Sometimes a tequila expert, can actually tell how the pina (heart of the blue agave) was cooked. It's not always easy to do, but the cooking procedure is actually quite important. Cooking is the first procedure after harvesting, and cutting the pinas, and this important step transforms the agave’s natural carbohydrates and starches into fermentable sugars. People have different opinions but 'normally' people consider the best cooking method to be the traditional (horno) oven. Often brands use the term 'roasting', but in reality it's 'steaming', and not roasting. An earthen pit, used to make mezcal, is roasting, as it's baked slowly in rock-lined underground pits. We will discuss the three main methods of cooking the agave pinas, in order to produce tequila, but not discuss earthen pits here. Note that Siembra Valles 'Ancestral Tequila' is the only tequila to my knowledge, being made using old world mezcal methods including a pit, reminiscent of an earthen pit. Earthen pits are still used today for mezcal production. See photo below. I would like to thank all the companies and people who took these pictures, which are readily available on the internet.
Rare example of 'earthen pit' for tequila production
HORNO (OVEN)- They are usually clay, stone or ceramic, but there are all different types. Horno cooking is steam-heated in above-ground ovens, that use pressurized steam to cook the agave. Pictured is what a horno looks like being filled with raw agave pinas, which can take 8 hours to load by hand at Fortaleza. Fortaleza brand is one of the traditional old world type, small production brands, and it's process shows in it's taste. Usually the heat (steam) comes up from the bottom or the top in some cases, and as far as I can tell 95% of hornos are either top or bottom steamed, but I know Felipe Camarena from el Pandillo developed his ovens to cook evenly, by altering them to cook from both the top and bottom. Often stone horno ovens cook for 22 straight hours or longer, and some brands slow roasts (as they call it) at low temperature in brick hornos for 56 hrs or more, but that would usually include about 24 hrs of cooling off time, where the pinas rest before they take them out of the oven. When the agaves are properly cooked, they come out of the oven softened, sticky, and very sweet. Pictured here is the cooked agave pinas.
Horno is the traditional, old world 'time tested' cooking method. This oven cooking takes longer and is way more labor and time intensive, but you can usually taste the difference. Slower cooking of the agave hearts won't caramelize the sugars as much, so it tends to create a sweeter, smoother drink with less bitterness in the finish, and this is what most producers strive for. Also, draining off the 'bitter honey' at the start of the cooking process helps make for a sweeter, cleaner tasting tequila. Cooking in a horno, takes the flavors of the oven and imparts them within the profile of the tequila made. Hornos will tend to add fruit and cooked agave tones, and increase the intensity of the toasted sugar, molasses-caramel bitter-sweetness to the palate and finish. Maybe by coincidence, but probably not, most of the world's best quality tequilas are made using hornos. This method of cooking can be associated with cooking on a grill or roasting in your kitchen oven. Here are some more pictures of hornos.
NEXT TYPE OF COOKING
AUTOCLAVE- This is the more modern, faster and high pressure way to cook, but doesn't always allow all the bitter parts to be discarded while it cooks. Some might say, this is the next best cooking method, using much higher temperatures, autoclaves can steam the agaves in as little as 8 hours, or as long as 24 hours. Not only do these types of ovens cook much faster, but they don't normally impart any flavor or characteristics (like horno) into the agave, creating a much cleaner, more 'sanatized, sharper but less complex spirit. This does not necessarily mean that the spirit is of lower quality. Autoclaves are more efficient, but many say... less authentic. Sometimes larger and more modernized companies use this method of cooking. Pictured above are the stainless steel cylinder ovens, which get loaded with pinas and the door is locked closed. This cooking method can be more associated with a pressure cooker in house cooking. Usually the price reflects the method, as usually autoclave cooked tequila is less expensive, but not always. During the cooking process, the honeys from the agave are collected. The collection of honey from the first few hours of cooking is generally discarded, as it has the dirt and waxy build-up from the outside of the pencas and is very bitter tasting. In a horno, these buildups fall through the slots of the oven, and are discarded, but being that autoclaves are a one piece sealed tube, there isn't always drainage. Shown below is a picture where they do have drainage racks, and they put the agaves on the racks so the bitter waxes roll off while it's being cooked, and is able to be discarded.
This autoclave cooking method can be great, and some master distillers are better at using it than others. German Gonzalez of t1 is the best in my opinion, in mastering the temperatures and timing, in cooking this way. Gonzalez' cooking is slow-roasting (steamed) in stainless steel autoclave ovens for 20 hours. Sophie Decobecq of Calle 23, another master of the autoclave says the agave pinas go through a total cooking time of approximately 16 hours (this time includes warming and cooling times), as it manages to get the agave heart cooked, but the outside of the plant is not overcooked or burned. Sophie uses a detailed process where she applies steam to the agaves, then does a purge, which allows the dust and wax to run off the outside of the cut pinas. After cooking more, another purge is done to allow the bitter juice to exit, followed by 5 more hours of steam after a long and slow cooking, with the heat already present in the autoclave. Sophie has a very elaborate and effective procedure. Decobecq said that she is aware of traditionalist concerns with autoclaves, but believes they are only a detriment, when cooking at high pressure. Autoclave can give a cleaner, very crisp taste and have more raw agave notes, with more of a 'neutral' taste, that some strive for.
AND THEN THERE IS THE DIFFUSER
DIFFUSER- This next procedure is one that people need to learn about, and then learn to stay away from. It's important to know which brands use this procedure, called a diffuser. This method is often described as a 'modern' or an 'efficient procedure', as they don't like to advertise the use of a diffuser, and I'm not surprised why. Diffusers usually are made by a Spanish company named Tomsa Destil, and they look like large storage containers. This method normally doesn't even cook the agave pinas in the process of making tequila. A diffuser is the ultimate industrialized and efficient, mass produced agave soul-killing method of quickly producing tequila often within one day. This method of using this multimillion-dollar massive machine, called a diffuser, takes the soul away from the agave, kills most of the natural flavors and in my opinion, produces a bland, flat, boring, vodka like, minty, medicinal, fake and horrible tasting tequila. A diffuser is an industrialized mass production machine setup, that utilizes the fastest and most efficient procedures, stripping away the essence of the agave in the process. This is used to basically make quick, normally cheap, junk tequila- that at best, is suitable for mixing only, in my opinion. Although Casa Dragones is a brand that is ridiculously expensive, but made in this very same way, it has great marketing and promotion, and has placed itself at the top echelon of diffuser tequila.
Normally, underdeveloped raw agave is loaded into a shredder, via a conveyor belt and comes out as raw fiber. It enters the enclosed diffuser where it is sprayed (pressure washed) with hot water to extract some of the carbohydrate starches out of the agave, and squeeze the sugars out of the dry agave fibers. This procedure does not heat or cook the juice enough, so in most cases the juice and fibers are quickly boiled (cooked) in a vertical autoclave to convert the carbohydrates to sugar, and sometimes using chemicals as they heat, before the aquamiel heads to fermentation. Sometimes there is no heating (cooking) of the agave juice in autoclaves, but instead it is heated in a vat with chemicals. Distillation is often, but not always done with a column still (which coincidentally is used to make vodka). Column stills are used to 'continuously' distill the juice until it becomes that bland, flat, agave soulless taste, that some describe as 'agavodka'. This is all a rushed and fast procedure, and at the end, the bagazo that comes out of the diffusor is left with less than 5% sugar, and some say the diffuser gets close to 99% of the sugars. Diffused juice often leaves a bitter, and 'chemical-like' or 'medicinal' taste and/or aftertaste, and I've never had one I like. The nature of diffused juice, coincides with using additives to 'try to make it taste legitimate', and often has a fake pine chemical aroma.
There is technically two ways to use a diffuser- one called Pre-cooking or boiling and one is called Post-cooking or boiling, but in either case it's inferior mass-produced junk in my opinion. Post cooking/boiling diffuser is not as bad, as the agave is actually cooked in hornos or autoclaves first, then shredded in the diffuser, which removes the fibers and extracts every last drop of the remaining sugars. Unfortunately I understand most large brands do not use this method. The more popular method is Pre-cooking or in actuality, 'Pre-boiling' diffuser, which is done without cooking the agave at all. Imagine this....raw agave (likely immature) that hasn't even been cut or had the cogollo (bitter section) removed, is loaded into a shredder, and off it goes. It takes only about 4 hours to extract the starches, and after this extraction, they usually take the juice and 'boil' it in autoclaves for only 3 hours at a temperature of 248˚F to convert all the remaining starches to sugar. Sometimes but not often, sulphuric acids are used but only if the diffuser facility does not use autoclaves for hydrolysis (boiling). I understand this is often done with agave syrup production. They even run the fibers through the diffuser again, to really squeeze every last possible drop of juice from them. This "wash" now goes to fermentation for between 8-24 hours, utilizing yeasts and accelerants, and using closed top tanks. This is not a quality procedure at all. The extracted sugars of the agave do not taste sweet, as they are very bitter. This is the opportunity for them to add agave sweeteners or other additives to this 'aguamiel' and to make it taste like cooked agave. The final step is the distillation for 8 hours or more. Horno, stainless steel autoclaves, and even earthen pits (used in mezcal) produce sweet tasting agave, with distinctive notes in the final distillate, but as the report below indicates, "there are no sweet notes what-so-ever, in this diffused agave juice, nor is it enjoyable on the palate, and there is nothing here that can lead to a tasty product." This diffused product can go from harvested agave to a finished distillate in 24 hours. Keep in mind, that although these may be the two most used procedures, there could be other variations using a diffuser.
So after this quick and horrible industrialized process, it's all ready to bottle, and your Casa Dragones, Jose Cuervo or Sauza is all ready to go. Usually large brands like Sauza, Herradura, Cazadores and Jose Cuervo utilize this method for some of their brands, as well as NOM 1416- Distillery Productos Finos de Agave, which also utilizes a diffuser in the same distillery as Casamigos, Clase Azul and others. Which products it's used on there, .....you decide. The diffuser method is considered the microwave of cooking. You can cook a turkey in a microwave, but if you had a choice...... would you want to? It makes a low quality product, and do yourself a favor and stay clear. I believe this method 'disrespects' the agave itself, and these procedures embarrass the great spirit of Mexico, it's amazing agave spirits, and its traditions. Always buy only 100% agave and although diffuser unfortunately falls into this category, learn who uses this horrendous process and buy quality tequila instead, that tastes like tequila and is made with some respect for the agave, which we all love. Unfortunately it is easy for distilleries to 'blend in' sourced (bought) diffuser juice from another distillery, and simply keep the traditionally made tequila's NOM on the bottle. This would be more profitable for distilleries doing this, and to make matters worse they would probably need to slip in additives, to get the diffuser juice to taste more like cooked agave. This is completely unethical in my opinion, and this is another reason to know your distilleries, and who might pull something like that. Agave and tequila lovers, need to learn about this procedure and stay away from the brand's that utilize this diffuser method. Another downside of diffuser use, is the facilities that use diffusers, utilize much less manpower, thus supplying less jobs to Mexican workers, as this is almost an automated procedure. It is our job as lovers of Tequila, to educate the people who are not aware of this poor quality, industrialized procedure.
Here is a link to an excellent report by the ultimate tequila nerd and walking tequila encyclopedia- Khrys Maxwell. This report describes in detail how diffusers work, with listings of brands that utilize it. SEE-http://www.muchoagave.com/the-difusor---there-may-be-too-much-agave-in-your-tequila-or-mezcal.html
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