Every batch of traditional mezcal is unique in its flavours. We’ve mentioned in our previous entries that the variety of an agave plant used for mezcal is a major contributor to mezcal’s flavours and aromas (similar to a grape variety in wines). It’s also the production process that makes each batch not like the other. In the next few articles, we’ve decided to get nerdy and talk about the production process of mezcal.
Part I The Harvest / La Cosecha
Agaves are harvested by hand when they reach their maturity. Agaves mature at different rates, depending on the variety of the plant. The average falls between 7-12 years, so this is not an annual harvest deal like with most other spirits. For example, agave Espadin that goes into Mezcal Xamán is harvested at 10 years of life. The age of agave is key, the agave needs to be good and ripe to allow a good balance of sugars and acidity! The spiky leaves of the agave are trimmed down to the heart of the plant called ‘piña’ due to its resemblance to a pineapple, where the juices that go into the making of mezcal are stored.
The Roast / El Horneado
The second step is the roasting or the cooking of the piñas. The most traditional way is to roast the pinas over the hot coals in an earth pit, which is still practiced to this day. Other artisanal methods also include stone or clay ovens. The process may take days and is carefully looked after by a maestro mezcalero to make sure the piñas are cooked just right and don’t end up burned.
This is where mezcal’s smokeyness comes from! The burning wood and coals adds the smokeyness. The type of wood used in the process also affects the flavour of the final product.
Once the piñas are cooked they are grinded into a mash to extract the juices and the sugars needed for fermentation. This is commonly done by hand!
Another traditional method includes a stone wheel called ‘tahona’ that is pulled by a mule or a donkey—this is how mezcal Xaman’s palenque grinds their agaves.
Most contemporary techniques involve mechanical mills. While this is less labour intensive, some argue that this is a deviation from tradition.
Some say that the grinding method makes no difference to the taste but the true mezcal maestros argue with that. The traditions develop for a reason, they say…and we agree.
In the next entry will talk about the fermentation, distillation, and the aging of mezcal!