Thursday, February 6, 2014

Tequila is perhaps Mexico's most famous export product. It has appeared in movies, many songs have been written about it and there are even books dedicated to the subject. The Indians believed it was a present from the Gods, a divine elixir. It's so important to Mexico that there is even a university course in Tequila Engineering and a Tequila Regulatory Council. As I don't drink alcohol, I wondered what all the fuss was about so Bill and Kim took us to the town of Tequila!

The history of Tequila is difficult to trace. There are so many versions of the story that it's hard, if not impossible, to find out how and when it was actually discovered. According to one version it was discovered by the Aztecs by accident when a lighting strike hit an Agave plant, which caught fire and burned. The sweet smell of the burned Agave filled the valley they were working in and from then on the Aztecs started cooking the Agave pineapples to produce the sweet taste. Somehow they discovered 
the cooked Agave fermented when left in water and produced a drink they called Mezcal or Tepache. 
When the Spanish arrived in Mexico, with their knowledge of distillation, they had learned from the Arabs, the Mezcal was refined into Mezcal wine which is the predecessor of Tequila. Mezcal wine is still being produced today as well and seems to gain more recognition. While Mezcal is made from crushed roasted Agave, which gives it its smoky flavour, Tequila is made by steaming the Agave in big tanks and distilling its fermented juices. The Mexican state of Jalisco, with its volcanic soil, suits the blue Agave plant particularly well and has become the centre of Tequila production. As a result, the best Tequila comes from the Jalisco region and has been produced here since the 16th century around a town that would later become known as Tequila. 

Tequila is made from the pineapple of the Agave plant
Before all this the Agave, also known as Maguey or Mezcal, was already a sacred plant in ancient Mexico, used in religious ceremonies. Its leaves were used to build roofs and ropes. Its fibres were the raw materials for dresses, shoes and a form of paper. The thorns were used as pins, needles and boring tools and its juices to cure wounds. Today its main use is to produce about 100 million litres of Tequila each year. Most of the more traditional uses of Agave have diminished, but to this day the remains of the Agave after steaming are still used for the production of ropes and fertiliser. The blue Agave take a long time to mature. The 'Valle de Tequila' has the best growing conditions for the blue Agave, which means they are ripe in 6 to 7 years. In Los Altos de Jalisco the same process takes 7-9 years. 

There are many distilleries that produce Tequila in and around the town of Tequila in Jalisco, which is officially the only region that may call its 'distillate' Tequila. We visited La Cofradía, which means brotherhood in Spanish, a cooperative on the outskirts of town that offers an excellent tour. La Cofradia produces approximately 23.400 litres of 40 Alc Vol (80 Proof) Tequila per day from its own 670 hectares of Agaves. Apart from the trucks transporting the Agaves to the distillery, the whole process of planting and harvesting is done by hand. The actual harvesting is done by Jimadores. It's hard work as Agaves can weigh as much as 30 kilos each, but also a responsible one. If the Agave is harvested too soon, there won’t be enough sugars for fermentation. If it's harvested too late, the agave’s sugars will have already been used to form a stem or 'quiote'. The Jimador has to decide when the Agave is ready for harvesting and uses a 'coa' to remove the piñas (Spanish for pineapple).  

The process to make Tequila starts with steaming the piñas of Agaves for 36-40 hrs at 90-105°C in giant ovens. When cooled the Agaves are then ground to separate the honey and juices from the fibres. The fibres, a bi-product, are used as compost and to make ropes. The Agave juices are fermented into one of two formations; fixed 100 percent Agave, or a mixture of 51 to 99 percent of Agave and sugar cane known as Tequila Mixto.
During the fermenting the sugars are converted into ethyl alcohol by the yeast, which is made from the extracted honey of the Agave. The fermented juices are distilled twice to obtain the white Tequila with a 55 to 60 percent alcohol. The next step is to thin the distillate with demineralised water, to reduce the alcohol percentage to the by law required 35-55 percent. 

The Tequila so obtained is called White Tequila because of its clear colourless appearance. The three other variants are Reposado, Añejo and Extra Añejo. These 3 variants are basically the same as white Tequila, but aged in American white oak barrels. Reposado requires two to eleven months of ageing and takes on a golden colour during that process. The Añejo is a Tequila that has rested between 1 to 3 years in the same barrels, taking on an even darker almost Amber colour. The Extra Añejo stays in the white oak barrels for more than 3 years and is the darkest of all Tequilas. In the 3 years it takes on a Mahogany colour and becomes the smoothest of all Tequilas.

The Agave leaves have been used for ages by the Aztecs, from roofs and ropes to paper and boring tools. The Agave juices have been used for medicinal and religious purposes. Today they are used to produce a staggering 100 million litres of Tequila, a liquor that is as Mexican as Jalapeños and Tacos. La Cofradía in Tequila has direct sales of a range of Tequilas and a museum that's worth a visit.

Getting to the distillery was an event by itself. Bill and Kim kindly took us to Tequila, no problems there, but once in Tequila it wasn't all that clear where we had to go. Between the 5 of us we speak 3 words of Spanish… which didn't help. We were directed to a parking lot that didn't exist, tried the tourist police who didn't speak English, but in the end found one English speaking tourist police officer who organised a taxi driver who guided us to La Cofradía for 50 pesos. 

In the afternoon our limited Spanish resulted in a gigantic amount of food…! I'm sure the people running the little restaurant must think gringos eat enormous amounts of food as we apparently ordered enough to feed at least 10 people. I was beginning to wonder what was going on when we saw the owner leaving twice on his little motorbike to get more supplies :-) We concluded that they must have thought that we wanted the whole menu… Great food, really good, but it was a little bit too much.

We made the trip from Lo de Marcos, on the way up via the toll road which was in a terrible state and expensive. For the return trip we took the free road, which is a beautiful winding drive through the volcanic landscapes and past blue Agave fields over much better road surfaces too. We had a great day, learned a lot about Tequila… and had eaten enough for the rest of the week :-)

A big thank you to Bill and Kim for taking us there!