¡Tequila! By Karyn Zoldan
Mix equal parts botany, science and Mexican agro-history then add a jigger of marketing to describe the culture of tequila.
Most of us who sip a margarita or savor a fine shot of tequila don’t wrap our brains around the complex question — where does tequila come from?
Mescal de tequila is the first mescal to be codified and recognized by its geographic origin of Tequila in the state of Jalisco, Mexico, and the only mescal known internationally by that name. But after reading ¡Tequila!, vivid images of blue valleys and hard labor come to mind.
This book is a collaboration between Ana G. Valenzuela-Zapata and Gary Paul Nabhan. Valenzuela-Zapata, who is a female horticultural agave expert in the male-dominated tequila industry, swims upstream by fighting to change the reliance of one genetic strain of agave while butting heads with the Mexican government and short-term profiteers. For the past 25 years, Nabhan has done research on agave conservation. He is the Director of the Center for Sustainable Environments at Northern Arizona University and co-founder of Native Seeds SEARCH.
Tequila has come a long way from a wild cowboy’s cheap drunk to artisan-like bottles filled with the finest of extra-aged mescal selling for $2,000. Don Javier Cenobio Sauza gets the credit for making a cottage business into a commercial agro-industry when with his American-born wife, brought tequila to the United States in the 1870s. Today there are about 30 companies legitimately distilling Mexican tequila packaged into more than 400 brands sold worldwide.
The authors quite aptly take us into the agave fields sweating side by side the generational-taught jimadores who seek out the mature agaves, strip the leaves, and remove the heavy heads (sometimes called pineapples) from the field. The word jimadores is derived from coa de jima, a tool with a sharp circular blade 15×20 centimeters in diameter attached to a wooden handle. This technique requires concentration, strength and grace as each movement is cleverly choreographed. In a field filled with busy jimadores, the roar of sounds resemble El Zorro’s sword in stereo.
Tequila making inherits ancient techniques combined with modern technology. The harvested pineapples are then pit-roasted and their caramel heads mashed into a filtered slurry concoction suitable for fermentation in masonry vats; now replaced by stainless steel autoclaves regulated by temperature gauges.
The object is to extract the sugary juices from the mescal plant, converting their complex carbohydrates into more easily digestible sugars that can be metabolized by yeasts to obtain a fermented alcoholic beverage.
Through fermentation, agave sugars are transformed into ethyl alcohol. Today fermentation is completed in 20,000 liter stainless steel tanks where mescal sugars, water and yeast are mixed in exact proportion based on each tequila company’s recipe.
The fermented mescal is put in stainless steel boilers for distillation where different boiling points of various compounds aid in the separation of gases each which condenses to add to the richness in flavor during the first run of distillation. The first “havoc-making” pass produces three wildly different strengths called the head, the heart and the tail. Together they’re called tequila ordinairio with an average 38-40 proof. Only the heart goes through the second distillation yielding 110-proof. The third or final distillation is the highest quality known as tequila blanco.
There are four distinct kinds of tequila: The classic blanco is clear as water often used in margaritas or served straight up over ice. Tequila oro or gold is more popular in the United States than Mexico. Flavored by caramels or seasoned in oak barrels, gold is used in margaritas or downed as shooters. Tequila reposado must rest or age in pine or oak barrels for at least two months. Aged tequilas have woody, vanilla and herbal aftertastes while never losing their agave aroma — perfect for sipping. Extra-aged tequila anejo is aged in small oak barrels for a minimum of one year. The quality varies from mellow to astringent to resembling a fruity cognac.
While distilled alcohol consumption dropped by 22 percent, tequila consumption rose 31 percent during the same time. An entire generation of tequila connoisseurs grew along with the increasing popularity of salsa, now surpassing ketchup as America’s most frequently consumed condiment.
As the demand for tequila rises, the supply becomes more and more vulnerable. Both authors worry about sustainability and the propensity of an agave monoculture susceptible to fungal plague. Recommended solutions of intercropping and cross-pollination of spatial agave mixtures have met less than eager ears perpetuating horticultural pause about future abundant production.
This book review appeared in the Tucson Weekly in 2004.
Buy the book – ¡Tequila!
A Natural and Cultural History, book authored by By Ana G. Valenzuela-Zapata and Gary Paul Nabhan, University of Arizona Press, 2004, $14.95 (paperback)