The first thing I learned was that Tequila is a denomination of origin product (a term I looked up). Like Bourbon and Champagne it must be manufactured in a specific region. In Tequila’s case it’s the state of Jalisco and a handful of other regions within four other states in Mexico. Being a denomination of origin product the consumer is provided a certain level of quality while the producer is guaranteed a certain control of the supply. Although the agave plant had been fermented in the Americas since the Aztecs, it had only been distilled once the Spanish arrived and then only began being marketed as Tequila in the late 19th century. During the US prohibition Sauza, a Mexican distiller took advantage of the wide open market and began to claim that only true Tequila came from Jalisco, leading to the eventual strict definitions of Tequila.
In order to be Tequila, it must be produced using 51% agave sugars. The remaining 49% being made up of something cheaper, frequently corn syrup. The good stuff will always be labeled clearly as 100% agave. The other major means of categorizing tequila is by age. This can often be visualized by the color of the tequila as the longer it spends aging the darker it becomes. However, some manufacturers cheat by adding caramel to darken the color. Take notice anytime you see a bottle advertised as being “gold.” This tequila is not aged, only dyed. This is where the heavily regulated words come in. Blanco is the clear, unaged tequila, reposado must be aged no less than two months, and Añejo one to three years in oak barrels less than 600 L. Extra Añejo has only recently come out to define Tequilas aged greater than three years and seems to on only apply to tequilas I can’t afford. The big boys (Sauza, Cuervo etc…) have multiple product lines which at first knowing only a few categories I mentioned above were confusing. But once put on a spectrum it makes a bit more sense.
Hornitos, Hacienda, and Tres Generationes are all product lines manufactured by the same manufacturer. All tequilas are labeled reposado, but aged for different amounts of time in different conditions, creating a variety of price options for the consumer. Of course there’s a number of variables which make it endlessly more complex, what size of barrel was it aged in, was the barrel charred, had it been previously used to age whiskey, wine etc…, but I’ll leave that to the professionals.
You can see a flow diagram of the entire process below, and I’m sure if you’re curious you can find plenty of other resources out on the web if you want to learn more, but for the sake of conversation I’m going to focus on one step.
Upon arrival there’s a variety of different ways that the starches in the piñas are converted to sugars. The traditional method is to place the piñas in a room size oven to cook them for up to three days. This is a slow process which has variation issues due to inability to cook the piñas in the middle of the oven the same amount of time as the piñas closer to the walls (think of fishsticks burnt on the outside, frozen in the middle). When I say variation issues, what that means to me, is something that the larger scale producers have a harder time controlling than the small scale guys. A small scale producer will have a smaller oven and most likely a guy watching each piña individually throughout the three days, able to move each piña around to ensure equal cooking. A large scale producer will eventually have a very large batch ruined due to an hourly employee (feeling detached from the process as a whole) and will follow it up with a root cause analysis. Once the cause is determined they’ll find a way to remove the subjective responsibility of a single employee.
The answer to speeding up the process and reducing variation is to grind the piñas up first, increasing surface area and therefore decreasing the amount of time required to cook the piñas. Then they can put the shreds into a dryer similar to the one you put your clothes in using convection to further decrease variation. How does this affect the quality of the tequila? I have no idea. The point is only that the purpose to this change in the process is not driven by increased quality, but by increased efficiency and decreased variation, and although some would argue, decreased variation is not by definition an increase in quality. You can reduce the standard deviation and lower the mean at the same time, which in manufacturing is very often the case. A McDonald’s hamburger may be crappy, but they do a damn good job ensuring it has exactly the same level of crappiness no matter what McDonalds you go to.
While touring the Suaza factory we saw a different method all together. They ground up and removed the liquids from the piñas before any “cooking” ever occurred. Their process increased the efficiency of the removal of sugars and starches from the piñas quite dramatically but skipped a whole step to the process. They then cooked the liquid in big pots converting the starches into sugars prior to the fermentation step. We were told that the cost of the efficiency was that their tequila did not have any “smokiness” to it. Is this the equivalent to not removing the seeds and stems from the grapes as described in Sideways? Only a tequila snob would be able to tell you that.