producing “fresh pressed agave.” Once the juice is prepared, however it is done, it needs to be fermented. Again tradition dictates that this is achieved by leaving the juice vats open to the air and allowing for spontaneous fermentation. Such fermentations can be unpredictable from the perspective of both time and alcohol yield, so today it is much more common to ferment with cultured yeast. In any case, once the fermentation has ceased, the beer needs to be distilled. Traditionally performed in “Filipino” stills—a rudimentary pot still that is as close to short-path, low reflux distillation as is practical on a production scale—today pots and columns have become de rigeur. Here again, the choice of distillation set-up can affect the flavor of the final spirit, where more refinement from pot and, especially column stills, can be used to partially tune out some of the beer flavors to give a cleaner spirit. Finally the spirit can be finished and bottled as is (blanco, plata or silver tequilas), or matured in wood. Tequilas matured for up to two months are known as “rested” or reposado tequilas. If they are in cask for up to a year they are aged or añejo, and beyond that super añejo. Gold tequilas can be aged or merely colored with caramel and are generally, but not always, mixtos products. So today there are a variety of ways by which diversity can be introduced into tequila: the method of juice extraction, the application of spontaneous or pitched fermentations, the still configuration used and the option of maturing or not and, if so, for how long? The question usually asked at this point is which is
the best way? We contend that the consumer is the ultimate judge. Yes, changing the way in which juice is extracted will impact flavor, as will fermentation, distillation and maturation, but preferences for the resulting products are matters of personal choice and add diversity to the tequila sector. Some tequilas are more challenging than others, but the same can be said of bourbons or Scotch whiskies. Unlike some other spirits that undergo maturation though, tequila can traditionally be consumed unaged, which is in itself noteworthy. It is also worth mentioning that some unaged tequila can be as complex and nuanced as an aged one. Age is not necessarily the definitive indication of quality in this category and even as this article is written debate in Scotland is ongoing as to the relevance of an age statement on bottles. As far as the regulations currently stand, without agave there is no tequila. Agave tequiliana Weber plantations are monocultures and as such are all prone to the same pests and diseases. The reason for this situation is simple: with agave plants taking at least seven years to mature, conventional breeding times can be measured in lifetimes, rather than a decade or two. Both climate change and lack of biological diversity are risks for the agave crop, but we stand by ready and willing to evaluate tequilas made from agaves exposed to new and evolving agronomic forces.
Paul Hughes, Ph.D. is assistant professor of food science and technology at Oregon State University in Corvallis, OR. For more information visit www.oregonstate.edu or call (541) 737-4595.
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