So How Tequila Is Made?
Step 1: Cultivating the Agave
The first step in the production process is to cultivate the Blue Agave plant. This is done in orchards known as “potreros” where the shoots (mecuates) from older Agave plants are removed, sun dried and re-planted in nurseries for one year before being re-located to the orchards where they will spend between 8-12 years reaching maturation. OMG! 8-12 years?? Well yes it’s true.
The process of maturation is known as Agave sazon, and requires a lot of traditional manual labour in order to aid the growth of the Pina.The Pina is the bulb and roots of the plant which is the only part of the Agave used in end production of Tequila and can weigh up to 3001bs.
Step 2: Harvesting & Preparation
Once mature, a Jimador (harvester or a farmer) will remove the razor sharp stalks (pencas) from the pina which will then be removed from the soil and sent to the factories for baking.
Step 3: Baking the Pina
Once ready, tequilleros will place the Pina into either steam rooms or traditional slow-bake ovens (hornos) where they will sit for 50-72 hours. The temperature of these ovens is closely controlled between 140-185C, allowing the breakdown of carbohydrates into fermentable sugars whilst avoiding any caramelisation. Once fully baked the Pina would be soft allowing easy extraction of the juices present inside. Before the next step of pulping the Pina will be left to cool naturally for up-to 36 hours.
Step 4: Extracting the Sap
Traditional pulping is done using a vast grinding machine called a tahona which crushes the softened pina into a pulp. The Tahona is a giant stone wheel made of volcanic rock called Tezon.
The juice (aquameil) that is extracted is filtered, separated and mixed with water ready for fermentation whilst the hard waste left is often used as fertilizer or animal food.
Step 5: Making the Pulque
Fermentation begins with the addition of either natural yeasts found on the leaves of the Agave plant or by using commercial strains. Pure fermentation can take 7-12 days to occur, the longer the time generally results in more full bodied tequila. It is at this stage that poor quality and high quality products are created.
Poor quality Tequila’s may add sugar to speed up fermentation, allowing them to use very young plants with few natural sugars present, which results in a poor finish of course. This is usually how large volume producers operate. Once fermentation is finished the “must” will be left for a further 12 hours to take on more flavour’s. At this point the liquid product is between 5-7% alcohol and is known as Pulque or Mosto (agave worth).
Step 6: Distillation
Distillation comes next using either traditional copper stills or more modern column stills. As pot stills operate at a lower temperature to more modern units more of the congeners or impurities are left in the distilled spirit. Although this may sound like a bad thing its actually key to producing flavour as the higher the congener count in any type of alcohol, the greater the flavour.
Traditionally distillation was carried out twice creating an end product which is around 55% alcohol. The master distiller will then discard approximately the top 20% of the mix and lower 20% as the liquid held within the center point of the holding vat is of the best quality. This will then be cut with pure water to bring it down to usually required 40% Alcohol.
Stage 7: Ageing
The final process of ageing depends on the style of tequila being produced.
•Blanco (young) : This Tequila is un-aged and is filtered directly after final distillation, blended with other un-aged Tequilas for consistency then bottled.
•Reposado (rested) : It is stored in Barrels for a minimum of 2 months up to 1 year.
•Anejo (aged) : This Tequila may sit in the barrel from 1 year up to 3 years depending on the desired finish.
•Extra Anejo: This is a relatively latest category created in 2006 for Tequilas which are aged for 3 years and above. The Type of barrel greatly affects the colour and finish of the tequila of course. Predominantly “Broken in” White oak barrels are used, although many producers are now adopting bourbon barrel, cognac barrel and even fresh oak barrels to age their Tequila.
Step 8: Blending, Filtering & Bottling
Before bottling, almost all tequilas will be blended with other barrels of roughly the same age to create a consistent finish, then will be filtered through either a charcoal or glycol filters before bottling. The only exception to this are single barrel tequilas which are taken from one cask only for retaining their own unique character which often changes from batch to batch, although these are extremely rare and can be very expensive of course.