[indent]On our way to our seventh tour, at the end of day three, most of us were pretty confident we'd see and done it all, distillery-wise. We'd seen the large and small, we'd seen the traditional and the modern. Could there be anything new?
It turned out that, yes, there was a lot we still hadn't seen. There were still many surprises in store for us, and every stop added to our understanding.
Los Abuelos is located not far from Tequilas Finos where we had toured earlier in the day. From the train station, you can see the house - La Casa de Cielo - at the top of the hill, surrounded by the agave fields. But the narrow streets - where two cars had difficulty passing - and lack of suitable places to turn around presented a problem to the large bus we occupied. Once again our driver proved his skill - he blithely turned the bus around at the bottom of the hill and backed up the rest of the way. The man never ceased to amaze us.
Los Abuelos is owned and operated by Guillermo Erickson Sauza, one of the families that made tequila what it is today. The company, Sauza, had been sold several years ago to a foreign company, but Guillermo had kept some of the land, and decided to set out on his own to create a traditional, small-scale tequila company. The family's plant at this site had closed in 1968, but Guillermo acquired it and kept growing agaves. In 2004, he started producing his own tequila.
We walked into the compound and along a roadway lined with various fruit and flowering trees. We passed some pomegranate trees, something I hadn't seen in Mexico before, the heavy fruit hanging from the branches.
On both sides of the road were agave fields, and where we turned to head towards the house, we saw a very large pond, large enough to have a small island on it, with a remarkable suspension bridge that spanned the 200 or so feet from the shore to the island. The island is La Isla de Amistad - the Island of friendship. When the Tequila Express ran, it was a stop on the tour.
There's also a small farmyard - more like a miniature petting zoo - with turkeys, chickens, ducks and goats in it. It was clean and immaculately kept. We watched the antics of the tom turkey for a few minutes before we started up the hill - along some of the 3.5 kms of cobblestone road on the estate.
Guillermo greeted us, bringing a truck for those who didn't want to walk up the hill, and also a passenger who would prove of interest to many of us - Christine, former manager and personal assistant to Guillermo's grandfather and father. Guillermo proved a gracious host and tour guide, speaking fluent English.
As we walked, he pointed out some of the 250 different species of flowering tress planted on the estate by his grandfather, giving us the names and origin of all of them. He pointed out the pochote tree - the buttercup tree - with its large yellow flowers, the tacoma with its pink blossoms, the bahinia tree, also called the Hong Kong orchid, as well as three varieties of avocado tree, macadamia nut trees, even lichee nut trees.
The roadway is lined with flowering shrubs and bushes that have grown so large that they reach over the road and form a natural bridge. Walking past them brought wafts of their sweet perfume at every step.
The place spoke of money, but also of taste. Guillermo maintains his grandfather's property with the same pride and care.
Los Abuelos is in its own microclimate. The agave needs sun, heat and good drainage to grow properly. Guillermo told us that agaves growing close to the stone walls and fences that border the fields did better and grew larger because of the reflected sun and heat. That's one of the reasons to weed the fields- weeds cause shade.
Another problem is a beetle that bores into the plants. Guillermo said it causes about 5 percent loss every year that has to be replanted.
In February and March, the pups - rhizomes - at about 1.5 years old, are removed from the mother plants, cleaned up and left to dry out. The leaves are also trimmed.
The distillery proved to be the smallest operation we had seen to date, with the oldest equipment in use. The boiler, for example, was made in New York in 1905 - a century ago, but still kept in use. The oven is small - it can take 15.5-16.5 tons (tonnes?) only. Agaves are cooked for 24 hours, then left to cool for another 12 hours. One cooking produces 1,500 litres of miles, which Guillermo said was rated 14-17 bricks of sugar. Los Abuelos had cooked 14 loads since the distillery opened.
There in the centre of the tiny distillery as a working tahona. Not a museum piece, it still had agave pulp in it. This one wasn't stone, however, but made of four different types of wood (white and red oaks, rosewood and another I missed). The post that holds it to the centre pivot is called the esteche - it's a single piece of tree. Guillermo explained that, when properly set up and operated, the tahona moves in and out of the well on its own. However, he admitted it took some time to figure it out because few people had the skills to operate it these days.
The advantage of the tahona, he told us, was that the 'stone' doesn't rip up the agave fibres like the crushing machines. Los Abuelos was the only place we saw on our tour that use the tahona full time - most companies have them as museum pieces.
The fermenting tank is the old, original wooden tank. Guillermo told us that making wooden tanks is a lost art, and costs today about five times what stainless steel costs to make. The juices ferment for four to five days and when they're done, have about .5 brick of sugar in them (the industry standard is .1 to .4).
The old stills are still working, too. The first one holds 400 litres and produces tequila ordinario at 20 percent alcohol. The second is smaller, at 250 litres. It makes tequila at up to 43 percent, which is cut back to 40.
The economics of tequila are interesting. Guillermo told us that of 30,000 litres of liquid produced from the ovens, there are only 10,000 left after the first distillation, and 2,500 after the second.
The bottle Guillermo uses is handmade, each bottle individually blown by craftsmen. Even the tops - looking like miniature trimmed agave heads - are handmade. Because of the hand-crafted nature, each bottle is unique, slightly different from the others. They're heavy glass, too.
Then we entered the caves, built into the hillside under the house. Guillermo hopes to use them as the company's barrel cellar once he gets the proper lighting system in place (his barrels are currently stored nearby in a small warehouse). Los Abuelos ages its reposado 11 months, and its aņejo two years.
Our tasting took place in the dark caves, lit only by hundreds of candles, mostly in paper bags, where tables had been set up and a flight of tequilas laid out. In the romantic candlelight we were also serenaded by a guitarist-singer with a good voice, who walked between the tables, his music echoing off the walls in the confined space. There were also some small plates of appetizers on the table.
The blanco was my favourite - strong agave, slighlty oily finish, and no alcohol burn. The reposado had citrus highlights in the nose, and a light wood taste. The aņejo was more woody, with a hint of butterscotch, and the agave was still present.
I had a chance to meet the artist who designed most of the work at Los Abuelos - Augustine Cedeņo - who promised to send me some of his paintings to put online. I'm looking forward to getting them.
Another note: the artwork on the labels for the Los Abuelos bottles was designed by Mark Cannon, one of our tour members, and author/webmaster of Pocotequila.com and Big Bang Graphics. Pretty amazing and talented artist, in my humble opinion, very classy stuff. be sure to check him out.
After the tasting, we left the caves, and made our way back to the street to board the bus. But we weren't finished yet. Guillermo's hospitality was extended to give us a private tour of the Sauza family museum, in downtown Tequila, and then to join hin in dinner in the museum's courtyard. Guillermo accompanied us on the bus to the museum, talking about the business, about the plants and about the region.
One of the things Guillermo mentioned was that the Tequila region was being promoted by the Tequila Chamber (Camara Regional de la Industria Tequila) as a world heritage site and had applied to the UN for the designation. It iss listed as one of the tentative sites on the World Heritage website for the "Agave Landscape and Ancient Industrial Facilities in Tequila, Jalisco."
We toured the museum, looking at photos showing several generations of Sauzas, reminded how important this family was to the development of the indusrty. Faded, sepia-toned photos of old Cenobio were counterpointed by more modern pictures of Javier's grandfather and father. The old house was rich with tales of the company's glorious past. While not as slick or polished as Cuervo's museum, it had more of a family feel about it.
We also got to meet Guillermo's mother, who stopped by to welcome us as we enjoyed dinner and sipped tequila. I had the opportunity to talk with Sarah about her university project, on the Denomination of Origin classification, as well as to talk a little politics with the others at the table.
The small gift shop in the museum also sold artwork, clothing, books and, of course, tequila. I got a poster of the town. Guillermo allowed us to purchase some of his exquisite Los Abuelos tequilas, and I got a bottle of the blanco as well. He graciously signed it, as did his mother and Christine. Unfortunately, I missed the opportunity to get Augustine to sign my bottle.
The group slowly broke up, some going back to the hotel by bus, others simply walking the four blocks. I chose the latter, stopping first at a small Internet cafe to check email with Sarah and Sarita. I then went off on my own, poking about in the late evening. The benches in the square behind the church wwere occupied by lovers, kissing and hugging in the twilight. Friday night, the town seemed alive and active, with vendors on the zocalo, music in the air and people milling about in the warm Mexican night.
Back at the hotel, I joined a few of the members having a taste in the lobby again. By this time, my cold was making itself known, and I wasn't feeling my best or brightest, so I declined the invitation to join the group at another local bar. Instead, I retreated to my room to rest, read and take the inevitable cold caplets.
Day three ended on a high note. The friendly reception and the genuine warmth from Guillermo had really topped off the day.
We had to be up early for our last day, since we were checking out and taking a bus to Los Altos and Arandas - the highlands east of Guadalajara. It would be a three-hour bus trip, including a stop at the hotel in Guadalajara to pick up members who had come to Tequila by car. I packed my bags, checked my alarm, and slipped off to sleep.