school chemistry, a chemical reaction will turn starch in to sugar - which is a key ingredient in the fermentation process of alcohol making. It is for this reason that the starch content of the agave piña is so important.
During this step, the piña is steamed for 24-48 hours in either a traditional brick oven (called a horno) or stainless steel autoclave which causes the chemical reaction required to transform the starchy sap in to fermentable sugars. Depending on the size of the plant, it is usually cut in half and hand stacked to ensure even cooking. As you'd expect, a traditional horno cooks the piña much more slowly than an autoclave which reduces the risk of burning the sugars and creating a undesirable burnt caramel flavour. Now that the agave is steamed and softened its sugary juices can be extracted.
Step 3 - Extraction
The extraction process also dates back centuries. A giant mill called a 'Tahona' is used to crush the cooked piña and extract its sugar laden juices called aguamiel. Traditionally a mule or ox would pull the giant stone wheel around the mill whilst the agave is fed in to its path. In recent years a machine has come to replace the ox and more contentiously chemical extraction processes called diffusion can be used (artisanal tequila makers believe the latter method produces a lower quality tequila).
Step 4 - Fermentation
The aguamiel (agave juice) is checked for its sugar concentration level and, if needed, water is added to achieve a level of 8%-16%. Yeast is then added to begin the fermentation process which can last between 24-96 hours and results in a solution that is between 3.8% - 6% alc/vol. This solution is now referred to as Mosto. The exact formula is more an art than science and is specific to each distillery.
The fermentation process has a huge impact on the tequila being produced. Mixto tequila (mixed tequila) has cane or corn sugars added to it (up to 49%!) whilst a true tequila is made with 100% blue agave aguamiel (agave juice) with no added sugars. We only sell the latter.
The strain of yeast used will have a bearing on the characteristics of the finished product. Spontaneous fermentation using naturally occurring airborne yeasts are used in traditional methods. Most distilleries now use commercial yeast however Casa Herradura, La Altena and Siete Leguas are known for still using the traditional method. Fermented juice from a previous batch is generally mixed in to the new Mosto to ensure continuity.
Stage 5 - Distillation
The mosto must be distilled a minimum of 2 times before it can be referred to as tequila. The distillation process takes place in either pot or column stills and is usually a few hours. The product of the first distillation 'destrozamiento' is known as 'ordinario' and holds a 20%-25% alc/vol. The second or rectification distillation produces a distillate of around 55%-75% alc/ vol.
As is the case with fermentation, the exact liquid to make 'the cut' is a combination of art and science. The chief distiller is required to make these creative decisions in order to produce the flavours and types of tequilas required from their distillery. If the liquid is bottled after this process, it can now be referred to as blanco tequila.
Stage 6 - Aging
Unlike blanco tequila, reposado, anejo and extra anejo are aged in different wood barrels, overtime imparting its flavour and developing its character. Regulations specify that the maximum strength of tequila going into a cask is 55% alc/vol.
There are a significant number of factors in the aging process that affect the end result and the quality of the tequila. The types of casks are usually oak and have a previous life holding American whiskey. Other factors include the level of charring or toasting of the wood, previous fills, number of cycles, temperature, humidity and entry alcohol level. Reposado tequila may also be matured in vats called 'pipones'
Regardless, the Consejo Regulador de Tequila, require the container to be sealed for the duration of aging, only being opened in the presence of an official.
Stage 7 - Bottling
Cheaper or lower quality tequilas may have additives, such as caramel colouring, glycerine, sugar syrup, oak extract and aromatizes, included in them before bottling. Additives help a cheaper tequila appear, smell and taste like a higher quality one. There are regulations that stipulate the amount of additives that can be used.
Tequila that is bound for local markets is usually bottled at 38% alc/vol. However there are restrictions in overseas markets the require higher percentages. The US requires min 40% alc/vol and South Africa 43% alc/vol whilst Europe is 37.5% alc/vol. Australia required a minimum of 37% alc/vol.
I hope you found this article informative and easy to read. Please let us know by comenting, liking or sharing it! But most importantly I hope your knew found knowledge will allow you to make better decisions about which tequila you buy and how you enjoy the experience of drinking it.
That’s all for now