The Craft of Tequila: How Artisanal Techniques Have Lifted The Category

At a time when tequila sales are booming both in the U.S. and internationally, and a flood of new brands continue to appear at retailers’ doors, it’s difficult to assemble a price assortment that sticks to value as the most important matter.

Part of the problem is that tequila is so tied in these days with luxury imagery, celebrity promotion and brands that are contracted rather than produced by the brand owner. Not that those brands can’t be quality (after all, when Patron broke open the luxury tequila market, its liquid was being produced at a distillery it didn’t own).

With so much of the brand identification tied to positioning, it can be hard to know how exactly one tequila differs from another. “Only a few brands are explaining how they make their tequila, but the good news is that there is a lot of information out there these days and a little research will tell you all you need to know,” says Patron’s production manager, Antonio Rodriguez.

Beyond marketing and promotion, there are a limited number of factors that impact the quality and production expenses related to making a tequila, and in this and a subsequent piece on aged tequila expressions, the July/August issue of Beverage Dynamics will tease out the various steps that create quality expressions in aged tequila.

Labor and time create the major costs. “There are tequilas that are produced less cost-effective than others, with everything cut and harvested and roasted by hand,” says Beam Suntory master spirits ambassador Iain McCallum. “Whenever you use handcrafted methods, you are being less efficient and so there is likely to be a higher cost associated.”

Emphasis on Agave

First and foremost, of course, there are the agaves. The increase in focus on 100% blue Weber agave tequilas means producers are less frequently including other sweeteners as they do in mixto tequilas, and all ultra- and super-premium tequilas are generally 100% agave. Simple enough, but which agaves? From where? How old? With what sugar content? How are they processed?

Agave field

An agave field.

Since creating tequila is a long-term agricultural process – agaves must grow for 5 to 12 years before being suitable for harvest – leaving money in the ground can be costly. Says Inaki Orozco, owner of Riazul tequila, “The land where my agaves grow sits in a very highly elevated point in Jalisco where there are  lots of meteorological threats. We had snow this March, something that hasn’t happened in 30 years and we lost a number of baby agaves to the frost. This elevation poses risks and drives maintenance costs of the plants higher.”

Location matters. Although most tequilas are made from a mix of piñas grown in the highlands as well as the Jalisco valley, some brands accentuate the citrusy qualities associated with the highlands (especially popular these days), although many tequila fans prefer the earthy and sometimes briny valley-based tequilas. How they are grown matters as well. According to national brand ambassador Gina Castillo, Don Julio established the tradition of planting blue agave farther apart to encourage larger growth and sweeter maturation.

To reach the correct sweetness levels needed to ferment properly and to create maximum aromas and flavors, agaves must reach a predetermined sugar content. “If you are using older agaves, those two or three years extra waiting costs money,” says Ruben Aceves, master blender for Herradura. “As they age they are more susceptible to diseases, for example, as well as weather.”

The process of selecting the individual agave piñas depends on level of ripeness desired by the producer. Says Rodriguez, who helps oversee quality control of all aspects of production including agave selection, “To be premium you need an agave that is harvested properly and old enough. If the agave looks green when harvested and arrives in the distillery, it probably has more bitterness and methanol content. You have to look for high quality agave harvested properly – something above 25 percent sugar content that will develop better aromas and flavors when processed.”

Few producers promote their brands based on agave age or sugar content, although some have focused on estate-grown piñas. Olivier Begat, vice president of manufacturing and production at Casamigos, says the brand uses 7- to 9-year-old, estate-grown agaves exclusively. “We don’t want them to get too old and fibrous, or be too young and without the sugar content we want, so we must time it right.”

Reid Hafer, senior brand manager for Lunazul tequila, points out that the process at distillery Tierra de Agaves, where the brand is made, is vertically integrated, using its own agave, fermentation and distillation.

“Not everyone can say they know exactly where their agave came from. We planted, tended and harvested each of them for their entire life cycle. Not many Tequila suppliers can share those stories,” he says.

But others are quick to point out that using estate-grown agave does not alone guarantee quality; the processing methods are equally crucial.

plants of agave at Tequila distillery in Jalisco Mexico

Agave piñas at Tequila distillery in Jalisco Mexico

Varied Production Methods

Turning agaves into a fermentable liquid takes time. There are three main methods used: first, the classic giant brick ovens in which agaves are roasted, a method that can take three or more days to cook the piñas fully. More efficient are the stainless steel pressurized autoclaves, in which agaves are cooked in about a third of the time. The disadvantage: fewer of the over-roasted agave notes prized by many consumers tend to emerge.

And then there is the controversial diffuser method, in which agaves are shredded and juice is extracted with heat and chemicals. “This is the highest technology and the best option in terms of efficiency and volume, but not in obtaining the most complex flavor components,” says Patron’s Rodriguez. “For the high-end you have to go back to the brick ovens – we cook for three days, while an autoclave would be one day and a diffuser a matter of hours.”

Discerning consumers are paying more attention to production methods, says Grover Sanschagrin, creator of the tequila Matchmaker mobile app. “Diffuser-made tequila has really started to take over the industry. Diffuser is the new mixto, and the brands that use it don’t want to disclose this. I am willing to pay more money for a tequila that still uses traditional production processes, because they are becoming an endangered species right now.”

Cooked agaves must be processed to extract the juice and create a fermentable liquid, and only a few distilleries use the ancient and labor-intensive tahona method, in which cooked agaves are crushed under a massive rock wheel that grinds them in a pit. Otherwise, a roller mill is employed to extract the juice.

These are the main differences between Patron and Roca Patron, for example. Roca is made entirely with the tahona method, while Patron is made from juice extracted half using the tahona and half the roller mill. Using a roller mill to crunch agaves and extract the juice is said to develop more citrusy and peppery flavors, while the tahona brings more earthiness and agave flavors.

There are many other production choices to me made, some stylistic rather than efficiency and cost-savings based. Orozco at Riazul says the distiller in charge experiments with many variables during fermentation – different yeasts, changing the humidity and temperature, adding agave pulp, any number of small things that drive up the cost. “Even though we don’t use a tahona and a donkey, we still have high production costs,” he says.

CHART

Fermentation and Distillation

At the fermentation stage, there are also differences that incur varying costs, as well as producing various qualities. “Once you get to fermentation and start adding chemicals, you can change from a four-day to an 18-hour process,” Aceves says.

At the distillery where Casamigo is made, piñas are roasted for 72 hours, the yeast used for fermentation is specifically created for the brand and the fermentation lasts 80 hours, “which we feel reveals the aromas and flavors of the tequila as we want it,” Begat says.

Other options include choosing among wood fermenters or stainless steel, small-batch fermenters of perhaps a few thousand liters, or giant vats holding 80,000 liters or more. While small-batch tequilas can be poorly made and large-batch exceptional, there are costs associated with either choice. Those costs are often passed along to retailers and consumers.

Other spirits focus more on distillation processes as a sign of quality, and choices are still important here. “When you run the spirit through column stills, instead of 12 pounds to make a liter you may only need eight pounds. Out of the column you produce a higher alcohol content – less flavorful but more yield, at about 114 proof,” Aceves says.

The current differences in production between Herradura and el Jimador, another Brown-Forman brand produced at the Herradura distillery, are instructive: to make el Jimador, the producers press and extract juice from the agave before it is cooked; in Herradura, the agaves are oven-roasted first. While el Jimador is also distilled in a column still, Herradura is pot distilled.

BOTTLES

And the type of pot still matters as well: copper pot stills are said to develop smoother tequilas than stainless steel stills by removing sulfur and bitterness, creating a smoother spirit.

Finally, with blancos, the differences lie in what happens next. By law, blancos can be bottled immediately or rested in stainless steel tanks for up to 60 days. But some producers also briefly – for less than 30 days –  store the blanco in oak to create a bit more smoothness.

Proof matters too. While 35 and 45 percent alcohol by volume tequilas are common in Mexico, most brands imported to the U.S. are 40 percent. Some, like Tapatio, go up to 55, which is the proof of the recently released Herradura limited release, Coleccion de la casa Directo de Alambique.

Of course, when it comes to aged tequilas, there are just as many choices. Types of oak, time in barrels, where they are stored and how they are blended are just a few. In addition, there are new expressions – called “cristallino.”  There are only a few of these aged and then filtered tequilas, without color but with the flavors of more aged tequilas. The board that certifies tequila-making rules has yet to define this style, but it’s likely to be another twist in the tale of the varieties of tequila. BD

Jack Robertiello is the former editor of Cheers magazine and writes about beer, wine, spirits and all things liquid for numerous publications. More of his work can be found at www.jackrobertiello.com.

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