What Plant Does Tequila Come From
These semi-wild agave seeds will be planted in nurseries before the plantlets are returned to the wild. It takes a little more than 11 pounds of agave to make a bottle of tequila. Today, the average blue agave plant, the kind required to make tequila, weighs in at about 110 pounds or more.
The first thing that comes to mind when you think of tequila is an exotic drink made from fermented agave. But what exactly does it take for this spirit to become tequila?
It all begins with a native South American cactus species known as the “century plant.” This slow growing succulent has long spines and is also called a century plant because its age can easily be determined by counting the number of years since the last pinprick on the top of the spines was recorded. The oldest known century plant had been alive for around 150 years. Agaves have been used throughout history for food, fiber, medicine and even fuel [sources: Britton].
Agaves come in many shapes and sizes, but they’re most familiar as plants with thick, fleshy stems topped with clusters of flowers and small red berries. Some varieties grow straight up like trees (like the giant roble), while others resemble grasses (the yucca). There’s one type called a pitaya that resembles cantaloupe and another called a cholla whose pads resemble prickly pears. And there’s the aloe variety whose leaves look similar to elephant ears. They all thrive in arid climates thanks to their ability to store water within their thick cell walls.
Agaves may not be able to survive without humans helping them along, though. In fact, these semi-wild plants need our help if they hope to produce enough juice to become tequila. After harvesting, the fleshy stems are cut off just below where new growth buds begin to appear. Then the plant is laid out to dry in the sun or over hot rocks. When they’re ready, the stalks are crushed to release the sweet sap inside. That sap is collected and boiled into sugar syrup which gives tequila its distinctive sweetness.
Fermentation occurs during this process. First, bacteria break down the sugars in the agave sap, producing alcohol. Next, yeast completes the fermentation process that converts the alcohol into carbon dioxide gas. During this period, enzymes produced from the agave add color and flavor. Finally, distillers blend the liquid with salt and redistribute the mixture through charcoal filters that remove any remaining impurities. Once filtered, tequila is ready to be bottled.
But how much do you need to ferment to create a batch of good-quality tequila? Read on to find out.
Tequila Production Requirements
There are three main types of tequila production. Silver, reposado and añejo are the terms associated with each style. A silver tequila must undergo a 12-day aging process in wooden barrels; a posada tequila ages for two months; and an aged tequila matures for anywhere from six months to several years. Each day of aging produces an additional 1 percent concentration of alcohol. So, after the initial fermentation process, silver tequilas contain between 40 and 42 percent alcohol content, while posadas might have 50 percent alcohol. Aged tequila contains roughly 62 percent alcohol content.
To ensure quality, tequila producers use strict standards. All tequila must be 100 percent blue agave. No other ingredients besides water, sugar and heat can be added. Only white oak barrels are permitted for aging. Barrels must be charred so that they’ll impart some smoky flavors. To achieve this effect, the wood is heated until it reaches 300 degrees Fahrenheit (about 149 degrees Celsius) and then allowed to cool gradually. Once cooled, the wood is soaked in pure nitric acid prior to being filled with tequila. If the temperature rises above 85 degrees Farenheit (29 Celsus), the liquor goes bad. Before bottling, the product must be tested again to verify the alcohol level.
In addition to purity requirements, tequila makers work hard to avoid contamination. For example, they check every step of the process for foreign particles such as insects or other microorganisms. They also test samples for pesticides, herbicides and fungicides. And finally, every batch is given an official label indicating date of harvest, location of origin, type of agave grown, whether it was organic and, of course, the proper alcohol percentage.
Now that you know what makes tequila, let’s talk taste.
Taste and Flavor of Tequila
If you’ve tasted tequila, you probably noticed that it doesn’t taste very complex. However, the complexity of the flavors actually increases as the tequila ages. So don’t worry if your first experience with tequila left you underwhelmed. Many people believe that tequila tastes better the older it gets — especially if it’s aged in oak casks.
One reason why older tequila tends to be smoother is that the longer the agave stays in contact with the wood, the more time the agave has to transfer its own natural oils into the spirit. These oils contribute to the overall flavor and aroma. Of course, the length of aging also affects the color of the final product. As tequila ages, it becomes darker and richer in hue.
Some experts say that the best way to enjoy tequila is to sip it neat. Sipping, however, isn’t the only way to consume this popular beverage. Mixing tequila with soda, fruit juices, liqueurs, bitters and herbs creates unique drinks. You can also try adding chili peppers to give the tequila bite, or mix it with ice cubes. Or why not combine tequila with gin or vodka?
With all the different ways to enjoy tequila, you’d think that drinking would get old quickly. Actually, according to recent studies, we could be addicted to tequila! Researchers found that tequila drinkers consumed nearly twice as much per session compared to non-tequila drinkers. Why? Experts suggest that while tequila provides feelings of euphoria, it also causes dehydration. When taken too often, the effects of dehydration can lead to headaches, nausea and dizziness. Drinking tequila regularly can also increase calcium loss due to kidney stones and bone density problems.
So now you know everything about tequila: What it is, how it’s made and what happens once it’s done fermenting. Now that you’re armed with knowledge, you should be ready to go out and imbibe responsibly. But next time, maybe you’ll opt for a margarita instead.
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