Thursday, December 2, 2010

(da da, da-da) Tequila!






Tequila is fermented and distilled from the center of the blue agave plant. Tequila fresh from distillation is called blanco or white. Tequila aged in oak barrels for 2 months to a year is called reposado, meaning rested. Tequila aged 1 to 3 years is called anejo or aged. Tequila gets its color and smoky flavor from the oak barrels which are scraped and charred between uses. Tequila can only be produced in the Mexican states of Jalisco, Michoacan, Guanajuato, Nayarit and Tamaulipas. Tequila makes her clothes fall off.

These are all factoids I learned while on the tour of the Herradura distillery outside of the town of Tequila in central Jalisco state, and I can prove it. We’ll start inside the high walls of the Hacienda San Jose del Refugio, home to Herradura’s tequila making operations since 1870. In order to officially be called a “hacienda,” San Jose del Refugio had to function as almost a city within itself with a factory, housing for workers, and a company store and even today, the casitas lining the cobblestone courtyard are occupied by retired workers and their families. As long as a family member is working at Herradura, the houses stay in the family.






Our tour started with a demonstration of the harvesting of the agave plant, or more accurately, the Agave Tequilana Weber, a variety first classified in the 1900’s by French botanist Frédéric Albert Constantin Weber to have the highest sugar content. The tall, spiked leaves of the plant are sheared away with a razor sharp tool to reveal a fibrous center. Each pina, so called because of its resemblance to a pineapple, can weigh 35-45 pounds, and will yield about 8 liters of tequila, more than enough to make you think it’s a good idea to just “stop by” that girl in your macroeconomics class’ dorm room and when you find the door cracked a little look inside and see her on the top bunk of her loft making out with some meathead from the football team so you find a sharpie in the common room and write “Alison’s got an aggregate supply of being a bitch! Love, John Maynard Keynes” all over the walls of the unisex bathroom. But where was I? Oh right, the agave harvester is called the “jimador” from the Spanish word “jimar” meaning to grunt, the sound he makes when doing his work. Yeah, sounds like he might be Alison’s type…



The pina’s are then loaded into huge clay ovens and baked for hours to release their sugar. When they are pressed and mixed with water, they release a syrupy sugar solution.



Fermentation occurs in 30 foot high stainless steel cylinders, open to the air so as to allow the naturally occurring yeast and bacteria attracted by the fruit trees on the property to feast on the sugars and release ethanol. We tasted the brew at a few stages during the fermentation, the tour guide explaining that any bacteria our fingers introduced would actually aid in the process and citing the practice of wine grapes being stomped with bare feet. I will never think of Chateau Lafite (la-feet) the same way again. The most recent batch still had a high sugar content and was relatively sweet while the ones with more yeast and bacteria were a bit more tart, much like Alison apparently. 





The ethanol created by the fermentation is distilled twice, resulting in tequila blanco, the smoothest variety. Additional color and smoky flavor are added through aging in charred oak barrels, often from Kentucky.



And to prove my final assertion (see first paragraph), while I was busily scribbling notes so you could learn about the tequila making process, Ann took the camera for a while. When I downloaded the pictures, I found this provocative picture of one of the French guys on our tour….


The original factory building has been preserved and made for some cool pictures.







And of course, the tasting, though I thought it wise to keep Ann to three or four shots given that she (not to mention the Frenchman) wasn’t wearing many layers. We both really like the Herradura Antiguo Blanco more than the spicy, smoky resposados and anejos.




From the distillery, we swerved our way back to the busy town of Tequila, streets lined with stores selling souvenir oak barrels and unlabeled tequila in 5 liter jugs, to find a hotel for the night.



When choosing a hotel, we look for four things:

1) A clean room
2) A reasonable price
3) Secure parking
4) A clearly stated position on child prostitution


And if #2 above doesn’t work out, there are always ways to pick up some extra cash on the road. Except Ann’s all “You’re not a piece of meat.” Whatever, prude.


Now, I’m not trying to soil the image of the town of Tequila. In fact, it was quite a nice little town, and while “Cuervo World” takes up a significant portion of it, there is also a nice central plaza in front of a pretty cathedral, and we would come to learn that we had stumbled right smack into the beginning of the Festival of the Virgin of Guadalupe. The biggest clue there was a festival going on? I’d have to say the explosions.



After a loop around town, we followed the deafening booms back to the plaza where evening services had let out and people were milling about as smoke and ash hung in the air from the “bombas,” fireworks that climb about 50 feet high leaving a tracer of orange sparks before channeling the full force of the bright, shimmering orb you expect to see instead into an ear drum-shattering, anxious American nerve-shaking, BOOOOOOOOM accompanied by a wimpy puff of smoke.



Everyone seemed to be waiting for something, but it didn’t appear that anyone was in charge. We spent a while trying to figure out what the woman at the side of the church with a microphone was instructing us to do, but it turned out she was calling bingo numbers for two tables of kids. Just then we noticed a guy doing his best evil-villain-lighting-the-fuse-connected-to-the-dynamite-wrapped-around-James-Bond-and-his-blond-“acquaintance” impression  put his cigarette to fuse which sparked to life and set off a fireworks domino effect of pinwheels spinning on a huge wire frame we thought was just a sculpture. As the rain of sparks fell on the plaza, kids would run underneath them, their parents engaged in conversation on the periphery. The guy would then walk over to another fuse, pull out a knife that would make Crocodile Dundee have to change his dungarees, slice off the end and press his cigarette to it with disdain. I‘m afraid that with the speed this fuse burned, there would be nothing Q could have come up with to save 007. All the while, kids now seemed to be being encouraged by their parents to get a little closer. “Go on, Jose, you’re not going to be able to feel the burning in your nostrils and sparks in your hair from all the way back here!”





The finale was a spinning, sparkling tractor that triggered a final pinwheel which at the last second, launched straight off the top of the tower and flew unpredictably above us. If we moved left, it moved left. If we moved right, it moved right. At one point, I think it caught Ann with a head fake. It was still spinning and sparking as it came down beside the church. We’d been passed by a stream of children dashing to recover it, no doubt encouraged by their parents. “Try to grab it while it’s still in the air and sparking!”

As we turned to walk back to the hotel, we saw a boy triumphantly carrying the still smoking pinwheel in front of a trail of his envious peers. Not to worry, there were still a few flaming scraps that had fallen off the main structure and we were torn between watching or tackling the kids who were not quite tentatively enough reaching down to pick them up.

Confident now that we wouldn’t miss anything else, we headed to bed. Not to worry, the bombas started up again along with a chorus of church bells at 5am and at the time of writing this, have been going for a full half an hour. If this is how they celebrate a virgin down here, think of the party they’d throw for a tramp like Alison!