Agave, the primary constituent of mezcal, is a succulent plant that was an important nutrient and medicinal source for southwestern American tribes.
The most common variety used for the drink’s production is espadín, a cultivated maguey requiring eight years to mature in the ground, in comparison to other rare and sought-after wild species, like tobalá, which can take up to 25 years to reach a sufficiently ripe stage. In pre-Hispanic Mexico, the maguey was revered as a sacred plant, holding a prominent position in religious rituals.
In another part of the globe, according to Greek mythology, Agave was the goddess of desire who helped raise the infant Dionysus – the father of bacchanals and profound inebriation, which might explain a lot about the plant’s equally well-nurtured nectar.
The prickly plant with its fleshy pointy tongues was personified in Mayahuel, the Mexican goddess of fertility and nourishment. Perhaps the agave most of us know is in the form of a fad syrup that was supposedly a healthy alternative to sugar – yet another myth surrounding the plant, but that’s a different story.
More so than anything else, the maguey is blessed with the clear juice that gives us the superior liquor.
Due to the long growing cycle, each agave represents an influence of the whole epoch of time – not just a single season. Agave generally reaches maturity in the plant’s 8th or 9th year of life, but it can take as long as 12 years in the high elevations of Los Altos. However, not all agaves planted at the same time will mature in the same year. As a result, the plantation is generally harvested out during 4 consecutive years and jimadores keep returning to the field seeking out and harvesting the mature plants. Because of this, Me has no vintage where one year of production is better than another, as we often see in wine.
To produce Mezcal, the ripened agaves are hand-selected and manually harvested. Mature piña can weigh 80 to 220 pounds and is spotted with red blotches around the stubs (called sangre – or blood), which indicates ripeness and a good balance of sugar and acidity.
Harvested at its prime, such agaves result in flavorful, full-bodied Mezcal with complex taste and aroma. If the agave is harvested too early the sugar content will be poor, resulting in a product of inferior taste and flavor; and if the plant is allowed to ripe for too long, the agave will have produced a quiote – a flowering stem, which consumes all the sugars. After it happens, the agave plant is no longer good for tequila production.
To harvest the piña, the jimador cuts the plant loose from its roots and removes the spiky leaves from the piña with a special razor-sharp tool called a coa. The resulting piña resembles a gigantic white-and-green pineapple. A skilled jimador averages 50 to 60 piñas in a day’s work. The agave hearts are then loaded up on a truck and transported to a distillery for processing. It takes about 17 pounds of agave piña to produce 1 liter of 100% Mezcal.
The process for mezcal-making begins with the cooking, causing the hydrolysis of the polysaccharides of the maguey, since the insulin is not very soluble in water and not fermentable in direct form. Next, the heads or pineapples go to the mill process, which is carried out in a flour or Chilean mill with the purpose of extracting the juices. The waste pulp still has a high content of sugars after the mill process. For this reason this waste pulp is re-hydrated in a laundry tub together with the effluviums coming from the ovens. This waste pulp is then placed in a press in order to extract even more juice. The juices obtained in this way are taken to the fermentation tubs where diammonic phosphate is added with the purpose of favoring the development of yeast.
This is the process of tearing the fibers of cooked agave piñas to extract their juices. Some separate the bagasse (or fiber) from the juice of piñas, some do not.
Like anything there are different ways:
TAHONA OR STONE MILL: (Artisanal) Using animal or human power, the cooked piñas are pressed in a wheel mill by turning a large stone pulled by force. The result is a mixture of fiber and juice that serves to prepare the fermentation broth.
PRESSES: (Artisanal) This technology is rarely used because it is not as efficient. It consists of the mechanical squeezing of the piñas.
MANUAL GRINDING: (Artisanal) Involves hitting and smashing the piñas with sticks, machetes or emboli to obtain juice and fiber. This process is mainly used in some villages in Michoacan, Puebla and Guerrero.
MILLS: (Modern, industrial) Consists of a series of mechanical mills that tear, squeeze and wash the fibers of cooked piñas for a juice rich in sugars. The fibers are separated and do not participate in subsequent processes. This system is very common in medium and large production.
DIFUSOR: (Post-modern, industrial) The diffuser works with raw agave. Through a system of mills, it tears the raw piñas and uses steam for extracting the sugars. It is very efficient. Tens of tons can be processed per day. The raw juice is then hydrolyzed at high temperatures in high-pressure autoclaves. Many tequilas and some low-quality mezcals use this technology.
FERMENTATION VATS: Fermentation tubs come in various sizes and materials that affect the final taste of the product. Smaller sized vats are usually between 200 to 500 liters and often made of clay, cement or cowhide. The typical fermentation vat used in Oaxaca is between 1,000 to 2,000 liters and made of wood, normally pine or oak. Unfortunately, plastic containers are also used that can range from 1,000 to 5,000 liters. Typical industrial level fermentation vats are usually stainless steel and can range from 5,000 to 50,000 liters.
YEAST, MICROORGANISMS AND ADDITIVES: The fermentation of the juices is conducted primarily by microorganisms called yeast. Other organisms, like bacteria, contribute very significantly to the flavor of mezcal, as well. Most artisanal mezcal producers wait for the natural yeasts and bacteria to slowly ferment musts and juices. Others will use selected or isolated yeasts, as these generally offer more consistent results in the product. In addition to yeast, some producers use nutrient salts to accelerate the fermentation process.
STILLS: Stills can be of different sizes and materials, but they generally operate on the same principles. The juice is loaded with or without fiber, then heated using wood, gas or steam to start the evaporation process. A cap on the back (called the “overburden”) captures fumes and leads to a serpentine, which is generally immersed in a water tank or in contact with a cooling system. This is where the fumes cool and condense into fluid again. The stills are usually made of metals (like copper or steel), but you may find some traditional stills made of mud, stone or even reeds. The product is usually distilled at least twice, and it is very important to know where to “cut,” or select those pleasant distillates from the unpleasant ones.
DISTILLATION COLUMNS: These are large columns where high-temperature steam interacts with the musts or juices, producing an instantaneous evaporation of the latter. Due to the weight and density of the evaporated compounds in the column, it is possible to “milk” them, or remove a selection. The columns are industrially used not only for beverages but in the petrochemical industry to reduce costs and deliver very clean products (which have little complexity of flavors and aromas).
The resulting alcohol proof in the mezcal is variable. The one obtained directly from the still delivers mezcals between 47% and 65% alcohol by volume. These are often adjusted with water, either by adding water in the same still or from another source after the distillation is finished. The alcoholic strength of artisanal mezcal depends on the flavor profile that the producer is looking to establish.
Although the finished mezcal does not require any process to be extraordinary, it is common to add flavoring or abouchement process. Some of these are traditional to their regions, using local fruits and herbs like lemon verbena or nanche. Others, inspired by European processes, use barrels for aging. Adding worms and insects, like scorpions, also has an effect on the taste, and is not necessarily always positive. It is typically a response to marketing rather than quality. In industrial products, it is not uncommon to use artificial flavorings and additives.
Thanks to Mezcal.com for the amazing video’s