I have just returned from Mexico as a guest of TequilaFortelaza. It was an amazing trip. I had such a great time but also learned so much about Tequila.
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Coincidentally, less than a week before the trip, I took a 6 Hour Tequila certification course sponsored by Hiatus Tequila and presented by theTequila Regulatory Council or CRT.
According to the CRT’s web site:
“The Tequila Regulatory Council is a non-profit organization, founded in 1994, that verifies the performance and the fulfillment of Mexican standards concerning tequila. / It also guarantees the tequila's authenticity and quality, and protects the Denomination Appellation of Origin (AOC) worldwide. Members of the Council include the Mexican government, agave farmers, tequila producers, bottlers and distributors.
Tequila production is very strictly regulated. Once you learn a few things you can tell a lot about what’s in the bottle just by reading the label. And also there are a lot of things you can NOT tell by reading the label. Finding the best quality and most authentic Tequilas is not always easy. Some are made with a lot of love and tradition, and some, well aren’t. Fortaleza and some others that I visited, and will mention in this post are made with real integrity and passion.
There is a lot to learn about Tequila. Here are some really informative facts.
Tequila is of course produced from the Agave plant. You may have heard or assumed that Agave are in the cactus family. In fact they are in the monocots family.
Agave take anywhere from 5-12 years and sometimes even longer to mature. The average for the Blue Weber agave used to make Tequila is approximately 7 years from planting to harvest. The Agave are harvested by farmers called Jimadors who take great pride in their work.
There are 2 Categories and 5 Classes of Tequila.
The 2 categories are: “Tequila” and “100% Agave Tequila”.
The first category “Tequila” (NOT 100% AgaveTequila) is what I always used to refer to as “Mixto”. Apparently the term Mixto is not used anymore. Whatever you call it, this is generally accepted to be the lower quality product of the two. The reason the term Mixto is not used anymore is exactly what gave me the mistaken impression that it was mixed with a neutral grain spiritafterdistillation. This is not the case. The category “Tequila” is allowed to be enriched with sugars other than agave up to 49% before distillation. This is all then distilled together.
Obviously the category “100% Agave Tequila” is produced from 100% Agave, with no other sugars allowed. This is really the better quality product. It must be stated on the label somewhere - if it does not say 100% somewhere on the label it definitely is not. And it’s not justanyagave. The species Blue Weber Agave is the only one allowed in the production of Tequila. (Weber happens to be my last name, but as far as I know I am not related to the botanist Albert Weber for whom it was named!)
The production of “Tequila 100% de Agave” is rising rapidly, and in fact now outnumbers production of the non 100%. Interestingly more than half of the Tequila (both categories that is) is exported out of Mexico with about 83% of those exports going to the US.
As I mentioned there are 5 classes within the two different categories. All categories and classes except for blanco allow the addition of a “mellowing agent”. 1% by weight of any, or a combination of the following 4 ingredients may be added:
Simple sugar (but NOT sugar derived from any species of agave)
Quality brands such as Fortaleza, do not use any additives and in fact there are only 3 ingredients: agave, yeast and water. I also visited 2 other distilleries on this trip - Don Fulano and Arette. These are also great brands and also do not not use any additives. Also Hiatus which I mentioned earlier does not use additives.
So what are the 5 classes?
Blanco or Silver which of course is a clear liquid. This is allowed to be aged for up to 2 months, although it is most often not aged at all.
The second class is Young or Gold, (or Joven in Spanish). This begins as a blanco and is colored and flavored with the mellowing agents..Alternatively a small amount of Reposado or Añejo may be added. If you see a bottle that is gold in color but does not say reposado or Añejo, this would be a gold.
The next class is Reposado. Reposado is aged in barrels for between 2-12 months. The barrels must be made of oak, but unlike bourbon, they do not have to be brand new barrels that have never been used before.
A 100% agave Reposado tends to be my favorite when it comes to sipping tequila neat or on the rocks. The four brands I mentioned make outstanding 100% de agave Reposado, double distilled in pot stills. I would happily drink these anytime and proudly serve it to anyone.
The next class is Añejo. This must be aged at least one year in oak and unlike Reposado which has no limit on the size of the barrel an Añejo must be aged in a barrel no larger than 600 liters. In fact, very often ex-bourbon barrels are very often used.
The last of the 5 classes is Extra Añejo which is aged a minimum of 3 years again in an oak barrel no larger that 600 liters.
The only specification on the barrels is that it must be made of oak.
The next thing to be aware of is that Tequila is recognized as an Appellation of Origin. What does this mean? It is a product from a specific region, made in with an agreed upon set of standards that is regulated by some sort of governing body or organization. In the case of Tequila that organization is the Tequila Regulatory Council or CRT.
Just one other example of a product with an Appellation of Origin is champagne, which is sparkling wine made in the Champagne region of France produced with specific types of grapes and using a specific methodology. But Appellation of Origin products do not have to necessarily have to be alcoholic beverages. Certain coffees, cheeses, hams and more have Appellation of Origins.
Tequila is actually a town in the Mexican state of Jalisco where the tradition of making this product began. Fortaleza, Don Fulano and Arette which I visited are produced in Tequila town among others including some of the larger brands.. Tequila however is permitted to be produced in 181 municipalities in 5 states. Jalisco is the only entire state included, but there are some municipalities in 4 other states where it is allowed. Interestingly these municipalities do not all necessarily border each other. The regions where tequila is permitted to be produced comprise of only approximately 5% of the county of Mexico.
Let’s do a quick overview of the traditional way tequila is made.
The agave are harvested after approximately 7 years growing in the ground.
The jemadors remove the outer layer of skin in the field, revealing what’s called the Pina which does look like a giant pineapple, but is not. They are around 100 pounds each when harvested.
The pinas are trucked to the distillery and chopped by hand with an ax into two halves or some larger ones may be cut into quarters.
The pinas are cooked with steam, traditionally in a brick oven, but there are a couple other options available now. In a brick oven they will cook for approximately two days.
The cooked agave are allowed to cool and then they are shredded, traditionally in a tahona, which is a pit made out of volcanic rock. A huge volcanic wheel goes around and around in a circle in the tohona to shred the cooked agave. Years ago it was pulled around by a horse on donkey walking around in a circle all day long. That is not allowed anymore, so the producers such as Forelaza who choose to use the tohona have motors instead of donkeys! While the tohona method is traditional, it is very labor intensive. Fortelaza still uses it, but many others use modern machinery to shred the cooked agave.
The now cooked and shredded agave is washed with water to release the sugars.
Most producers will then separate the fibrous material from the liquid, although a few will go to the next stage, fermentation, including the fibers.
This is moved to fermentation tanks and yeast is added. All of the producers I mentioned and visited us an open air fermentation, meaning the fermentation tanks are not covered. This allows naturally occurring wild yeast to mix in.
After the yeast has eaten all the sugar, it will be about 5% alcohol-like a beer.
Next it is distilled. Fortelaza and the others I visited distill in copper pot stills. They distill twice. It is allowed to distill more than twice, but the essence of the original material, (in the case of Tequila the Agave), diminishes with each further distillation. After the first distillation it is around 20% Alcohol By Volume (ABV) and is called “ordinareo”. This is now distilled a second time and will come off the sitll at about 45% alcohol. This is now a blanco tequila. It’s a fairly high ABV tequila, so in most cases some water will be added to bring it down to around 40% ABV or 80 proof.
There is one more, well a lot more things to talk about, but one that really has a huge effect on the quality and integrity of the tequila. I mentioned earlier that Fortelaza and other traditionally made Tequilas shred the cooked agave prior to fermentation. However, there are some massed produced brands that use a machine called a rectifier to shred the agave without cooking it. There is no restriction on using a rectifier and it does not have to be stated anywhere on the label. Directly next door to one of the quality, small batch disteries we visited was one of the giant tequila brand names that you would know. I witnessed with my own eyes lots of dump trucks coming out of that facility with giant loads of the dried up remnants of these rectified, sad agave that every drop of liquid had been squeezed out. Is this method efficient … very! But think about why one product is so much more expensive to produce than another. Do you want a massed produced spirit, or one made with love by a family owned company that has been passed down through generations making a product without cutting corners and maximizing yield at the expense of flavor?