By Rosemary Wehinger Bowly
October 1998 Guadalajara-Lakeside Volume 14, Number 12

In the valley of Amatitan, the long-extinct volcano called Tequila watches over the Hacienda San Jose del Refugio, the home of Tequila Herradura, S.A. de C.V., as it has for almost 150 years. Thousands of hectares of Blue Agave cactus, at various stages of growth, stand in bountiful testimony to the richness of the volcanic soil of this valley. There are close ties between the people who live here and their land of Blue Agave, which has been called one of nature's most precious gifts to Mexico.

Five generations ago, in 1870, the ancestors of the Roma de la Peña family established this hacienda and began producing fine tequila. Their descendants continue this tradition today and are the current shareholders of the company. The family graciously invites tour groups to visit the Hacienda San Jose del Refugio and observe the entire process of tequila production, from the plants in the field, through the harvest, fermentation and distillation process, and ultimately, to the bottling of the final product-all done right on the hacienda.

There are several requirements that must be met in order to be considered a genuine hacienda by the Mexican government rather than just a rancho, and San Jose del Refugio contains them all. There must first be a sizeable amount of land, enough for both crops and animals, and here there are over five thousand hectares of land under cultivation.

There must also be homes for the workers and a main house, as well as a chapel where the spiritual needs of the inhabitants of the hacienda can be attended to. It is quickly apparent that a hacienda is actually a small, self-contained town. Upon entering through the gates, one must first pass down a shady drive lined on both sides with well-kept houses of thirty of the company's eldest employees. Tequila Herradura employs 930 people on the hacienda itself and another 60 in Guadalajara at the main office. The hacienda is in operation 24 hours a day.

The agave plant is propagated by offshoots of the mother plant. These offshoots are taken at the appropriate time and put aside to callus over for two days. They are then planted in the fields and in ten years are ready for harvest. In this way, the tequila produced on the hacienda today comes from descendants of the original agave plants used here in the 19th century. The man who has the knowledge to grow these plants and pick the exact time to harvest is called "el jimador." These experienced farmers, "los jimadores," are greatly respected by the other workers. Their knowledge, like so much else on the hacienda, has also been passed down through many generations.

As the jimadores determine that the agave plants are ready for harvesting, they slice off all the green outer leaves with a special sharp cutting tool, leaving the large agave "pifias," or pineapples as they are called, and these are brought in from the fields and piled near the vast clay ovens. There they are cut in half, one at a time, by the crew. Their creamy, white interior thus exposed, they're then put into the ovens for steam cooking. They are cooked in the old way for 24 hours. No high-pressure cookers are used to speed up the process, and the air around the ovens is redolent with the aroma of the agave. The smell is quite reminiscent of yams cooking in preparation for holiday dinners.

When the long cooking period is over, the agave is removed from the ovens. The once white agave "pinas" have turned a rich orange in color, and a taste reveals an incredible sweetness in the pulp caught between the stringy fibers. They are so sweet that chunks of cooked agave are often sold as candy in the street markets (tianguis) of Jalisco.

The next step is the crushing process to extract the juice. The rich juice extracted in the powerful (and noisy) mills is called "mosto" and from this the finest tequila is made. The floors around the crushing tanks are sticky with juice and one can see men forking the fibrous residue of the crushing process into trucks to be taken away for other uses. At one time, these fluffy strings were taken out to the fields and used as mulch between the rows of agave. Then it was discovered that people in the villages were coming in the night to remove it and give it one last pressing from which they made a crude, but potent drink. Now the trucks no longer go to the fields with loads of mulch, but instead ship the residue to factories where it's made into carpet padding and paper!

The thick juice now must be fermented. Crossing the courtyard a new scent permeates the air, almost the smell of apple cider with wine-like overtones. In the main fermentation building are rows of giant tanks over two stories high. Each tank holds sixty-four thousand liters of juice and there are twenty-seven of them here and another six nearby. And, in order to meet the increasing demand for the product, a new building is in the process of construction which will hold another twenty to thirty of these enormous tanks. Few people are allowed to climb the steep, steel mesh stairs to view the top of the fermentation tanks. The climb is only slightly strenuous but the steep ascent combined with the open mesh would be unpleasant for anyone with a fear of heights. The walkways at the top are also steel mesh and the open vats of fermentation make it all too possible to accidentally lose forever a favorite pair of eyeglasses or a camera. However, this step in the process is of great interest.

One of the mysteries of life is that this valley of the volcanic soil which makes possible the cultivation of the Blue Agave cactus also happens to be one of the few places in the world with the exact climate necessary for the natural fermentation process to take place. In a non-sterile environment, the natural wild yeast spores always present in the air quickly begin to grow in the open tanks of "mosto." This is exactly the process of capturing airborne yeast that has given San Francisco its famous sourdough bread. Unlike most ether tequila producers, Tequila Herradura refuses to use any shortcuts in production, such as added yeast to speed fermentation.

The juice will spend between four and seven days in the tanks, and to walk along the top of the tanks and observe this process is truly a revelation. The juice that is at the beginning of its fermentation cycle churns and swirls around in great waves as though stirred with a giant, though invisible paddle. Towards the end of the process, the movement is more subtle, with large bubbles slowly rising to the surface and breaking. At this stage, it's ready to be distilled.

The fermentation process complete, the juice is transported via underground pipes to the distillery building filled with gleaming modern stills of stainless steel. The distillation will take eight hours. In the early days of the hacienda, an experienced taster with a drinking horn sampled the tequila to ascertain whether the alcohol level was just right. Today there are gauges on the tanks that perform this function. Now some of the tequila is ready to bottle-the clear tequila marketed as Herradura Silver in many parts of the world is the purest tequila. It is now put aside to age and so it doesn't pick up an amber color or additional flavor from the wooden barrel. Those who enjoy just the flavor of tequila will prefer this.

The rest of the tequila is gut into oak barrels imported from Kentucky where it will age, picking up both flavor and color from the cask. There are nine large buildings on this hacienda filled with barrels stacked up to the ceiling in various states of aging. Most of those barrels will be taken to the bottling facility within a few years and will become Herradura Anejo or Reposado tequilas, but a small amount will remain in the cask for much longer and is destined to be bottled for the true tequila connoisseur as Seleccion Suprema.

The finished tequila doesn't have to travel far to be bottled and labeled. Other companies fill tanker trucks with tequila to be shipped elsewhere for bottling, but Herradura does this, too, right here on the hacienda. As one enters the bottling facility, filled with busy people working around a network of conveyor belts, one immediately sees a glass case showing the labels used for each of the countries to which Herradura tequila is exported. After the newly labeled bottles are boxed up for shipping, government certification, or bonding, is completed by an agent with an office only a few steps away. Thus, from start to finish, every single step, with the exception of the bottle's final enjoyment by a tequila aficionado, is completed on the Hacienda San Jose del Refugio.

At this point on the tour, the hacienda guests are invited to turn back the march of time for just a little while and visit the museum. A walk through the "planta antigua," the original 19th century distillery, is truly a highlight of the day. One immediately notices that the ancient ovens look exactly the same as the newer ones seen early on the tour. But in those days, the steam for the cooking ovens was produced by a Babcock & Wilcox copper boiler which came by sailing ship from London in 1870. It was a wood-fired boiler-Jalisco had abundant forests in that time-and it now sits idle, but still gleaming, as do the lovely old copper stills down below.

Upon stepping into the enormous cavern of the old distillery, one can almost hear the sounds of another time; an ox or horse in harness, with hooves slipping on sticky cobbles, straining to pull the enormous stone wheel around to crush the hearts of the cooked agave against the stone bottom of the milling pit. The workers in those long ago times then carried the extracted juices by bucket to the special fermentation holes in the floor of the old distillery. These holes, covered now by iron grates, each held around 2,900 liters of juice.

It is now, at just the right time, that the tour guide shows us to seats and we have the opportunity to view a wonderful video presentation about the hacienda, the land and its people, and the making of tequila. This terrific video is shown on a large screen in stereo sound, and has actually received an international award for the best commercial video. The experience of sitting in the cavern itself while seeing its history unfolding on the screen is quite moving. When the video ends, we're invited to sample several varieties of the hacienda's product;, but first, we're instructed in the proper way to appreciate and drink tequila.

A privileged few have the chance to walk through the beautiful old family home. On this hacienda, the smalrking kitchen in daily use, and although it contains the most modern commercial range, visitors are likely to see the cooks preparing food the way it has always been done. Succulent aromas fill the air as the pot simmers over a wood fire built in a large, tiled preparation center with an enormous ventilation hood overhead. The tiles are extremely unusual, made in Tequila, and every one of the hundreds used is hand painted with a different Mexican scene-a feast for the eyes!

One comes away with a great appreciation for the dedication and hard work that goes into the production of Herradura tequila-the only brand of tequila allowed to be called 100% natural-as well as for the traditions carried on here through many generations.

Tours are offered Monday through Thursday and on Saturday. An interesting sidenote: There are no tours on Friday because that is when the employees are paid. And in a tradition that dates back to the early days of the hacienda, the workers are given not only their paycheck, but also food and a bottle of tequila!

Hacienda San Jose del Refugio is one of Jalisco's greatest treasures and should not be missed by visitors to Mexico, nor by Mexicans who take such pride in their country's great history.

(Rosemary Wehinger Bowly has traveled extensively throughout Mexico over the past dozen years. She has written a novel, Alegra, using Lake Chapala as a backdrop for a story of romance and adventure. She is currently working on a second novel, a sequel to her first one. Rosemary lives in Sonora, California, with her British husband, Dr. David J. Bowly.)