[indent]I was up at 5 a.m. on Saturday, showered, dressed and out for early breakfast with a few bleary-eyed compatriots. Morning was cool, refreshing, but not cold. I topped my scrambled eggs with a nice green salsa made with tomatillo, avocado and cilantro while we chatted about the day ahead.
After breakfast, I shuffled my luggage out of the room and to the bus, noticing how much heavier it had become with two bottles of tequila, and a couple more books inside. The group straggled onto the bus, unusually quiet this morning, while others got into their cars and headed for Guadalajara. The bus left at 7:05 - damn close to Harry's schedule.
The ground along the highway is rocky, strewn with volcanic rock, some ridges jutting out of the soil like giant knuckles. The pointed leaves of the agave poke up everywhere, in the most unlikely places. Precariously steep hillsides sport tiny pastures of agave, while large fields retreat into the morning mist.
The views are spectacular at times, with the valley laid out below us, the road crossing small canyons, and carving right through the shoulder of the mountain. The geography of the region, with its creases of mountain and valley, creates several micro-climates within the overall environment. An early morning mist hung over some low areas, softening the vista.
I had some time to ponder the last three days as we drove. It's certainly been a historic tour, unforgettable for the 36 of us. For me, more exciting, enlightening and enjoyable than I ever expected. And what a group - we managed to get along so well it's like we've been friends for years. As we drove, I overheard the others sharing experiences, swapping stories, filling in the gaps the others missed so our collective memories are complete.
One of the more disturbing stories being repeated is the suggestion of 'cheating' by some companies (not those on the tour). They stack their ovens with other agave - mezcal agave in some cases - but put blue agave at the front to fool the inspectors.
Another comment was made on how some companies chop the cabezas into small pieces, others into halves, some seem to cook them whole. Not everyone seemed to remove the base of the quiote, either - it's one of those details perhaps not all companies pay attention to. But the tour members did. Nothing escaped their analytical gaze.
Our trip Saturday would take us east into the highlands called Los Altos. Tequila - the place and the drink - is not a single experience. The industry is divided along and east-west axis, with Guadalajara as the pivot. While the historic focus is on Tequila and its environs, the highlands differ in many aspects; geographically, environmentally and in production methods.
A thick haze hung over Guadalajara as we entered the morning traffic. We pulled off the highway to the hotel where the drivers were waiting to be picked up. It's a big, fancy hotel, not at all like the simple little place in Tequila. We started out again after a brief stop, but had to back up to get Drew, who wasn't aboard. Then we got back on the highway for the 90-minute drive to Arandas.
Once outside of Guadalajara, heading east, the traffic thinned. I got to watch the Mexican landscape unfold from the front seat. Harry was fretting a bit about the travel time, but the driver was confident we'd get to our next stop on time. I could tell we were getting close, when the median of the highway became decorated with rows of blue agave.
Our first stop was Espolon (Destiladora San Nicolas), a small distillery tucked off the highway on a small cobblestone back-road. The driver had to ask some locals for directions, and soon we were heading into the farm country, way off the beaten path, where the blue agave grows in brick-red soil.
The bus pulled up to a surprising modern-looking plant, a few kilometers outside of a pueblita. We were greeted by Cirilo Oropeza y Hernandez, the plant manager, who welcomed us inside to a high-ceilinged lobby. We went upstairs for a short video in Spanish, learned that Espolon started making 100% agave tequilas in 1998. Then he began the tour, taking us downstairs and outside.
Espolon's processes were similar to those we'd seen before, but the plant looked shiny and new. Cirilo told us they use a large cutter to quarter the agave heads before cooking, and the resulting must is fermented for 72 hours. Both Espolon and Corazon tequilas are made here, but with different profiles.
There are 12 large fermenting tanks, each with a capacity of 61-62,000 litres. Over the noise of the plant we could hear strains of classical music being pumped through speakers. Cirilo explained the music helped enhance yeast growth. "Yeast sways to the rhythm of music."
He also told us Espolon hires mostly women - 80 percent of his workers were female. Cirilo believed women made better workers in many jobs, and were more detail-oriented than their male counterparts. While perhaps true, this caused some minor blustering among the detail-oriented males in the group (the two holders of the notebooks, Mike and myself).
In the lab, Cirilo showed us samples of the yeast (levadura) used, small whitish clumps in a petri dish - this is the natural yeasts taken from the agave and grown on cultures. They take the yeast four times a year, once in each season, and the yeasts are kept separate. Throughout the tour, I felt Espolon had a scientific and technical focus ion production.
Espolon distills two or three times. The second distillate is tested and analysed in the lab to see if the quality is sufficient, and if anything in the production process needs to be adjusted. If required, a third distillation is done.
Cirilo told us Espolon uses new barrels for its aņejo (the opposite of Herradura), then reuse them for their reposado. The result is that the two are similar in colour.
The tour over, we were led to the cafeteria where antojitos were laid out on the long tables, along with numerous bottles of tequila for our tasting. We asked about the plastic pour spouts on the bottles, and were told they were the industry's response to counterfeiting, to prevent the bottles being refilled. We'd heard tales of bottles of premium tequilas being spirited out of the distilleries to be sold in local bars, so the stoppers were only a partial measure.
I found the blanco smooth, with a bit of alcohol bite afterwards, and a long finish. The reposado was smooth, with good agave nose. The aņejo was full of butterscotch and vanilla, and a bit sweet.
Harry and some others tried to buy products, but some were politely told no, all products of some lines were exported to the USA, and were not sold in Mexico. The tax laws, we were told, made it difficult for some producers to sell in Mexico. This of course doesn't make visitors who come all this way very happy. I think several of our members were disappointed by that and it could hurt tourism. Some tour members were able to buy other products, just not those slated for export only.
At 12:15, we climbed back aboard the magic bus, and headed back to the highway, then into Arandas. On the way we discussed the problems of the looming glut in agave. The price of agave has risen and fallen sharply over the years. It reached a peak of 18 pesos per kilo a few years ago, plummeted to about 50 centavos (1/2 of a peso, or about 5 cents US) a kilo, and is around 2 pesos per kilo today (thanks to Sarita for this clarification - more details would be welcome). regardless of the exactness, it does not bode well for the industry - if the price remains low or falls, farmers will again give up agave planting and go for cash crops like corn and beans that have more immediate return (agaves don't pay back their investment for about eight years). We could see an agave shortage in the future if this happens.
We passed several fields full of mature agave, but in disrepair, overgrown with weeds, untrimmed brown leaves, and quiotes aplenty. Many had leaves grown so long and tall they touched one another, and all sense of planted rows was lost.
Arandas is larger than Tequila, with a reputation for being more lively, with a good night life. It has a beautiful, gothic cathedral that dominates the landscape, and at the street level the outskirts of town seemed more lively and more bustling than Tequila had.
We were met along the highway by Carlos Camarena Curiel, the owner of El Tapatio. He led us in his truck for another 30 or so minutes along the back roads, until we finally had to stop and get out. From here, the remainder of the trip was not possible in a big bus. We boarded waiting pick-up trucks and cattle trucks, to complete the trip.
El Tapatio's distillery - La Alteņa, or lady of the highlands - is hidden down a narrow, bumpy country lane between fields of agave. From the outside, it is plain, almost nondescript. But for aficionados, their tequila isn't. Some of El Tapatio's products - their El Tesoro de Don Felipe aņejo for example - are the holy grail for serious tequila drinkers.
Carlos gave us the tour we'd come to expect, this time without the obligatory jimador to show how the agaves are cut and trimmed. We began at the ovens where Carlos explained his workers cut the quiote stalk from the female agave, and from the male they cut the "cebolla" from the top - an area equivalent to the quiote. This was the first I'd heard that agave have male and female plants, and despite being shown both, don't think I could easily recognize the difference without a lot more practice. Perhaps removing the top section from both eliminates the need to determine gender.
The first juices from the baking agave are called "bitter honey" because they contain wax and dirt that runs off the plants. After two hours in the ovens, Tapatio removes this juice to keep the rest from being bitter. Then the heads get cooked another 36 hours. The long cooking breaks up the inulin - long chains of starch molecules used to store carbohydrates in plants - into fermentable sugars. The yeast, Carlos explained, can't digest the long chains to excrete alcohol and CO2.
At this point, we met up with Ron Cooper from Del Maguey mezcals, who had come along to join us for this part, and would later present his products at our farewell dinner that night. Ron brought with him two other men - Francisco "Pancho" Martinez, his manager (and a master Zapotec weaver), and his Zapotec mezcalero for Chichicapa mezcal, Faustino Garcia Vasquez, who was on his first trip outside Oaxaca. Both men were very interested in the equipment and spent a lot of time examining it and talking about it with each other.
Then we were shown the tahona. El Tapatio still uses the old stone wheel to make their El Tesoro tequilas, but use the more modern shredder for their Tapatio brand. Ron mentioned the tahona is still used for mezcal in Oaxaca. 30 years ago, Tapatio replaced the traditional mule to pull the stone with a tractor for health reasons.
Carlos explained the tahona put more fibre into the wort, and the wet pulp was carried into the tanks for the fermentation. It gave the tequila a much stronger agave flavour, he said, and that's what they wanted. Since El Tapatio aņejo seems thinner to me than El Tesoro aņejo, I began to believe the tahona's contribution to the taste was significant.
The must ferments for 72-96 hours in small wooden vats, the time required depending on the season (longer for winter). No commecial yeast is used, just the natural wild yeast from the agave, isolated and reproduced. Carlos said they were still using yeasts his grandfather cultivated 70 years ago, some kept frozen to preserve them, but others kept alive by adding liquid to the culture.
Tapatio doesn't use any accelerators to speed up fermentation. "It's an entirely natural process, we don't use any shortcuts."
The vats were made of pine by Carlos' grandfather, and painted by his father. Every eight to ten years, the vats need to have parts replaced or renewed. Carlos said he preferred the natural wood look, and was letting the paint wear off on its own. He prefers wood over stainless steel because it is a natural isolator from the environment. besides, it's traditional. "We don't want to lose our roots. We come from five generations who raised agaves or made tequila. We want to preserve those roots."
Tapatio grows their own agaves, too, and don't use any pesticides on the fields. The agave fibres are used as natural fertilizers, and no chemicals are used. Even their labels are put on with flour and water, not a commercial glue.
Once the fermentation is finished, the mosto is dead. Carlos likened it to a diamond, "We can make a diamond shine, or we can destroy it." And to make it shine, they distill it. The heads and tails are removed from the distillate because they contain "superior alcohols" and compounds from fermentation in the heads. The tails have methanol and compounds with heavier molecular weight. The middle - the heart - is the best.
The heart creates ordinario, about 25 percent alcohol. This is re-distilled in smaller copper stills, because copper interacts with the tequila and adds flavour, about 2 ppm. But as a result, copper sublimates, and parts need to be replaced as the metal gets too thin. The stills work at 85-90C to recover the most alcohol, and almost none of the water.
The large stills are about 600 litre capacity, the smaller ones 350l. His grandfather's stills are still in use where possible, although parts have not been made for the past 40 years. So Tapatio is cautiously testing a new tequila using a new, larger still, and may soon release another 100% agave tequila using it - the size of the still, Carlos warned, imparts a different flavour.
The heads and tails are also removed in the second distillation here, leaving a tequila that's about 80-83 proof. This is unique, the only distillery that distills to that proof - most distill to 100-150 proof, then dilute with water. But Carlos' grandfather told him he didn't care if it was holy water being added, "Why add something new to a five-year-old barrel?"
Since the barrels lose alcohol, however, Tapatio distills some tequila to 100 proof twice a year, to add to the barrels to restore the weaker tequilas to their original proof.
Once again we were struck at the combination of scientific and engineering expertise these distillers possessed, in parallel with their artistic ability to make a good tequila.
Tapatio produces about 300,000 litres of tequila a year, and sells about that amount. However, they have 1 million litres in storage at present.
We went into a small shed where a large wooden barrel holds the reposado. Carlos poured some into a traditional cow's horn, explaining how the horn developed into today's caballito. It was used so customers couldn't put their drink down and linger at the taverna - the old name for a distillery, a century ago - so they moved through faster. He filled up a horn from a spigot on the tank and passed it around to the group.
The we had lunch, a nice spread of traditional Mexican dishes, like a field worker's lunch. For the first time, we were offered pop and beer instead of tequila. I was happy to have a refreshing Corona for a change.
After lunch, we looked into the barrel cellar, built in 1957. Carlos told us the red soils were the result of a high iron content in the soil, but also in the water. The barrel cellar was below ground level, and below the water table. There was a pipe from which the natural, pure spring water leaked out, leaving a rusty stain on the wall. We tasted the water from the pipe and the mineral content was immediately evident.
The local pueblita is called El Nacimiento, meaning The Spring, or more literally, where water is born from the earth. The local water imparts some of its flavour to the tequila.
While most of the barrels are white oak, their Paradiso is aged in red oak (I have not ever been able to find this tequila in my travels, so it remains one of those I have only been able to read about).
Carlos said there was an eight-month window of opportunity to harvest a ripe agave, before it aged too much and began to rot in the field. But in fields where people took better care of their plants, more damage from the fusarium fungus was evident. So careful balance must be maintained in the care.
He told us the average sugar content of agaves in the highlands was 26-27 percent, compared to 23-24 percent around Tequila, while in Tapatio's fields the average was 27 to 30 percent.
Tapatio's new bottle was questioned, but Carlos assured us only the bottle design had changed, and the contents were the same. In Mexico, the old bottle is still used, while in the US, the new one is used.
Since Tapatio has two locations, it was time to head into town to complete the tour. We crammed into the remaining vehicles - the spacious cattle truck had vanished - most of us tightly stuffed into a pickup truck, for the return to the bus. Good thing we had developed a fair sense of intimacy in the previous three days!
Even from afar, the cathedral of Arandas is stunning, its huge spires sticking up over the skyline like the sharp pencas of the blue agave. How appropriate, I thought, as we drove into town.
Tapatio's bottling plant, and its second storage area, is almost right downtown. It was Carlos' grandfather's house, converted to serve the company. At the front there's a n an office with a small store where visitors can buy some Tapatio products. A framed photograph of Don Felipe Camarena (1927-2003) greets everyone entering the house.
In the basement, we absorb the rich agave aromas that permeate the cellar, expressing themselves gently from the hundreds of barrels stored there. Here, under the house, Carlos said, they have an evaporation rate of only 2-3 percent a year, sometimes less, compared to 8-10 percent above ground.
Carlos has been experimenting with different types of charring in barrels, and had 15-20 red-oak barrels them lined up, separate for the others in the cellar, each sealed by the CRT for the past five years. Carlos looked around for a tool to open one, and, unable to find anything better, used a screwdriver and a shovel blade to pop the cork out of one of the barrels. Then he siphoned some of the contents into a bottle, while his niece handed out tiny plastic sampling cups.
Another historic moment: not only were we the first people to taste this 'experimental' aņejo, but because it was only a small batch, it may not be enough quantity produced for commercial sale. It may only ever stay within Carlos' family and private circle. What an honour for all of us, perhaps the highlight of the trip!
He held the bottle up to show us. It was dark copper, with brass highlights. He swirled the bottle, and examined the 'legs.' "Tequila, like a woman, should have beautiful legs," he said. The long legs should be continuous, and not break quickly, to show the tequila has retained its essential oils.
Then he poured it into our eager cups.
I thought some members of our group were going to cry, it was so good. Rich, with butterscotch, vanilla, and a dark chocolate aftertaste. The perfect aņejo. Carlos suggested he might call it his "cigar blend" - the nonsmokers in our group flinched, but there is a popular association between tequila and cigars, one of the last places tobacco has any marketing sway. I would have chosen a different name, but then I'm not the maker.
There was a reverent silence as we enjoyed the tequila. Then everyone began talking at once, expressing their appreciation of this wondrous spirit, trying to describe it.
We retreated upstairs, following Carlos and the bottle, freshly topped up with more tequila. He had his niece bring a similar bottle of El Tapatio Excelencia - a similar, five-year-old aņejo, aged in white oak - so we could compare the two. This was a new product, too, and not on the market yet, so our historic event was double exciting! In comparison, I found the Excelencia very, very good, but the other was simply better.
Harry, who only drinks aņejos, was in his element and beaming over his cups. He'd been getting a little grumpy, trying to get us to all be on time - a bit like trying to herd 36 cats. We weren't the most punctual group, and had a tendency to wander off, so we tried our team leader's patience more than once (I think I contributed to his ire a few times myself).
Back at the store, some of us bought some Tapatio products. ever the gracious host, Carlos gave us several cartons of his Tapatio aņejo, so we'd each get a bottle to bring home. As well, he let us take El Tapatio T-shirts for free, so we brought some souvenirs home as well. We walked back to the bus in a buzz.
The bus left Arandas in the late afternoon, heading back to Guadalajara and our last night as a group. Ron Cooper and his friends tagged along in their own vehicle.
One of the cartons of El Tapatio was opened, and a bottle passed around. Then a bottle of Juan's "El Sectreto" blanco - another new product not on the market - was opened. TPO had managed to get a small bottle with some of the experimental aņejo, too, so in short order, we were feeling pretty mellow.
Harry took the time to use the bus' PA system to thank everyone for their contributions, Chelle spoke, Mike spoke, so did several others even I spoke. The general message was "wow, you people are great, what a fabulous time we've had!"
We got to the hotel Tapatio in Guadalajara about 30 minutes late - and missed Ana Valanzuela, who had come to meet us for the dinner. She left, and I was unable to contact her by phone. Ana is the world's authority on agave production for tequila, and I really wanted to meet her and hear her talk about her subject.
I hurriedly changed and made my way to the dining room, where the others were gathering. There was a wedding party in the next room, and the band was wailing loudly, making it difficult to hear anyone more than a few feet away.
Fina Estampa had provided a special treat for us - bottles of their reposado or blanco, with our names individually engraved on the wooden stands.
Ron Cooper set up his mezcals and during dinner led the group on a tasting of all of his products. Having sampled these exquisite mezcals in the past, I was appreciative of his spirits, but I think they were a little strong and sultry for most of the group, coming as they did on the heels of two superb aņejos. Even the rare triple-distilled Pechuga and Tobala (wild, shade-grown agaves) were only modestly appreciated among the groups I was sitting with. I was pleased, however, to get to try his Crema de mezcal, made by adding aguamiel to his Minero mezcal.
Ron used the traditional clay mezcal cups - fashioned after a small half-gourd - for our tasting. He explained that the espadin agave used is sweeter than the blue agave, and is genetically the 'mother' or ancestor of the blue agave.
He also gave us a brief talk on the process of making mezcal and how it differs from tequila. One of the tradtiional practices is to put the cooked heads in the shade for seven days to begin fermentation naturally, before they are ground by the tahona. Mezcals are not aged in wood, but stored in stainless steel tanks, to retain their flavour.
Ron offered to let me take back the remainder of the pechuga, but - sadly, for it was the last of its kind for a while - I couldn't bring back an opened bottle.
At the end of the night, Harry handed me the certificates from Herradura to sign, and then we distributed them among the members. With the wedding party music starting up again, most of the group accepted a hotel invitation to move to another bar to finish. Since I had to be up at five to catch a plane, I made my farewells, and headed back to my room.
Just before I went to bed, I stood on my room's balcony and looked down on the lights of Guadalajara, thinking about the past few days. It had been a great trip, an unforgettable one, and a historic event for all of us. I'd made new friends, gained new insight into the industry, and had one of the best times of my life. At almost every step, every event, I had been amazed at how well we'd been received, how well hosted we'd been, how generous our host were. I kept thinking, "We'll never top this moment," and, of course, we did. There were so many 'firsts' for us - and our hosts - that it was difficult to keep track of them all.
In the end, it was more, it was better than I had imagined it could be. I was sad to be going home, but I was also exhausted. My cold was still dragging me down, I'd been on the run for four days, and I was tired. I could have continued on for a few more days - but only if I'd been able to get a day of rest. Instead, I was heading home.
I owe a great deal of gratitude and appreciation for Harry (Reifer) and Blanca, for their generosity in getting me on the trip, in their patience and friendship, and especially to Harry for his leadership - for organizing the tour, for guiding us and making sure we got on the bus on schedule, and for making sure we had a sample of a full range of experiences, from the largest to the smallest distiller, from Tequila to Aranadas.