Some are surprised to learn that tequila is made from the heart of the blue agave plant–nothing to do with the long spiky leaves. It doesn’t mean the leaves are useless; they contain a sap that forms ‘aguamiel’ or ‘miel de maguey’ (agave syrup), which is used as a sweetener, or in a simple fermentation to create the vitamin-rich and low-alcoholic pulque drink. Both are interesting Mexican specialties to try.
The planting, caring and harvesting of agave plants is still a relatively manual effort using centuries-old knowledge, often passed from generation to generation. The shape of the plant means that methods have remained largely untouched by machinery. Instead, it is the knowledge of the jimadores, the harvesters, who keep these plants well cultivated and harvested at the right time. The trick is to keep trimming the plant’s central, meter-high stalk (quiotes), to stop the plant from flowering and dying too early.
Because the core is used, the plant can never regrow again, so agave shortages and price jumps are an issue in the industry. Once the plants are dug up and the leaves expertly cut away, the core looks like a pineapple, which is exactly how it is referred to in Spanish: pina. Unlike a pineapple, however, these cores are extremely heavy, weighing up to 100kg, enough for eight to ten bottles of tequila.
From here, the step-by-step process for tequila turns relatively industrial. The pinas are commonly cooked in industrial, stainless-steel pressure cookers to break down the starch into sugar, then shredded and fermented in a similarly industrial process, although a stone wheel (tahona) is still sometimes used. The pulp fiber is biodegradable and used as compost, fire fuel, paper or animal feed.
Industrialization has allowed tequila to be mass produced, unlike its cousin mezcal which is still typically a completely handmade process. The cooking process is one of the large differences between tequila and mezcal, as is the type of agave that can be used, and the states in which it can be produced.
After the cooking process, the remaining liquid is left to ferment in stainless steel or other types of vats, after which they are distilled two or three times. At least two distillations are required by law. Some producers, such as Casa Noble and Corzo, have experimented with a third distillation but it’s not common and some say it removes too much of the agave flavor.
Another key indicator of quality is the length of fermentation; some providers speed up the process with a mother culture, but slow-fermentation (up to 7 days) produces the better flavors and quality.
Learning the step-by-step process of how Tequila is made gives a hint at why this is a drink to be savored, just like a good whisky or cognac – and today you will easily find tequilas in the same price range.