Tequila is made from the blue agave plant, which is a member of the lily family. The blue agave has spiny broad leaves called pencas. Early Indians used the agave spines as sweing needles, made paper from its leaves, and used the agave's juices for medicinal purposed. Tequila has become synonymous with the culture and heritage of Mexico. Much like Champagne and Cognac are indigenous to France, tequila is identified by the geographic region from which it originates.
It takes up to 8 - 12 years for a blue agave plant to mature. Jimadors, the workers who harvest agaves, are experts in blue agave cultivation. The jimadors use tools such as a coa (a steel-tipped hoe) to unroot the blue agave plant from the unique lava red soil, and a machete to cut the spiny leaves from the body of the plant to reveal a large pineapple-shaped heart called pina. The pinas, weigh upwards of 150 pounds, are then shipped to a distillery to begin the quila-making process.
Most tequila producers contract with area farmers and buy agaves in the spot market. Agaves grown outside the distillery undergo a rigorous process that ensures the maturity, weight and quality of these in as meet the high standards of the distilleries. If rejected, the agaves may then returned to either the commissioned farmers or the spot market.
(Picture on the right: Tequila producers at Jose Cuervo)
The pinas, which are comprised of pure starch, are steamed in stone ovens for about 24 - 36 hours at tempretures reaching 80 - 95 degree Celsius. A raw pina has a pale yellow colour and is virtually odorless. In comparison, a cooked pina possesses a brown-orange colour and emits a sweet, candy-like scent. Cooked pinas are then crushed in three pressing mills in order to extract the agave juice. Agave fibers tend to reabsorb much of the juice, so the fibers are washed in order to obtain the optimal amount of juice from each press. The result of the wash is called aguamiel or honey water.
The aguamiel (honey water) is combined with select yeasts and placed in a vat to ferment, resulting in a variety of by-products that include alcohol and methanol. The fermentation process is dependent upon climate. A cooler climate can lengthen the processing time to up to 12 days whereas a warmer climate can shorten the time from two to five days.
According to Mexican law, distilled tequila must be aged in oak barrels. The youngest blanco (white) tequilas, must be aged for 14 - 21 days, and oro (gold) tequilas are aged up to two months, Reposado (rested) tequilas are aged up to one year and the oldes tequilas, anejos (aged), are aged for at least one year. Unlike other spirits, tequila aging process ia maximized after roughly 6 - 10 years.
While several species of the agave plant can be fermented and distilled to make alcoholic beverages, only the Abave azul tequilana weber, commonly called the Agave azul or blue agave, can be used to make tequila. Due to a unique combination of altitude, soil conditions, humidity, annual rainfall, average temperature and exposure to the sun, southwest Mexico is the only known place in the world where Abave azul (or blue agave) rows naturally. Tequila is made by cutting away the spiny leaves from the body of the plant to reveal a large pineapple-shaped heart called pina, which can weigh up to 150 pounds. The inas are backed in stone ovens and then placed in a crushing mill. The crushed fibers are repeatedly washed in order to extract the plants' sugar. The result is called aguamiel or honey water. This honey water is then fermented with select yeart, and later double-distilled to make tequila.
In order to preserve tequila's integrity and protect their national treasure, the Mexican government formulated NORMAS in the 1970s to establish and govern tequila standards of production. By law, tequila must meet the following criteria:
it must be made from 100 percent natural ingredients
it must be produced with no less than 38 percent alcohol by bolum (ABV)
it must be made from blue agave grown and harvested only in the Mexican states of Jalisco, Guanajuato, Michoacan, Nayarit or Tamaulipas
the fermented agave juice must be distilled twice and the finished product must result from the agave juice processing
the final product must be produced form no less than 51 percent reduced sugars from the blue agave
it must be labeled with 'hecho en Mexico' (made in Mexico), 'NOM' (Norma Official Mexicana), the producer's four digit registration and identification number and the tequila's age (resposado, anejo, blanco, oro).