Say, That’s Some Good Piña

The indigenous people who populated Central and Latin America before the arrival of the Spanish conquerors liked to have their fun.

They had a great ball game, assuming you did not lose, played in stadium-like settings where the object was for one of the teams to score by putting the ball through a stone hoop. Of course the other team was doing all they could, and they could do a lot, to keep the opponents from accomplishing that, with the losers of the contest suffering humiliation and sometimes death. At times, hearts were ripped from the loser, literally. Then the lifeless bodies were tossed down the steps of great pyramids that dotted the scene.

Good thing Roger Goodell is not a student of Latin American history.

The celebrations among the victors often went on for days, not that anyone has any memory of what really went on. Sort of like today.

Central to the celebrating, and to enjoying life in general, was a potent libation made from s succulent plant’s milky sap, which had been allowed to ferment, thanks to high sugar content, then the liquid was distilled, and finally consumed in considerable quantities. Again, sort of like today. It was called pulque.

All three “related” beverages, pulque, mezcal and tequila, have much in common, but they each come from different species of the Maguey plant, which is actually closer to the lily family than to cactus or aloe. Usually the entire family of Maguey is lumped together, and in English the family is known as Century Plants.

Throughout Mexican history going back to 1,000 B.C., these massive living structures have been important for many uses, including food, shoes, sewing needles, building supplies, soap, rope (new product idea: pulque soap on a rope; get clean and get hammered all in the shower so you can immediately be on your way to sobering up), sugar, and even a source of medicine.

It is the mother’s milk from the Maguey in which we are interested here. Most quality tequilas are from a specific variety of the agavacea, a name derived from a Greek word meaning “royalty.” In botanical terms, tequila begins in the agave tequilana weber, tipo azul, which is the sub-variety “blue.” The farming and tequila distillation can only take place in five designated states, all in southern central Mexico, with Jalisco being the main location, centered around the town of Tequila.

There are two factors that separate mezcal from tequila, the first being the legally designated area of origin. Secondly, the piña, the soccer-ball-sized heart of the agave plant, is roasted in an earth or stone pit for mezcal, giving that drink more of a smoky character. In tequila, the piña is steamed in a stainless steel autoclave, and usually for higher-priced tequilas, the piña is also cooked in clay ovens.       

The distillation process is done after the juice, aguamiel, honey water, has fermented, converting sugar into alcohol. Distillation for higher-quality tequilas is done in alembic stills which provide double distillation. Some copper-pot distillation is still in use.

The differing flavors of tequila and mezcal are attributable to the same factors as those which influence wine grapes: geography, micro-climate, soils, age of the plant, the type of plant, and agricultural practices. The season for agave harvest is not annual, however, but is in 8-10 year cycles. That’s a long time to have a plant taking up room in the field and not doing anything to contribute to immediate cash flow.

This also explains why, several years ago, prices for tequila spiked upwards due to a shortage of land suitable for farming, lack of desire by the farmer to work with such long growing cycles, and disease among current crop. The entire situation was exacerbated by an increasing world demand for fine tequilas.

Today, tequila leads all other spirit categories in the United States in terms of sales growth, and the margarita remains our most popular cocktail as it has for the past three decades. Premium tequilas, a rapidly expanding category, have been compared to fine cognacs and are created for sipping, not mixing, pleasure.

All of this is by way of hoping to whet your appetite (pun intended) for you to learn more about tequila and mezcal. And in my usual helpful fashion, I have a way for you to do it and have a lot of fun. Two requirements for all of our undertakings here at the Happy Hour Institute of Fine Beverages and Washateria.

Steve Olson is coming to town. While that may not be as big news as if Bruce Springsteen is coming (and he is, for Jazz Fest), still, Steve being here makes us all better appreciators of beverages.

Steve is a member of the Court of Master Sommeliers, Advanced Level Keeper of the Quaich, and has spearheaded educational and consulting projects way too numerous to list here. You can read his full bio here.

I am certain you will be suitably impressed. And I think that’s the point. Mission accomplished.

Anyway, Steve will be here on Monday, April 16 to share his passion for tequila and mezcal at the Museum of the American Cocktail in the Riverwalk. It promises to be a great evening. I encourage you to make reservations before the event.

Cost is $35 and the festivities begin at 6:30. Steve’s talk, The Magical Elixirs of Mexico, is going to be a wonderful experience and you will taste the products about which Steve is speaking. A great way to learn.

See you there.

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