“Innovation,” is a term capable of striking fear in the heart of a tequila fan. Although embraced in nearly all other aspects of modern life, when this word is applied to the production of tequila, it usually means that profit and efficiency have edged out tradition and culture.
Case in point—the growing trend in big brands using diffusers instead of a traditional tahona or roller mill to extract sugars from their agaves. (Diffuser machines are capable of extracting every bit of sugar from agave fibers through the use of high pressure hot water and sulfuric acids. It is said that this process produces a more chemical-tasting tequila, where additives are needed to make it taste more like a traditionally-produced product.)
That said, we were glad to learn that innovation in tequila production doesn’t always mean that quality is sacrificed.
Master Distiller Felipe Camarena, a member of the well-known Camarena family of tequila makers, is an innovator who refuses to let go of the traditional process of making tequila. As a trained civil engineer, and after working for most of his life in his family’s distillery (“La Alteña”) in Arandas, Jalisco, Mexico, he began construction in 2007 on his own distillery (“El Pandillo”) on a plot of family land in a neighboring town.
When he was finished in 2011, he had built something truly unique. Upon touring his distillery he will excitedly show off a collection of inventions that came straight from his mad-genius brain. He managed to create an innovative distillery that successfully marries profit and efficiency with tradition and culture.
“I am not worried about people stealing my ideas,” he said with a serious look that slowly fades into a smile. “They all think I’m crazy.”
It is in this distillery that he makes Tequila G4, together with his sons Luis and Allan, who are 4th Generation tequila makers who will someday carry on the Camarena family tradition by running the factory.
Although there are enhancements, large and small, spread throughout the property, we’ve decided to focus on 5 in particular:
A shredder is a common piece of machinery in a tequila distillery. It grinds up the agaves after they’ve been cooked so that sugar extraction can happen in the next step of the process. But “Igor,” hand-built by Felipe, is no ordinary shredder. Using special steel blades of his own design, this machine can grind up large cooked agaves quickly, using only a 15 horsepower electric motor. It is also easy to clean and maintain, which translates to lower operating costs.
After Igor shreds the agaves, they have a date with Frankenstein. This is where agave sugars are removed from the fibers so the yeast has easy access to convert the sugars into alcohol. The most traditional method for doing this involved a 3-ton volcanic stone wheel turning inside a round pit, called a “tahona.”
“Frankenstein” is a mechanical tahona that Felipe made from spare parts found in a junkyard. It is pulled back and forth across a bed of cooked agave like a steamroller. It uses a small electric motor to do the work traditionally done by a mule or tractor. Felipe says that it is more efficient than a traditional tahona, is easier to clean, and requires less energy.
3) Modified Stone Ovens
The ovens in El Pandillo look similar to others found in the industry, but these have been built with steam jets placed at the bottom and top. This little adjustment means that all of the agaves cook evenly. (With a typical oven, it is common for agaves to be over-cooked on the bottom, and under-cooked at the top.)
This smart tweak means that cooking times are shorter, and yields are higher because agaves aren’t over-cooked or under-cooked.
4) Mosto Warming Tank
The Los Altos region of Jalisco can get cold in the winter due in part to its high altitude. This can presents additional challenges for tequila makers who wish to continue production in the coldest months of the year.
Felipe has constructed warming tanks for his mosto (fermented agave juice that is ready to be distilled.) Hot water created by the heat coming off the top of the copper pot stills is piped into a series of tubes inside of a holding tank. It is here that the mosto sits prior to distillation, pre-heating it so that the stills don’t have to work so hard. This means he can distill faster, increase his yield, and save energy.
5) Rainwater Collection
Jalisco is famous for its rainy season, where a tremendous amount of water is available to anyone capable of collecting it. The roof of El Pandillo is one giant rainwater collection system, leading to a 200,000 liter underground storage tank.
This water is then used in the production of tequila, leaving the nearby streams and deep well water sources untouched unless absolutely necessary. This not only saves money, but is also environmentally friendly.
As a tequila lover, I admire his dedication and passion. Some may call him “crazy,” but the proof is in his tequila, and G4 is an incredible product. Clean and crisp, full of agave, spice, and fruit, it is a joy to drink.
If you are planning a trip to the region, I highly recommend paying a visit. At the very least, pick up a bottle of Tequila G4 while you’re there (it is currently only sold in Mexico), and offer cheers to a man who innovated upon innovation.
Insider Tip: Contact the folks at Experience Tequila if you want to get into El Pandillo!