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Making Tequila: Ageing

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We’ve already discuss the process to make Tequila in a very short and general way, but in order to be a true Tequila Professional you have to understand each process in a very detailed way. We’ll be posting a series of posts describing the different stages of making Tequila, here’s the last  one: the process of ageing.

Older does not mean better in the tequila world. Slow transformation allows the product to obtain their ultimate characteristics through natural processes while resting in their american oak or french oak barrels.

All aged or stored tequila must be kept in containers sealed by the CRT. Most companies purchase used barrels from international distilleries; a few purchase new barrels. Barrels last 25-30 years, but each has only a five-year lifespan for any batch of tequila, after which all of the tannins are fully immersed into the tequila. Barrels are used at most five times before being discarded, or used for parts to repair other barrels.  Representatives of the CRT oversee the production to ensure the distillers meet the standards and quality controls.

As the tequilas age, the wood of the barrels will shrink and expand according to the current climate and humidity. This allows air and moisture to mingle with the tequila, creating a product that will be unique to its own microclimate.

Aging tequila requires constant attention to detail and goes hand in hand with blending. the master distiller must constantly monitor the aging process to identify specific types of barrels for a particular blend.

Aging gives places to the different kinds of tequila, which you can check in this post.

Making Tequila: Distillation

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We’ve already discuss the process to make Tequila in a very short and general way, but in order to be a true Tequila Professional you have to understand each process in a very detailed way. We’ll be posting a series of posts describing the different stages of making Tequila, here’s the fifth one: the process of distillation.

During the process of distillation the ferments are separated by heat and steam pressure within stainless steel pot stills or distillation towers. Some tequilas are distilled three times, but the majority are only distilled twice.

Distillation is an ancient process, however, the development of the still is usually credited to a Persian alchemist.

The still appeared in Europe to make alcohol in the 12th century, and spread rapidly in the 14th century when alcohol was prescribed as a medicine for the Black death. Around 1400 it was discovered how to distill spirits from wheat, barley, and rye beers.

There are two basic types of still: the traditional alembic (or alambique – the most common type) also called pot stills, and the modern column (or Coffey) still. Alembic stills were originally imported into Mexico from Spain in the late 16th century. Before that, mezcal producers used Filipino-style stills made from local resources, this can still be found in small traditional productions. Most alembic stills are made of copper, but modern alembics are made of stainless steel.

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Distillation consists of boiling the mosto until it becomes steam. The resulting steam becomes alcohol when it is condensed with an approximated alcoholic graduation of 25%. At the end of the first stage, the resulting product is injected again into the stills for a second distillation. The second distillation, known as “rectification,” takes three to four hours and produces a liquid with an alcohol level near 55%. After the second distillation the tequila is considered silver, or “blanco,” tequila. In this second step the separation of heads and tails is made, with the purpose of regulating metanol and alcohol.

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Stainless steel pot stills are used to distill tequila at Sauza’s modern La Preservancia Distillery, Tequila, Jalisco, Mexico

 

Making Tequila: Fermentation

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We’ve already discuss the process to make Tequila in a very short and general way, but in order to be a true Tequila Professional you have to understand each process in a very detailed way. We’ll be posting a series of posts describing the different stages of making Tequila, here’s the fourth one: the process of fermentation.

In technical terms, fermentation is the conversion of sugars to alcohol by yeast in anaerobic (non-oxygen) conditions.

The agave juice or mosto is fermented for several days in vats – usually made of stainless steel, but traditionally made of wood. The temperature of the juice rises as yeast converts the sugar into alcohol. This is very similar to making beer, and the final product is a low-alcohol liquid at 4-5% alcohol content.

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Yeast may be added to accelerate and control the fermentation. Traditionally, the yeast that grows on the agave leaves is used; but nowadays a lot of distilleries use a cultivated form of wild yeast.

Normal fermentation has two stages. The first is aerobic, where oxygen is present, this part normally lasts 24-48 hours. The second part  is anaerobic (no oxygen present). This is a slower activity during which the yeast focuses on converting sugar to alcohol.

Fermentation can naturally take seven to 12 days, but modern plants add chemicals to accelerate yeast growth so fermentation only takes two to three days. Longer fermentation results in a more robust body.

Sometimes the mosto is fermented with some of the residual pulp from crushing the piñas. This is left in the tanks to give more flavor to the liquid.

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Making Tequila: Extraction

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We’ve already discuss the process to make Tequila in a very short and general way, but in order to be a true Tequila Professional you have to understand each process in a very detailed way. We’ll be posting a series of posts describing the different stages of making Tequila, here’s the third one: the process of extraction.

Once cooked, the agave heads are transported to a milling area for sugar extraction. The piñas are cut into small pieces which are crushed and pressed to extract the agave juice called mosto fresco, or “fresh must”, that must will be fermented later.

The traditional method is to crush the piñas with a “tahona,” a giant grinding wheel operated by mules, oxen or tractors within a circular pit.

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Modern distilleries use a mechanical crusher or roller mill to separate the fiber from the juices. They use conveyer belts to slowly move the cooked piñas through a series of crushers while water is sprayed over the fibers to wash the sugary juice from the fibers. The last set of rollers squeezes the fibers dry to remove as much juice as possible.

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Some Tequila producers use a method called “diffusion”, in which the piñas are not cooked in hornos or autoclaves. It’s a new method where the fibers of raw agave are crushed and steamed using a diffuser. The new method saves time because it has no manual handling, is more efficient extracting sugars and reduces production time. Traditionalist believe that Tequila produced like this doesn’t have the flavours and results of oven cooking.

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Making Tequila: Cooking the Agave

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We’ve already discuss the process to make Tequila in a very short and general way, but in order to be a true Tequila Professional you have to understand each process in a very detailed way. We’ll be posting a series of posts describing the different stages of making Tequila, here’s the second one: the process of baking the agave.

During this step, the piñas are baked by steam injection in ovens. This activates a chemical process that converts complex carbohydrates into simple sugars. Cooking also softens the piña, making the process of sugar extraction easier for fermentation. Depending on their size piñas tend to be cut into halves or quarters to facilitate uniform cooking.

Baking was traditionally done in brick or stone ovens that worked by means of vapor injection, that process lasted between 50 and 72 hours.

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In the prehispanic era and when Tequila was started to being produced a hole was dig into the earth and covered with stones, then a big fire would be built in the bottom and more rocks are placed on top, then they’re insulated with a bed of moist agave fiber, and then chunks of chopped-up agave are placed on top. They seal the whole thing with a layer of palm leaves and a mound of earth, and let it cook for about three days. Today, this method is mainly used for making Mezcal.

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Nowadays, it’s done in steel tanks with bigger capacity, know as autoclaves. As they are hermetically sealed, they reduce the cooking time between 8 and 14 hours. The steam is then turned off and the piñas are left to cool off for 16 to 48 hours.

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Each distillery has it’s own method for cooking the piñas and operate their ovens in the way the think is the best. Slow baking results in more fruit and sweetness .

The blue agave is rich in inulin, a fructose molecule that the agave uses as a nutritive reserve, during the cooking process the steam softens the piña’s texture and hydrolyzes the inulin into fructose. The sugar can then be fermented into alcohol.

Making Tequila: Jima

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We’ve already discuss the process to make Tequila in a very short and general way, but in order to be a true Tequila Professional you have to understand each process in a very detailed way. We’ll be posting a series of posts describing the stages of making Tequila, here’s the first one: the process of Jima.

The process of tequila elaboration begins with the harvesting of the blue agave with regional denomination of origin. Agave plants require an average from 7 to 9 years to reach the perfect stage of maturity and be ready for the Jima or harvest, however 10 years is premium time for the agave to reach its ripest state that would provide the best sugar levels.

The Jima, is the process when agave leaves are cut and making the root come loose, leaving only the coveted heart or head, because of its resemblance, they take the name of “piñas”. This process can occur year-round, but is in the dry season when the better taste of the agave is revealed. Expert jimadores (agave farmers) unearth and trim the agave’s heart (piña), which can weigh around 40 to 70 pounds. The piñas are trimmed using a special razor-sharp hoe-like tool called a coa. The coa’s distinctive paddle shape is iconic in the Highlands’ region of Mexico.

The Jimadores are required to be strong men with great field experience, they locate the best plants and begin the Jima. Traditional jimador clothing is a white cotton shirt and pants with a red sash and open-toed leather sandals, but nowadays some jimadores wear more modern and suitable clothing like a pair of jeans, a hat to protect them from the sum and a shirt or tshirt. A hard working and skilled jimador can harvest more than 1,500 pounds of piñas by hand each day.

Once the plants are cut correctly they are loaded into transportation trucks and eventually transported to the factory in order to be processed.

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