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production is tightly coupled to agave production. The availability, or not, of agave has been felt directly by the tequila producer, with huge swings in production from the beginning of the 20th century. Today the required species for tequila, of the 200+ agaves available, is the blue agave or Agave tequiliana Weber. But not all tequila alcohol is made from agave sugars. In 1964, regulators were persuaded to allow up to 30% generic sweeteners for tequila fermentations, a rule softened in 1970 to allow up to 49% of other sugar sources, with both rule changes being motivated by agave shortages. As mentioned above, this latter situation persists to this day. The agave plant itself is often considered to be a relative of the cactus, but it is more closely related to asparagus (family Asparagaceae). This becomes clear if the agave is allowed to flower, when an asparagus-like shoot grows up to eight feet tall. Watched over by the jimadors, agave plants are monitored for their growth and maturity. When considered sufficiently ripe, they are harvested. For this occasion, the jimador typically sports gloves and leg protectors, as the spines on the leaves are highly irritant, containing tiny needles of calcium oxalate known as rahpides (oxalic acid causes rhubarb leaves to be toxic). These can readily penetrate the skin and are a common cause of contact dermatitis for many jimadors. Using a sharp hoe-like tool, a coa, the jimador cuts off the leaves, exposing white surfaces on the core, that give the resulting piña a look superficially similar to a pineapple. These piñas, weighing in at up to 200 lbs, are transported post haste for


processing. Consideration of how piñas are processed can spark lively debates. Tradition dictates that the agaves are crushed by a stone wheel driven by an animal such as a donkey (the Tahona process), although prior to the development of this process the agaves were, astoundingly, crushed by hand. Innovations toward the end of the 19th century saw the introduction of masonry ovens to cook the piñas rather than earthen pits. Today some distillers are using autoclaves with superheated steam to cut cooking times from 48 to 24 hours. These cooking processes release much of the sugar present in the piñas by hydrolyzing the fructans present, mainly inulin, into the fermentable fructose. This fructose, though, can also react to give other flavors and some contend that these flavor nuances can be missing if the piñas are autoclaved. Nevertheless, this discussion has made way for a far more contentious debate about the latest innovation around piña processing, that of the diffuser. These are machines that wash fermentable sugars from the shredded piñas. This can be a final step, to recover residual sugars after oven or autoclave cooking. More controversial though, is using the diffuser to recover sugars by washing with hot water with, perhaps, the addition of sulfuric acid that acts as a catalyst for the hydrolysis of fructans into fructose. The resulting juice is then cooked in an autoclave. The yields from the latter are undoubtedly higher but prevent the formation of many of the cooked agave flavors from the tequila. Sauza use this latter approach for all of their tequilas and describe their process as


Artisan Spirit: Spring 2018  
Artisan Spirit: Spring 2018  

The magazine for craft distillers and their fans.