Update: This project continues! You can follow our progress in the “Lotecito Log“.
In this strange pandemic year asking adults what they did during quarantine has become as common as asking kids what they did during summer vacation.
While most of North America was in peak sourdough bread making, we decided to tackle a different kind of project. Since we live in the Mexican state of Jalisco, have tequila industry friends, and an endless curiosity about tequila production, we thought we’d try to make our own tiny batch of tequila, or “agave spirit”, by hand.
(Disclaimer: Anything we make at home cannot legally be called “tequila” because it is not made under the supervision of the CRT. Although we’re using the same type of agave, producing within the denomination of origin, and following the same process as tequila, we are technically making an “agave spirit.”)
Our goal: make something drinkable.
We’ve been through enough distilleries to know that tequila making isn’t easy. One misstep along the way could ruin an entire batch, so we made sure to have several phone-a-friend connections* in place from the very start.
After doing the math, we decided that we would need one cooked blue weber agave piña. (In a traditional production process you can get about 9 liters of 40% abv tequila out of a single 50-kilo agave. ) Being optimistic, we aimed for 4 liters, using what would no doubt be a less efficient method.
But, where to get the cooked agave? This is the one step we could not do ourselves since we couldn’t figure out how to slow cook a 50 kilo agave at our house. We shared our plan with Guillermo Erickson Sauza, Founder of Tequila Fortaleza, and he was amused by our project.
“You can get one from me,” he said. So we were off to the Fortaleza distillery in the town of Tequila to pinch an agave fresh from the oven.
Sourcing the Agave
We set out early in the morning on May 16, 2020. Grover selected a 50.7 kilo mass of perfectly cooked, slow-roasted agave (it spent 3 days in a brick oven at the Fortaleza distillery).
The 6-year old agave came from Mexpan, Ixtlán del Río, which is located 80 kilometers from Tequila in the Mexican state of Nayarit. (A little more than an hour west of the town of Tequila.)
On the way home to Tlaquepaque, the car, full of agave still hot to the touch, smelled amazing. (Idea for new business: cooked agave air fresheners.)
Once back in Tlaquepaque, the extraction began. This is the most labor-intensive part of the process, which involves crushing the agave in order to release the sugars that are clinging to the fibers. Typically a distillery will use a roller mill, or tahona, to do this work. Instead, we used 2 wooden posts to smash the cooked agave in plastic cement mixing trays, and then washed the fibers by hand. This process took 2 full days.
Thankfully, we had some help. Our friends Karla and Andres, who are agave spirit lovers as well as crossfit fanatics, saw their 2 worlds collide. Soon “CrushFit” was underway.
Our target sugar level was 12 brix, which is higher than most distilleries use. Our logic was that we had limited fermentation capacity, so we needed to make the most of what we had. Packing more sugar and less water into the containers seemed to make logical space-saving sense at the time.
We eventually partly filled two 40-liter stainless steel pots, and two 19-liter glass carboys with the sugary water (mosto). We managed to create 83 liters of mosto, and there was still plenty of sugar left on the fibers. (Lesson learned : Rinsing by hand is a very inefficient extraction method!)
Fermentation: Where The Magic Happens
“It’s probably the most important step in the process because that’s where many of the aromas and flavors come from,” Grover said. We did a lot of advanced research on this and eventually came up with a plan.
We chose a champagne yeast (Lalvin EC-1118) because it can handle higher temperatures (this was happening in May, the hottest month of the year in Jalisco). This yeast strain is known for its slow-and-low characteristics. We weren’t in a rush, and feared a bubbling fermentation that might overflow the tanks.
We also decided to ferment without fibers, for two reasons: first, the fiber cap that forms at the top of the tank could cause it to overheat, and secondly, we wanted to keep methanol levels down in the final product (fibers contain more methanol). Also, we didn’t want the fiber to take up too much space in our limited-capacity tanks.
Some of our favorite tequilas ferment without fibers (Fortaleza, G4, Terralta, Don Fulano), so we weren’t worried about missing out on flavor. Generally, when the production process uses a tahona or is crushed by hand, fibers are put into the fermentation tank simply because the extraction process is not as efficient, giving the yeast an extra opportunity to eat the sugar that is still sticking to the fibers.
We pitched the yeast (dry) at 78˚ F, and then allowed it to ferment naturally, outside on our covered rooftop. Within 24 hours, the activity caused the temperature to rise to 83˚ F. However, after checking in with a few of our tequila friends, they were worried that the temperature was too low, and we weren’t doing enough to regulate it.
So we put some heat mats under the tanks, and got the temperature up to 93˚ F, which helped to keep the temperature from dropping during the cool nights. After that, the temperature remained at 90˚ F for the remainder of the fermentation.
The yeast performed exactly as expected, and 7 days later we started distillation, even though we could see there was still some fermentation activity going on. The brix level dropped from 12 to 6, which means the yeast had already consumed half of the available sugars.
Some distilleries will start their fermentation at 8 brix, and then wait until the mosto reaches 1 brix — a change of 7 — before distillation. We thought that a change of 6 was good enough. There was also a concern that we would allow the fermentation to go on too long. Since we’d never done this before, we didn’t know at which point the fermentation would be finished. The risk of letting fermentation go too long is that it can start to smell like vinegar and then the finished product can be overly lactic, like spoiled milk. We definitely wanted to avoid that.
It turned out that we were nowhere close to that point, but now we know!
“Don’t blow yourself up!”
That was the first bit of advice we got from Guillermo. He was seriously concerned that we were going to injure ourselves once we got to the distillation step. So we approached this part of the process carefully.
We bought a tiny 5 gallon copper pot still online, and used a propane gas heater to bring it up to temperature. There’s definitely something that feels like a bit of magic when you experience distillation for the first time. This was the most exciting part of the process.
The first question we faced: when to cut heads and tails? There is a certain art to this, and master distillers know exactly when to start and stop collecting the distillate.
During the first distillation, we decided to start collecting at 37% abv, and to stop collecting when the tank reached 23% abv.
During the second distillation, we started collecting at 73% abv, and stopped collecting when the tank reached 47% abv (or 12% abv direct from the still.)
We originally wanted to distill to 46% abv, but when what was coming from the still was 12% abv we decided to stop early, since taking too much from the still below 15% alcohol could lead to elevated amounts of methanol in the final product.
Every few minutes we took samples from the still and kept notes on which aromas were coming off. This is a fascinating experience that every tequila lover should have. It’s a great way to learn which types of aromas and flavors are natural to tequila. (Hint, tutti-fruity and cake batter icing are not natural!)
In order of appearance, this is what we detected:
START @74.8% abv
END @12.8% abv
We ended up with 4.9 liters at 47.1 abv. Success!!
After it rested in glass bottles for 80 days, we added water and brought it down to 44.4% abv, which is the exact point where we felt it opened up to showcase its unique characteristics. We ended up with 6 bottles (700ml). Since we had been calling it our “Lotecito”, which means “tiny lot” in Spanish, we thought it would be fun to have real labels made, disclosing all the production details.
Is it safe to drink? We had it tested, and all of the lab results show that it’s safe; nothing fell outside of industry-standard legal limits. In other words, you won’t go blind drinking our agave moonshine.
Here are the test results, showing the upper and lower limits a product must fall into in various categories to be legally sold and safely consumed.
1) 12 brix is probably too high. There was just too much sugar there and the yeast couldn’t get around to eating it all in the time we allowed for fermentation. Next time we’ll try it at 10.
2) Keeping the temperature more consistent seems to be something our tequila-making friends feel is critical. We weren’t worried about it enough, so next time we will make sure that it doesn’t have much variation. It will be interesting to compare the difference in the final product.
3) We should measure the alcohol level in the finished mosto in addition to the change in brix. We will need to purchase some alcohol measurement tools capable of detecting lower levels of alcohol.
4) We cut too many heads this time, and we shouldn’t be so worried. Next time we should collect the heads into smaller vessels and then mix them back in as needed to bring more aromas and flavors.
5) Deep clean the still between first and second distillations. Next time we will run some steam through the still before starting the 2nd distillation. We didn’t clean it thoroughly enough and some strange, thick, yellow stuff came out at the start of the distillation. It eventually went away, but caused us to panic a bit (okay, a lot) when we saw it.
This whole process was immensely fun and interesting. The result was a drinkable product, so we achieved our quarantine mission.
It’s also not for sale. So, if you want to try it for yourself, any Tequila Matchmaker user can come to Guadalajara and sample it at our office while it lasts!
We’ve already got plans for the next batch. :-)
*Thanks to Guillermo Erickson Sauza, Ana Maria Romero Mena, Antonio Rodriguez, Jaime Villalobos Sauza, and Sergio Mendoza for being supportive of our project, and for taking our calls and messages (sometimes in the middle of the night.)